Niaan Pereboom recently graduated from Aarhus University in Denmark, where she studied Human Security. For her fieldwork, Niaan worked for an Embassy in Belgrade and simultaneously conducted research for her master thesis, which offered insights into the influence of international actors in the promotion of transitional justice.

Home sweet home? How we deal with our return from the field

As anthropologists, and social scientists in general, we are always on the lookout of discovering why people behave in certain ways and what implications this has on our everyday life. Somehow, this often results in research topics that are rather depressing. During my master studies, me and my fellow students did research related to topics such as child abuse, terrorism, conflict, HIV/Aids, climate change, genocide, refugees, and many more of topics that make us question: “What the **** is going on in this world?” And more specifically “Why are people behaving in this self-destructive manner?”.

Although I was asked to write about my research on the role of international actors in promoting transitional justice in Serbia and the Western Balkans, I prefer to talk about another topic. It is not that I think my research topic is not worthy or interesting to write about, but since I experienced the difficulties of returning from the field I believe the topic of ‘the reversed culture shock’ is a far more interesting and relevant topic to discuss. Not only did I struggle with coming ‘back’, fellow students had to adjust as well. With this article, I hope I can touch upon a relevant topic that hopefully will help other researchers and students during their (future) fieldwork: how to prepare for a return from the field.

Fieldwork in the magical city of Belgrade

Before I start talking about my experience of ‘coming back’ from the field, I will give an illustration of how my fieldwork looked like. For the master program in Human Security at Aarhus University in Denmark, students are required to conduct fieldwork in their second year, preferably in cooperation with an organization or institution. In this case, students are able to conduct fieldwork and simultaneously develop the first substantial work experiences to enter the job market once they are graduated.

In my case, this meant a wonderful internship at an Embassy in Belgrade where I had the privilege to work for six months within the world of diplomacy. I worked on different cases related to different topics to strengthen the work of the Embassy, and as required by the university, I did my fieldwork simultaneously. In my research, I focused on the role of international actors in promoting transitional justice in Serbia and the Western Balkans. For my research, I went to numerous conferences related to the rule of law, transitional justice, and security related issues. Moreover, I had semi-structured and informal interviews with several representatives of different organizations working with transitional justice and dealing with the past.

For six months I lived in Belgrade, a city I had been to two times before and in which I felt very much at home. The work was interesting and dynamic, and I had the best colleagues I could imagine. Besides, I made a lot of very good friends (both international and from Belgrade). Friendships that still exist after one year, and friendships I am still very thankful for. All in all, I had a great time and enjoyed living in a city that – to me – is very magical.

After fieldwork: The reversed culture shock

However, for my master thesis I chose a topic that was rather depressing: transitional justice, a process associated with periods of political change in response to confront the wrongdoings of repressive predecessor regimes or (civil) war. For over a year (including preparations beforehand and submitting my master thesis afterwards) I constantly read about war, peacebuilding, and transitional justice. I did background checks on the specific context. I did intensive research on the type of committed war crimes. I interviewed several people who aim to restore violations of the past through their work. I analyzed the interviews, and in the end, I also had to write about it. Along the way, step by step, I sunk deeper and deeper into a topic that does not show human mankind at its best.

After I just arrived back in Aarhus, I missed my friends and the city of Belgrade where I lived so nicely for six months. At the same time, I had to find a balance in writing about war, war crimes, and transitional justice and being able to distance myself from the topic in the right way. The contrast between the city I had to live again (Aarhus) and the topic of my research became stronger and stronger. For a few weeks, and maybe even months, it felt weird to walk around in a city that is so peacefully as Aarhus is. At the same time, it made me very grateful for living in a city so calm, peaceful and friendly. A privilege I have but many in the world unfortunately do not have access to. It was, I believe, this contrast that made it so hard to write my master thesis. On the one hand I questioned my own privileged position and on the other hand I was writing about a privilege that many have no or partially access to: peace and security. My return from the field was simply said very hard.

