Fieldwork: These tips are no tricks – Part 2

Efe Kerem SozeriBy Efe Kerem Sözeri / Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Fieldwork is sort of a dating site between the data and you. Tricking your dance partner will certainly make you fall, but knowing a few moves in advance can work well.

Previously, I wrote something about how to lose your way in the fieldwork and keep it cool; and on how your research can actually gain from such uncertainty. Despite how counter-intuitive it sounds, It takes experience to be lost, and a novice spirit to keep it cool.

Since the scientific progress is cumulative, I  offer below some fieldwork tips based on my humble experience (nanos gigantum humeris insidentes); and since it is collective, please share yours in the comments section.

  • Plan in advance, but keep your options open.

The previous post, “Field is the answer, what is the question?” is the first tip. As I said, Sometimes you find data, and sometimes data finds you. Fieldwork is sort of a dating site between the two of you. (See, you were planning to read one post, but there happens to be one more. Keep this tab open, and please come back after a brief detour.)

  • Do not work on the field, live in the field.

Before the fieldwork, we often have to choose types of informants who are expected to give the most detailed information –the key informants. We often plan the hours we work with them, schedule interviews. We organize our time and space in the field according to the expectations we had on the desk.

You shall realize, however, that unplanned encounters can be equally valuable. The doorman can know more about the networks of people in a town than the mayor. The waiter in the local restaurant can tell you more about the habits of people than the officers of the cultural planning branch. And an unemployed young man can define neoliberalism better than the books on your desk.

Having your recorder always on and your field notebook always open will not work; it can distance the daily encounters you may have. But if you keep communicating with random people in your off-work time, you may obtain new insights that you could never have planned.

  • Have your permits, but do not rely solely on them.

For a country where the state authorization is the sole source of legitimacy, be sure to have your permits with you at all times in the field. A piece of paper with a local governor’s stamp may mean nothing to you, but in a remote village when a suspicious person asks about it, that paper can win you the village.

Having said that, an official permit to research is not the best way to earn trust; the surest way to access people is to have someone from the community to introduce you.

In the Tugelaweg project, where I studied the low income families’ struggle in the housing market, knocking doors with the renovation company’s contact person turned out to be very wrong: neighbors who saw me with the company employee thought that I worked for the company, and this initially prevented my access to the people who were opposing to the project. Only after I managed to gain trust of an opposing group leader, I had an access to the rest of my sample.

In the Turkish fieldwork, where I took part in an origin-of-migration study, I noticed that the local community leaders are much more trusted than the province governors. Sweet talking with village heads opened more doors than official authorisation stamps would have. And, if I manage to convince the local Imam to announce the study in the village (from the loudspeakers of the mosque where the call for prayer -the azan- is made) then the open doors would certainly be  welcoming.

  • Mark their words: Your informants know about your results even before you think

While the results of complex logistic regression models are what counts in our papers, I actually developed the core ideas of my dissertation during my stay in a central Anatolia town for a month. It may sound surprising that the SPSS and Stata on my desk often came to the same conclusions with locals who told me about their town and its people. My analysis with thousands of respondents involved computer power, while their power in knowledge was accumulated by thousands of daily encounters.

Certainly, there are questions that a local key informant cannot answer, such as independent events that confound complex outcomes; but there are also questions that a quad-core computer cannot answer either, such as the sense-making processes of human beings with altering perceptions.

So, listen with both ears, and mark their words.

  • Enjoy the moment.

This will sound silly when you are rushing through deadlines, learning state-of-the-art statistical methods, pushing top journals and building the best CV, but…

Work to live.

Your CV may have your name on it, together with some of the good things you did, but your CV is not your whole story.

If you are best at being completely focused on collecting data in the field, and doing the best analysis possible back at your desk, you could soon be replaced with an artificial intelligence doing the best data mining possible from a remote server in China. And it will probably do it  better and cheaper than you.

But if you are not afraid to err, then do something irresistibly random, and end up reaching an unexpected conclusion; congratulations, you are human.
Carpe diem
.

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Efe Kerem Sözeri is a Phd Candidate in the Sociology Department. His research project “Political baggage and Ideological Remittance” explores how the migration experience influences (or fails to influence) the political preferences and attitudes of Turkish labour migrants and their descendants, both in Western Europe and in Turkey. More info on his personal page

Field is the answer, what is the question? – Part 1

Efe Kerem SozeriBy Efe Kerem Sözeri / Reading Time: 8 Minutes

Sometimes you find data, and sometimes data finds you. Fieldwork is sort of a dating site between the two of you.

