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.
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