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

Is participating in academic conferences worth the time and money?

van LeeuwenBy Anouk van Leeuwen / Reading Time: 4 minutes

Academic conferences are costly and time consuming. So, sometimes I wonder: Are they worth it? Or should I just continue to write my dissertation instead? After all, writing is time consuming, especially on days like this:

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Conferencing costs loads of time. Not only do we have to travel to the conference venue, and attend it, but we also have to prepare for it. Especially the latter takes a lot of time. In my experience, I spend at least a month working on a conference paper, and at least some days on a power point presentation or a hand-out.

Money

The reason that conferences are expensive is because they usually require us to travel. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but travelling isn’t cheap. For instance, in the last two years I went to conferences in New York and San Francisco. Buying a ticket here (during peak season!), staying in hotel, paying the conference fee, and going out to dinner requires you to bring a bag of money.

What you get back for your time and money

In my opinion, there are at least four benefits of attending academic conferences:

  1. Preparing for your presentation will help you to structure your thoughts. After all, you usually don’t have much time (or space) to present your work. And of course, you don’t only want your story to be concise, but also clear. So, complicated theories have to be simplified and long results sections have to be cut to the bone.
  1. At the conference you are bound to get some (hopefully good) comments on your work, which will tell you how far it has developed. Is your research relevant? Are your research questions clear? And is your dataset suited for the question posed? These are general, but important questions that are often addressed. Knowing whether other scholars understand and appreciate your work will help you to determine what remains to be done.
  1. Learning what your peers are up to may stimulate your creativity and provide you with new research tools. After all, interesting new topics and innovative research methods are often presented at these conferences. Besides, knowing where your research field is headed is important as it will help you to position your own work.
  1. Getting to know peers on a more personal level is not only fun, but may also lead to new opportunities. Future cooperation, publication possibilities and even job offers may result from participating in these events.

So, the answer to my question of whether academic conferences are worth the time and money is: Yes. This is because conferencing provides you with new insights. These insights are likely to improve your work. For instance, having prepared a short presentation on your research, you may be able to write a more concise paper. Peers may suggest new theories that sharpen your insights, or methods that are more applicable to your data and research question. So, in a nutshell, conferencing helps to you to solve your academic puzzle, and to write down what is in your head. Just give it a go and find out for yourself.

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Anouk van Leeuwen is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department. Her PhD research is on the (perceived) atmosphere of street demonstrations. The project is integrated in the international collaborative research project called ‘Caught in the act of protest: Contextualizing Contestation’ (CCC)

Visiting conferences abroad: cherries on top of an academic cake or an absolute necessity?

Yazililtasby Demet Yazilitas / Reading Time: 8 minutes

 

Early June 2014 I attended the International Science and Mathematics Education Congress organized by the Educational Research and Publications Associations (ERPA) in Istanbul, Turkey. The visit was partially funded by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS) to which I am very grateful. Though the main purpose of my visit was to present my own work and to meet and learn from other researchers working in similar fields, the visit turned out to be much more than that. During my visit I got acquainted with the city of Istanbul, also known as the City of Cities by Turks, in ways I did not before. This blog is essentially about the extras of doing a PhD –of which going abroad to attend conferences is an important one – and the additional learning experiences that come with those extra’s.

City of intersections – Istanbul

The last visit I made to Istanbul was 9 years ago and I was surprised to find the city even more magnificent and energetic than during my last visit. To some extent this probably relates to the combination of splendid summer weather and the neighbourhood in which the congress took place, namely Beyazit Square in the district of Fatih on the European part of Istanbul. Besides being close to the city’s main tourist attractions, the square is also adjacent to Istanbul University’s main campus where the congress took place. Established in 1453 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II – immediately after Mehmet’s conquest of Constantinople – it’s Turkey’s oldest university.

Main entrance of Istanbul University

The history and grandeur of Beyazit Square was one of many marvels the city had to offer after my arrival. The district of Fatih is generally considered to be the heart of Old Istanbul. Some of Istanbul’s most important architectural buildings are situated here, including Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) and Basilica Cistern. Although I had visited this particular neighbourhood before, it had changed in many important ways, of which the introduction of Marmaray was only one. In 2013, Marmaray was opened for public after years of delay. It is best described as a high-speed metro-line that partially runs under the Sea of Marmara that connects Europe to Asia in only a few minutes.

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An impression of Marmaray – connecting two continents

On the day of my arrival I called an old friend who lives in Istanbul to meet up and have a coffee. He had migrated 8 years ago from Paris to Istanbul for work and I was eager to hear his stories about life in Turkey, and Istanbul in particular. He told me to take the Marmaray and get off at the last stop at the Asian side after which he would pick me up in order for me to meet his wife and have dinner at his home. I did as he said, thinking that he probably lived near this last stop since this last stop was already quite far off from the city centre – at least that’s what I thought. To my surprise we had to drive for an hour or so before we reached his house. The city kept on going as we drove further and further away. Skyscrapers and construction sites as far as the eyes could see. At that moment I started to realize how big the city actually is. With a population of 14.1 million this is perhaps not surprising. When we arrived at this home, he and his wife, assured me that this still wasn’t the edge of the city. It was still within reasonable distance. They lived in East Ataşehir, at Eastern part of Asian side, of which you can find an impression below.