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me, preparing for the respondents 😉 from upper left, clockwise: Acıpayam, Kulu, Şarkışla & Emirdağ

I am a qualitative scientist by nature, and a quantitative by nurture. It is not because I was weak at math, or hated computers; in fact, I am fascinated by both. It is rather that I prefer why questions over what questions, matters that are hard to quantify, human reason that comes before its act. Certainly, there are good qualitative research that reveals what happens where (Stepan, 1973), and good quantitative ones to explain why (Inglehart, 1977). But unless the data is conditioned in a laboratory (and even then so, see Zimbardo, 1973), it is acquired in the fieldwork where unexpected things can happen. This post is written to give you an idea of what to expect from it.

After various fieldworks for both qualitative and quantitative projects, I came to the conclusion that fieldwork comes not exactly as advertised. That is that “you collect data and come back to your desk.” Fieldwork is rather a site where you increase your chances of finding data –in comparison to your chances while sitting on your desk; and more importantly, what you find is not always the data that you planned to see on your desk. In a most self-reflexive way: Fieldwork is about finding yourself in the field.

Let me explain this in two cases:

1) The Tugelaweg Blocks

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From the booklet of Ymere’s Tugelaweg peoject: Zo wil ik hier wonen!

The most divergent case in terms of planning on the desk and encounters in the field might be the research for my master thesis in 2011. The original plan was that I would basically knock the doors of migrant families in an Amsterdam-East urban renovation project to ask about their sense of belonging to their dwellings, but I eventually came back to my desk with low income families’ struggle in coping with changing housing market conditions.

Certainly, I was very much influenced by the ‘Grounded Theory’ (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) which suggests that the researcher develops the theory in the field, instead of treating the data as an empirical test to an existing theory, and go beyond the mere task of describing the field as in an ethnography (see especially, autoethnography). I was also thinking much in qualitative forms of validity and reliability (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), and reading much about public sociology (see Burawoy’s 2004 ASA address) and engaged scholarship (Van de Ven, 2007).

Overall, I may not have been very successful in writing the study, but it certainly taught me to ‘keep my options’ during the fieldwork, be not so rigid about what I was looking for, and be a walking-talking thinker –reflecting about my objectives, my practice, and myself as the data reveals in the field.

2) The LineUp of 2000 Families

The LineUp study (Guveli et al. 2013 & 2014), which I am currently involved in for my PhD research, contrasts the above. A migration study that consists of 48978 individuals in 1992 families certainly requires quantitative tools and methods, and much careful planning –especially the sampling and the concepts, right? Well, let’s see. For a representative random sampling, the size and distribution of a population should be known, and often the fieldwork is practised in clusters to reflect that population properly, so you start at that sampling unit and continue. But what do you do when the population bureau data shows a street that does not exist yet? Or points you to a street which is full of industrial buildings?

You walk around the problem until you reach a solution.

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A theoretical guide to avoid hurdles in the fieldwork

I also took my turns in the Turkish migrant-sending towns looking for the ideological remittance –the influence of European political culture transferred to Turkey via return migrants. But I kept my eyes open for other types of remittance while walking, which is equally interesting:

Remittance: in money

 

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Newly built, huge mosques in Kulu and Şarkışla

Perhaps the most common feature of a migrant sending region is the visibility of economic remittances. In remote migrant villages, one can find palace-like houses built by the early migrants for the traditional family gatherings. However, these seasonal gatherings are only attended by a few grandchildren and remain empty for most of the year, making them obsolete investments. Most of the remittance also turn into pocket money for the left behind relatives, only enabling the local shops and cafés to stay open, but falling short of long term investments. The mosques, however, should be considered as investments for the afterlife. The newly built mosque in Kulu reportedly cost about €1m and paid entirely by migrant families’ lifelong savings.

Remittance: in culture

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Swedish Pizza in Kulu, Dutch Kapsalon in Emirdağ

Despite the popular belief on its oriental origins, and despite its widespread availability in ‘Turkse döner/pizza’ snack shops to support that, “kapsalon” was actually born in Rotterdam. Native Turkish people, living in Turkey, have not even heard about that food, there is no Turkish word for that. So, the traditional kebab place in Emirdağ town centre, photographed above (right), is actually preparing a Dutch food, exported to Belgium and remitted to Turkey by the migrants from Emirdağ who were living in Schaarbeek, Brussels. Though, one must note that its primary customers were the migrants who are used to eat kapsalon in Europe.

