The challenges of doing fieldwork: when your academic skills are not enough

Janne Heederik is a PhD Candidate at the Radboud University of Nijmegen and studied Cultural Anthropology in Utrecht. Her research focuses on issues of welfare, citizenship, migration, and social justice. You can find out more about Janne’s current research project on the website of Anthrobrokers.

It is August 2015 and I have just arrived in San Diego, United States, to start my first fieldwork experience, consisting of 6 months of research among undocumented immigrants. In the months leading up to my fieldwork, I had prepared myself for this journey as much I could. I had contacted several organisations in San Diego, I made sure to stay up-to-date with all the local and national news concerning immigration, and I had pinpointed some neighbourhoods  that were of interest for my research. Even though I had been preparing this adventure for almost a year, the moment I arrived the only thing I felt was unprepared. My careful academic preparation did not seem all that helpful anymore and the following three months of my fieldwork were really rough. Now, two and a half years later, I am about to embark on my next fieldwork experience. This time I am moving to Manchester for ten months to conduct research on issues of welfare provision, poverty, neoliberal governance, and citizenship.  With the previous experience in mind, I put more effort into mentally preparing myself. However, I noticed that there is still very little written on the struggles of fieldwork and that the focus still lies on preparation in terms of your theoretical framework, research agenda, and methodology. Therefore, I decided to reflect on my research project in the U.S. and discuss different ways in which anthropologists can feel more confident in the field.

During my first months in San Diego,  I felt very overwhelmed, lonely, and under-prepared despite my preparation. This is when I first realised that the personal challenges of fieldwork are usually not well-documented, and are therefore often underestimated by newly trained anthropologists who embark on their first fieldwork journey. There is a strong tendency to romanticise fieldwork, to depict the challenges faced as interesting adventures, and the success as dependent on ‘delving’ into the field. Being there 24/7 and bringing your field site into your home: never really taking a break.  As Pollard (2009) reported in her study on field work experiences, students feel “they should not talk about how difficult they had found fieldwork because other people would perceive them as weak”. This is a dangerous starting point for fieldwork, which is already a research project that relies heavily on your independence and autonomy.  It can easily put self-blame to the fore as an explanation for any challenges anthropologists might face. Moreover, in reality, not all challenges are productive, and when not discussed they can provide a serious hinder for your own mental health and the success of your overall research project.

Through fieldwork, you incorporate everything you have learnt behind your desk and put it into practice. It allows you to “step beyond the known and enter into the world of participants, to see the world from their perspective” (Corbin and Strauss 2008). Apart from learning about the ‘other’, through fieldwork anthropologists also inform their knowledge, understanding, and insight into certain phenomena they wish to study. While this certainly requires careful preparation, the importance of preparing yourself and not just your project for fieldwork should not be underestimated. Fieldwork has its own way of unfolding itself. Because it is so heavily dependent on both the context and the people you encounter, it is virtually impossible to create a research plan and timeline that you will be able to stick to. Yet, preparation is necessary, so how to go about it?

The most general tip I can give is to expect the unexpected. While it is useful to have a rough outline of what your fieldwork period will look like, it is even more important to keep in mind that you will most likely not stick to this plan. Mentally preparing yourself for a research period during which you feel like you have little control over what is happening and when, helps you deal with these more chaotic moments. Furthermore, in combination with a rough outline of your research, you will still be able to find structure in it.

A second step to take is to become familiar with some of the feelings and challenges other people face. As Amy Pollard (2009) has written for Anthropology Matters, many students experience feelings of anxiety, frustration, loneliness and isolation, stress, powerlessness, and guilt. While certainly not every anthropologist will experience all these feelings, or will experience them to the same extent, most of them are very common, at least at some point during your fieldwork. Simply preparing yourself that you might encounter these feelings and that they are thus normal, can already help in working through them while in the field. When I arrived in San Diego, it suddenly really sunk in that I did not really know anyone there. I also realised that when you do not succeed in establishing contact with people, your weeks are suddenly very empty and quite lonely. A research project becomes something very personal, it is your idea, your thoughts, and your understanding that you are working with. It is you, not just as a researcher but also as a person, who is the ‘tools of practice’, and a perceived failure to do proper fieldwork is easily conflated with a personal failure: I knew that other people had done similar research in similar areas and had succeeded, so why did I fail? I felt ashamed that I could not make it work and I felt like I had no control over my research project anymore. I could approach as many people and organisations as possible, but I could not change their decision to say ‘no’. However, these feelings and experiences are very common, which is why it is important to recognise and discuss them. Only when I started opening up to fellow anthropologists in the field, did I realise I really was not the only one struggling and this in turn helped me to find new energy to continue my research project and power through.

This also brings me to the third step, which is to find a support system in which you feel comfortable discussing these feelings in case you experience them yourself. Doing ethnographic fieldwork is hard to compare to anything else, and at times it can feel like no-one understands what you are going through.  When anthropologists actively avoid discussing feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation associated with their fieldwork, there is a potential to not only do harm to yourself, but also to the next generation of aspiring anthropologists. To avoid fieldwork challenges feeling like personal failures, it is absolute key to have people close to you with whom you feel comfortable discussing the emotional labour of fieldwork. This helps us to understand that these feelings are normal and shared, and helps anthropologists to see that they are not wholly personally responsible for ‘failure’ in the field. Furthermore, on a more personal level, it can help us put these experiences in perspective, because when we are prepared for periods of struggle, they feel less overwhelming and it becomes easier to focus on overall positive experience of fieldwork.

On a more practical level, it is important to give yourself some time to adjust and find you way in the field. Fieldwork is not only unpredictable, it also – generally speaking – takes place in a place that is new to you, which can leave you feeling quite vulnerable. Allowing yourself the time to adjust and at the same time preparing yourself for some unexpected turns during your project, will help you to feel more comfortable and confident. For example, your choice of stay can make all the difference. During my first fieldwork experience, I had arranged a place to stay in advance. While this seemed like a great option at the time, giving me the security of not wandering around in the first few weeks, it turned out that the place was quite different than advertised. The neighbourhood turned out to be too dangerous for me to live in, which was confirmed by the bullet holes in the streets walls, and my ‘furnished’ room only had a bed in it. In hindsight, I should have arranged temporary housing in an area that was not necessarily at ‘the heart’ of my field site, but that I knew was safe. Then, once you are in or near your field site, it is much easier to judge what places you actually feel comfortable living in, and what places you would rather avoid. In these situations, it is especially important to keep in mind that what is deemed ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ is different for every person, and your own judgement should always come first.

A final step that can help, is to have a personal journal alongside your fieldwork notes. Really prepare yourself to write without any reservation and without any judgements. It can really help to simply ‘write it off’, even when these are feelings you might not really want to admit to (for example: I really hate that informant; or: I miss home so much more than I thought I would). Furthermore, apart from documenting your personal struggles, it can also be great to capture more positive moments with emails, photographs, videos, journal entries, etc., to show you that also on a personal level fieldwork is an enriching experience.

It is with these tips in mind that I will start my fieldwork in Manchester, giving me the confidence that despite possible challenges along the way, I can look forward to yet another enriching fieldwork experience. Because most importantly, there is nothing quite like fieldwork. It is such a unique experience that, with both the positives and the negatives, feels like a whole new world is opening up to you.

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One Comment

  1. Very well written and recognisable! Wish you much of luck during your trip in Manchester ans curious what you’ll find there..

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