How Time Flies – Fieldwork Tips #4 and #5

When I was a small child, I used to think that my parents were being ridiculous when they started talking about how quickly the previous year had gone by. This usually happened around Christmas and birthdays when I was all too eager to get on with the unwrapping of presents, and not the least bit concerned with what had happened yesterday let alone last year.

Now I occasionally catch myself thinking like my parents. This morning, for instance, it occurred to me that last June I was getting ready to submit and was tormented by pre-viva jitters. I can’t quite believe that it was three years ago that I boarded an airplane, destination: Madagascar.

So, with the summertime fieldwork season now in full swing, hopefully you can understand how it doesn’t seem all that long ago that I embarked on this series of blogs about conducting successful fieldwork. There’s no making up for lost time; but without further delay, here are the final two instalments.

Tip #4 – Expect the Unexpected

There’s now denying that successful fieldwork depends in large part on exhaustive planning.

Where will you go? Who will you meet once you arrive? What do you hope to learn from them and how will you attempt to access this information? Where will you stay and for how long? Will you need to travel? How long will this take and how much will it cost? Etc, etc, etc…

Having answers to these questions before you set off allows you to concentrate on getting the job done when you eventually arrive at your destination. A clear plan and research strategy are no less crucial when conducting research near your university or in your home country, although logistical issues like transportation and accommodation may require less forward thinking.

That said, there are some things you simply can’t plan for. Accepting at the outset that everything won’t go to plan can help to moderate frustration when things inevitably start to go wrong. Expecting the unexpected can also help you to be more flexible and resourceful when it comes to putting things right.

In planning my fieldwork, I did everything that you’re supposed to do. I completed exhaustive background research on Madagascar’s social, economic and political history. I spoke to other people who had done research there previously. I got the name and contact details for a highly recommended research assistant. I approached an NGO working in the region where I anticipated conducting most of my research. When the time came to actually go, I was confident that all of the dominoes were in place.

Things got off to a rocky start, however, when neither of the people who were supposed to meet me at the airport showed up. My morale sank to new lows a few days later when it became patently clear that – despite all of the indicators pointing to Madagascar as a budding democracy – freedom of speech was severely curtailed and no one was prepared to openly discuss anything remotely related to politics. To top things off, the highly-recommended-research-assistant had come across hard times himself and was all too happy to take my money but considerably less inclined to help with my research.

Maybe you’ll get lucky and your fieldwork will run smoothly. Odds are, though, that you’ll encounter unforeseen problems that may even jeopardize the entire venture. How you respond to these obstacles will ultimately determine your fieldwork productivity. There are some things you simply can’t plan for.  You can, however, steel yourself for the almost inevitable eventuality that something will go terribly, terribly wrong. Then, when it does, you can take it in stride.

Tip #5 – Ask for Help

My final piece of advice is to swallow your pride and ask for directions. Having already committed years to your research and spent months on fieldwork preparations, you’re going to feel like you know what you’re doing. And so you should. It is, however, important to remember that the very reason for undertaking this research is that there is something you don’t know.

A healthy dose of humility goes a long way both in building rapport with research participants and getting to the heart of complex issues. People are more likely to open up to you and share their particular expertise if they don’t think that you have all of the answers already. There is a fine line between being professional and being a know-it-all; asking for help and admitting that there are things you don’t know on a daily basis will ensure that you stay on the right side of that line.

I also learned quite quickly that asking for help can exponentially enhance the whole fieldwork experience. Casually chatting to local people in restaurants or coffee shops may not provide direct answers to your research questions, but could point you in the right direction. At the very least you’ll learn about local attractions and events that you may have missed out on otherwise.

— — —

So, in a nutshell: be patient, allow yourself some creature comforts, keep a journal, expect the unexpected, and ask for help. Remember that fieldwork is exciting, stimulating, frustrating, disappointing, and – eventually – rewarding. Bon voyage!

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