The Swedish Pizza in Kulu (left photograph) has a more complex story. With its thin dough, fresh tomato sauce and cheese, it certainly has Italian origins. But the history of migrant workers in Italian pizza restaurants in Stockholm is the story of how Turkish stewards made into chefs and took over the pizza business in Sweden. As for the side dishes, the indispensable “Pizzasallad” (cabbages with sour vinegar) is certainly not Italian, presumably a Swedish invent; and the “Vitlökssås” is certainly not Turkish -it is as foreign as knoflooksaus on döner to native Turks (yes, seriously, no one puts garlic sauce on a “lahmacun” in Turkey).

The remittance in both material and cultural tokens tells me the conservative nature of Turkish migrants in Europe: the lack of belonging is visible when the money earned by migrants is sent to Turkey instead of being invested in Europe; the cultural interactions are often one-way, Turks in Europe do not eat stamppot, they open döner shops instead. My walk in Turkish field did not lead me to the political remittance, there is no such street yet. Perhaps it is because the Turkish migrants do not really open their political baggages, so what happens in Europe, stays in Europe. Perhaps even that migrant Turks do not really live in Europe but rather create small-sized Turkeys to live in. But it takes a walk in Turkish towns to understand that.

Sometimes data surprises you, sometimes it takes a different look to understand; and sometimes, it is the lack of it that tells you the most.

Reference:

Burawoy, M. (2005). 2004 American Sociological Association Presidential Address: For Public Sociology*. The British journal of sociology, 56(2), 259-294.

Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.

Guveli, A., Ganzeboom, H., Baykara-Krumme, H., Bayrakdar, S., Eroglu, S., Hamutci, B., Nauck, B., Platt, L., and Sozeri, E. K. (2013). 2000 Families: Migration Histories of Turks to Europe. GESIS Data Archive, Mannheim. (Data Set).

Guveli, A., Ganzeboom, H., Nauck, B., Platt, L., Baykara-Krumme, H., Eroglu, S., Spierings, N., Bayrakdar, S. and Sozeri, E. K. (2014). 2000 Families: identifying the research potential of an origins-of migration study. CReAM Discussion Paper Series CPD 35/14. Retrieved from http://www.cream-migration.org/publ_uploads/CDP_35_14.pdf

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Reviews, 9, 1–17.

Inglehart, R. (1977). The silent revolution: Changing values and political styles among Western publics. Princeton University Press.

Lincoln, Y. S. & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA, USA: Sage Publications.

Sözeri, E. K. (2011). The Sense of Belonging and the Strategies of Dwelling among Turkish-Dutch Public Housing Residents in Amsterdam-East. Unpublished master’s thesis submitted to the Faculty of Social Sciences, VU University Amsterdam. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/1753970/The_sense_of_belonging_and_the_strategies_of_dwelling_among_Turkish-Dutch_public_housing_residents_in_Amsterdam-East

Stepan, A. (ed.) (1973). Authoritarian Brazil. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Van de Ven, A. H. (2007). Engaged Scholarship: A Guide for Organizational and Social Research: A Guide for Organizational and Social Research. Oxford University Press.

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Efe Kerem Sözeri is a Phd Candidate in the Sociology Department. His research project “Political baggage and Ideological Remittance” explores how the migration experience influences (or fails to influence) the political preferences and attitudes of Turkish labour migrants and their descendants, both in Western Europe and in Turkey. More info on his personal page

Should we do research in difficult environments?

 by Maaike Matelski / Reading Time: 6 Minutes /

Social scientists are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of ethical research standards. However, it is not always clear whose guidelines we should adhere to and which types of research should or should not be allowed. Anthropologists and other social scientists conducting fieldwork may face a particular set of challenges when interacting with local respondents and informants.

As I argued in a recent article, it can be difficult to study environments where few researchers have gone before, especially if these situations are considered potentially dangerous. Possible risks include hostility and harm to the researcher, but also direct and indirect negative consequences for research participants whose position or even safety might be threatened.

I will here share a few findings based on the research I conducted in Myanmar over the past years. At the start of my research, Myanmar (formerly Burma) was considered a pariah state fraught with conflict and human rights abuses. When I decided to visit the country for my thesis I encountered doubt and criticism, and was advised to operate from a safer environment where I would not endanger myself and others.

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Other researchers have described similar dilemmas when conducting research in various conflict areas in the Middle East. A Master student who was conducting field research in Egypt wrote about the challenges she faced when the popular uprising broke out in 2011. She explained how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official advice to leave the country ran counter to the more nuanced local safety assessments she encountered, and her own desire to stay on. Another colleague wrote how the unfolding crisis in Syria profoundly affected his field research in neighboring Lebanon. Although this led to different types of issues than my own research, he too had to balance the potential risks of staying with the desire to bear witness and lend a hand.