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Ataşehir – cities within the super-city

The supersized city as a magnifying glass

Besides the distance and all the skyscrapers, there was one other thing that caught my attention. When I entered my friend’s home I was introduced to someone who I thought was a family friend. Later this person turned out to be the housekeeper from Georgia who lived with my friend and his wife. This was, I have to admit, a bit of a surprise to me. In the Netherlands I personally don’t know anybody with an in-living housekeeper although outsourcing of household tasks such as cleaning has become rather normal, even among single households. Having an in-living housekeeper is therefore something I still associate with old movies and Victorian costume drama’s in particular. My surprise is also related to my upbringing in a welfare state in which social inequalities between “the haves” and “have nots” are much less visible to the ordinary eye. This is of course not to say that there are no similar manifestations between these groups in welfare states as ours. It’s that they are less visible. The scale of a super city like Istanbul in this sense probably acts like a magnifying glass for social processes of all sorts, both the positive and negative, and all at the same time.

City of intersections – history and present

Over the next days, as the congress and my stay in Istanbul progressed, I would slowly start to understand some of these processes along with the vastness of the city. In 2009, research conducted by the London School of Economics referred to Istanbul as the “City of Intersections”, which I think is a very good description of the state of the city, both in the literal meaning as in a more symbolic. Examples of the literal meaning immediately come to mind when we speak of a city stretching out over two continents. An example of the more symbolic meaning includes the sight of two women, sitting next to each other at a restaurant, and one of which is dressed in a niqab and the other in a short and bare dress. Never, at any congress, or in any other part of the world I have visited, did I witness something similar. This is I think the strength of places like Istanbul, diversity is the norm rather than the exception. And that in itself creates a kind of flexibility in attitude that we in the West, I am inclined to argue, are not used to nor completely understand.

The rootedness of diversity and the importance of the Ottoman era in today’s Turkish culture

The importance of diversity in Istanbul is probably rooted in the city’s specific historical context  as one of the most diverse and tolerant empires of all times – the Ottoman empire – and the city’s specific geo-political importance as a city connecting two continents. According to Oxford Islamic Studies Online the Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful states in the world during the 16th and 17th with control over many of the countries around the Mediterranean, the Middle-East and North-Africa. The city’s importance as the capital and home of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multinational and multilingual power is still very much engrained in the collective memory of most Turks and Istanbulites. The recent revival of the Ottoman era and it’s artistry and craftsmanship, e.g. in architecture, jewellery, fashion and interior design, are only few examples of this. Popular use of the ‘tughra’–  the Ottoman calligraphic monogram or seal – ranges from tattoo’s, t-shirts, home wall and car stickers. Other examples include multiple TV shows that are inspired on the Ottoman history and/or take place during that particular period, including the hit-show ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’. Translated as The Magnificent Century it is currently one of the most popular shows in Turkey. The show mainly deals with the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest reigning Sultan of all the Ottoman Sultans, and his wife Hürrem Sultan, who used to be a slave girl from what we now know as the Ukraine. Moreover, since the shows first broadcast in 2011, it has reportedly gained an international audience of 200 million viewers with broadcast in 59 different countries, including USA, France, China, Russia and China. One last interesting example concerns the construction of mosques around the world based on the Ottoman style, e.g. the Nazimiye Turkish Masjid in Midrand, South-Africa that was built in 2012. The renewed interest in the Ottoman era and culture is thus not limited to Turkey but well exceeds the country borders.

To understand today’s Istanbul, and for that matter Turkey, is to understand its history as a multiethnic power. This history is of course not only limited to the Ottoman era, but starts well before that with the history of the Anatolian peninsula as one of the oldest permanently settled regions in the world that saw many different rulers throughout its long history. However, one cannot understand this history without understanding the country’s specific geographical location on the brink of two continents. This specific location is of course deeply imbedded in the region’s history and that of its neighbors. Taking into account how history and place are interconnected over time is of course not an easy task to venture on, nor something that one can do within a few days, weeks or perhaps even years. Nonetheless, this visit has inspired me to do just that. I think that places like Istanbul, where all of these things come together, are very important to visit especially for sociologists, since time, place and history are key factors that we always need to take into account in our work when we try to understand how groups of people interact in any given society.

Visits like these might be considered by many as the perks of doing a PhD – the figurative cherries on top of an academic cake –, the extras that come with hard and lonesome work of an academic but that’s not how I see it anymore, at least not for sociologists. I think that when you claim to investigate social behaviour and are interested in finding out why certain groups of people act in certain ways you cannot disengage from getting acquainted with different cultures and places. Here I thus argue that going abroad and taking time to understand differences is therefore an essential necessity for all sociologists and we should not think otherwise.

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Demet Yazilitas is a PhD candidate at the department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the influence of social, institutional and psychological factors on gender and ethnic differences in natural science choices of high school students in the Netherlands and Sweden.