How to prepare your return from the field

We all know that (as students) we get a thorough training on how to enter the field and how to collect data. The reality, however, is always different once you actually enter the field. The focus of the topic, informants, or methods is constantly changing in order to shape and reshape the research accordingly to the reality and context of the world you try to investigate. The constant change is considered to be part of ethnographic fieldwork and therefore you need to know how to comply with this. So when we prepare for our fieldwork, we pay attention to issues such as how to enter the field, how to find informants, how to position yourself as a researcher, how to remain impartial, how to ensure safety for your informants, and even what to do in a case of emergency.

In January, Janne Heederik already wrote an interesting article for the ABv on how to deal with personal and mental challenges whilst doing fieldwork. In this article, I would like to elaborate on her views and talk about the personal and mental challenges students and researchers face during research by paying attention on the challenges of returning from the field. Like myself, several of my peers – one way or the other – struggled with their return from the field. Some faced their physical challenges of doing fieldwork, and others faced their mental challenges of doing fieldwork, and I realized that when we prepare for our fieldwork we never really prepare for our return.

For this reason, I believe it is important to discuss that we never really prepare for our return from the field, and which is something we actually should. An important follow-up question in this is then: how are we going to prepare ourselves for our return when no one knows how a return from the field will actually be like? How do we know in what ways our fieldwork will affect us? It is self-evident that a standard blueprint that sets out a procedure on how to leave and return from the field does not exist. Neither is there a standard blueprint on what type of difficulties one can face once returned, and the question we have to ask is whether one can be really and fully prepared for a return from the field. Just as the question whether you can ever be fully prepared for the actual fieldwork itself, the answer is simply taken ‘no’.

However, knowing or preparing for a return from the field is – in fact – fundamental in dealing with personal and mental challenges of the ‘reversed culture shock’. Just like my fellow students, I struggled with being back ‘home’. Some students suffered from anxiety, others came with physical health issues and had to visit the hospital, some had to process the issues they faced and the things they had seen when they were in the field, and I had to find my place in a city that did not feel like ‘home’ anymore. All these challenges have – in fact – a huge impact on the final stages of doing research: translating the findings into a written thesis or ethnography. Moreover, writing your final conclusions and findings also influences your mental wellbeing. Whilst you write, you are challenged to relive those months of doing fieldwork again. Reliving such moment are not always as pleasant, certainly not when you do research about war and conflict, terrorism, refugees, or HIV/Aids.

It is thus important to acknowledge that neglecting the mental and personal challenges after a return from the field will not help anyone. Not personally, not academically, and not professionally. I hope that this article acknowledges – once again – that doing fieldwork is both physically and mentally really hard. You have to process what you did, saw, heard, smelled, and most importantly what you felt whilst working under stress and timely pressure towards your deadline. Just like preparing students and researchers on how to enter the field and how to collect data, we should also prepare ourselves in terms of how to exit the field and what to expect when we return from the field.

Exit the field and returning home

A preparation on how to exit the field should become an integral part of the general preparation of doing fieldwork. It would be good to discuss what kind of difficulties one can face once returned. How one believes a return from the field will have an effect in continuing the final part of doing research. But most importantly, it is important to address and become aware that a return from the field will affect you personally and mentally one way or another. How do you deal with anxiety afterwards? How do we deal with our emotions? How do we remain sane in investigating the hardships of our research topic when it is – for example – related to war, famine, or HIV/Aids?

In preparing and discussing topics like this, it hopefully results in mutual acknowledgement among students and researchers to open up about their experiences before, during, and after doing their fieldwork. It is important to acknowledge that the topics we are dealing with are not the ones that give you this ‘good’ feeling. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that it is  completely normal to feel ‘out of place’, or in between phases or places of your own being. Moreover, it is important to understand that feeling lonely, misunderstood, or sad can be a part of doing fieldwork. At the same time, it is also important to acknowledge that it is okay when one does not have such feelings. Not everyone is the same in processing emotions.

However, only when such feelings are accepted as being normal and as a chunk of doing fieldwork, we can work towards a better understanding of what we feel and how to deal with it. As soon as we start acknowledging and accepting that such feelings are part of our profession, we are capable of dealing with them in the right and sufficient way. Especially since we often tend to do research of phenomena that are – in fact – emotionally hard-hitting topics to deal with. In that way, students and researchers can prepare for it and feel more willing to open up about it. It is only then that we are capable of translating our precious findings into a text that is accessible for everyone in their understanding of what the **** is going on in this world.