These are difficult dilemmas for which there is no single solution. I will offer some considerations to take into account when making individual assessments.

 1) People want to be heard

The fact that people might be vulnerable and find themselves in situations of risk does not mean that they do not appreciate attention. If we want to study real people in real situations, we must accept that their lives are not always easy, that they face difficult choices and sometimes cope with loss. As researchers we are not necessarily obliged to report on human suffering, but neither should we be obliged to ignore it. When I presented my research proposal on Myanmar, some commenters suggested that I should conduct research with Burmese people living outside the country (e.g. in Thailand) instead. This way they assumed I could gather information while keeping myself and my respondents away from the possibly serious risks we would face in Myanmar. Yet as soon as I arrived in Myanmar, I was greeted by local people eager to share their views and correct some of the misunderstandings about their country that they thought existed abroad. A comparison of views held inside and outside the country proved particularly valuable in the course of my research.

 2) The researcher has primary responsibility

Despite the importance of our research, we should avoid exacerbating risk or suffering. I therefore argue that we as researchers remain primarily responsible for the ethical collection, analysis and dissemination of our research findings. We should do everything possible to avoid causing risk to our research participants, as harmful consequences cannot easily be undone. In my article I argue that we must first discuss the potential risks of research with our respondents, and then review their assessment to check if they too do not create unacceptable risks for themselves or others. In my case, many respondents were remarkably open and willing to discuss their activities, but they sometimes seemed unaware of the potential impact of having such information made public. As a result, I chose to anonymize certain data even when respondents had told me I could mention their name.

 3) Risk assessment is best conducted on a case-by-case basis

In countries such as the United States and Australia, ethical review boards play a much larger and more decisive role than in The Netherlands. The question is whether such procedures make the research stemming from these countries more ethical, or whether they merely serve to absolve universities of potential liability. Of course we can simply prohibit research in environments that are not considered a hundred percent safe, or where written consent cannot be obtained, but we must realize that this will have profound implications for the way peoples and countries are portrayed internationally. The more researchers choose to stay away from ‘difficult situations’ such as countries in turmoil or under authoritarian rule, the easier our views of the lives of their inhabitants become simplified, as we rely on a limited number of spokespersons or experts to represent the views of many. In the absence of binding ethical guidelines at VU University, I was encouraged to seek advice from people who had personally experienced the situation on the ground. This allowed me to come to a balanced approach in which I sought neither to endanger, nor ignore local people.

4) Situations can change

Another argument against general guidelines and prohibitions is that situations can change rapidly. My own research focus, Myanmar, has undergone a transition from pariah state to investment, tourism and donor hotspot in just a few years’ time. Political situations elsewhere however have deteriorated considerably, as my colleagues working on the Middle East have experienced. Although I had been advised to conduct research from Thailand, the security situation there at times has proven less stable than in many areas of Myanmar. Studying contemporary topics means that situations can improve or deteriorate at any time, and our research environment might no longer be the way we found it at the start. As risk assessments will differ not only between and within countries but also over time, researchers are often best advised by those with longer-term experience in the country. If those contacts have not been made, such assessment will be much more difficult.

Although our universities may be held accountable for our research activities, we can only come to new insights if we dare to venture beyond the comfort of familiar environments. As long as we do so responsibly, this is certainly a worthwhile endeavor. While my research at times has proven difficult, I gained many important insights from being able to talk to local people about the way they perceive and deal with risk in their daily lives, instead of relying solely on my own assumptions or the views of foreign experts. This revealed many complexities, paradoxes and insecurities that I reflect on in my thesis, hopefully to the benefit of other researchers seeking to make informed risk assessments in the future.

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Maaike Matelski is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the VU University Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the role of Burmese civil society organisations inside and outside Myanmar during the political transition period since 2010.

 

Links

1) http://dare.ubvu.vu.nl/bitstream/handle/1871/51420/JBS%20article%20Maaike%202014.pdf?sequence=1

2) http://standplaatswereld.nl/2011/02/09/student-antropologie-ik-wil-in-cairo-blijven/

3) http://standplaatswereld.nl/2012/04/12/conflict-in-syrie-steekt-de-grens-over-en-brengt-onzekere-tijden-naar-libanon/

4) http://standplaatswereld.nl/2013/01/22/who-will-halt-the-bloodshed-in-syria/