Ethnography Forum- Quandaries and questions

A highlight of my months is the ethnography forum. This month the topic was, ”Quandaries and Questions: Preparing for the field.” I made quite a few more lame comments than I really should have. This is shaping up to be a long and somewhat dull post, but I think it will be interesting to come back to it in a years time and see what I wrote.

Should getting access be your first concern? Do you have to take ‘your whole self’ to the field? Is selectively self representing a luxury that is most afforded to people who do fieldwork in exotic contexts?

These were some questions I was reflecting on as a result of the first two speakers. Last year I was tempted to write my short paper on ethics under the title, ‘Should I wear jeans to the field?’ I do not wear jeans generally, I find them so uncomfortable, but I know there are a lot of situations where that is what is expected. Same goes for what you reveal or conceal about political preferences, relationships, your parents’ work, or your alcohol consumption. I feel like I cannot just have ‘a field-work version of me’ because I am sure I will be emphasising different aspects of myself in order to build relationships with different people in the rather diverse community I am hoping to cover.

Do you let people in the field know what is going on for you?

The last of the three presenters spoke about suffering in the field. Comments demonstrated that what is felt to be suffering varies greatly between people, that physical battle scars are treated as something you can talk about with your colleagues but maybe we do not talk about mental suffering, that sometimes the suffering is part of the physical and mental changes you will undergo as a result of your experience, and that once you make friends in the field you will be able to cope with more.

My question is how do you work out what to share with the people in the field? Last year the staff in the organisation I was doing my mini-fieldwork in often wanted to know how I was experiencing it and if my experiences had changed my mind about anything. I never knew whether it was a bit of an invitation for a one-line-response or if I should use it to get their feedback on my experiences. In situations where you do not have the language to be able to negotiate more subtle things it can be hard to know what to do. Letting people know what is going on for you is a pretty key part of relationship development. I met someone once who, as a young adult, volunteered and did a homestay in Thailand. The family thought there was something wrong with her and were rather awful to her until she broke down in tears one day. However, when I was in Ghana the fact that the two of us placed in the same family just decided to deal with the stomach cramps everyday until our bodies learnt to digest the food meant amazing things, not only for the variety of food we got compared to those volunteers who made their discomfort known and had to eat chicken and rice for the next 4 months, but also for our relationship with the family. I found out later that they had very much realised what an adjustment it was for us to be able to deal with the food, and they saw that the food was making us put on weight, but this was interpreted as us embracing the experience. Of course, volunteer experiences are rather different to remote fieldwork. The family I stayed with had supported other volunteers before me, they were very much the experts while I was the novice.

These musings probably do not mean much for me in my urban research. I think with the sort of research I see myself doing a much bigger barrier will be to be able to foster the relationships that are about the research, not what I want out of the relationships in the field in terms of feeling useful and having fun.


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