10 Tips for Surviving Anthropological Fieldwork

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Source: http://netnographicencounters.com/2014/04/07/10-tips-for-surviving-anthropological-fieldwork/



In two weeks I will have been in Java, Indonesia, for a full year conducting ethnographic fieldwork for my PhD. I’m pretty certain most students who have completed this anthropological rite of passage (yeah I went there) will agree that the theory and methods courses we undertake for close to a decade before entering the field do little to prepare us for it.

I’d say I’ve been pretty lucky so far in terms of my experiences, having chosen a wonderful field-site without any (knock-on-wood) massive obstacles. The people who have taken me into their home and their community have been warm and willing to aid me in my academic endeavors. Yet despite all of their support, every budding anthropologist will encounter difficulties that may hinder their progress.

Below are some tips that might help the pre-fieldwork candidate adapt to their surroundings (assuming they are in a new setting) and perhaps even enjoy the process of gathering data. Veterans of the field are welcome to submit their own suggestions in comments.

Sometimes, I feel, learning how to be human while studying humans is the toughest part.

 1. Choose a site you won’t hate

My Master’s field-work was nearly disastrous because I underestimated the emotional intensity of the site I chose. In my blinding naiveté, I had decided that doing three months of intensive interviewing and participant observation in Rwanda might not be so emotionally draining if I just focused on the subject matter rather than the nation’s gruelling history. Wrong.

Even though I planned to just do interviews in primary schools about the use of One Laptop Per Child computers in the education system, daily conversations about any topic almost always included a discussion of some aspect of the 1994 genocide. While the history and social consequences of that tragedy are crucial to know and understand, especially from an anthropological perspective, I should have predicted from the start that my own personality was not particularly suited to stomaching the sheer weight of the tragedy on a daily basis. Had I paid attention to that I might have known to choose a different site.

For my PhD work I almost made the same mistake. I thought spending a year in Mongolia might be fun and adventurous, and almost drafted a proposal to do so, but at the last moment took an opportunity to go to Indonesia instead. This year, while reading the Facebook status updates of friends and family back home, I realized it was the right choice. Seeing their complaints about the “Polar Vortex” winter from a tropical climate made me realize I had dodged a weather-induced misery bullet.

Of course there are many other factors to consider when choosing a site, but make sure that you pick one you will potentially enjoy (depending on your objectives). Hedonism isn’t the point, but if you hate your field-site, I guarantee it will haunt you in the year or two it will take you to write up.

2. Learn the language


Any anthropology student would say “Well, duh!” to this piece of advice. But it’s not as simple as it seems. Sometimes there is more than one language to master in the relatively brief time we have to gather the rich data we need to write something of substance.

Many of my peers and I were funded to conduct 3-4 months of pilot research in another country to take language courses that were unavailable in Canada, and to choose a suitable field site. This luxury made all the difference for me, and I imagine for those in the same boat.

The basic skills I picked up in Bahasa Indonesia served as a foundation for deepening my conversational abilities during the first six months of my fieldwork. Without it, I might not have been able to conduct the in-depth interviews I’ve been working on recently.

But Bahasa Indonesia is only the national language in Indonesia. While it ties the nation together in terms of educational and media transmission, the people I study prefer to chat with each other in Javanese. While I have picked up enough of it to understand the basis of most conversations and interject questions, I would have had much more success in terms of building rapport if I had mastered it early on.

If the opportunity arises to learn the language in-depth, take it. Otherwise you might be stuck speaking to Quebeckers in English, for example, rather than in the beloved French language.

3. Pay attention to gender norms

This is something that I underestimated from the start. As a white woman from a relatively Liberal society, I was as yet unaware of the subtleties of gendered social interactions when I arrived.

My initial tactic was to just be friendly and open with everyone, as I would be in Canada. I would have friendly conversations with both men and women in public settings. No big deal, right? I would conduct interviews on my own to prove that I was a capable and independent anthropologist. That’s how it’s supposed to be done, right?

But as time went on I became more and more aware of how subtle queues in speech and body language could dramatically affect my position within the neighbourhood and how people thought of me.

For example, I learned that it was more respectful for me to be accompanied by someone if I was to interview someone of the opposite gender, even though there was no hard and set rule for it.

Also, crossing my legs by resting my ankle on my knee is a big “no-no” here. While men are expected to sit in a relaxed position, often with a knee raised and feet resting on benches, proper women must keep their feet firmly planted on the ground, or neatly crossed when sitting on the floor.

Smoking for women is also considered inconsistent with propriety or modesty.

The point is that if you want to respect the people who are being generous with you in terms of their time and patience, and in turn be respected, it’s a good idea to try to observe local queues. Things that might be considered normal or innocent in Liberal Western settings may have different connotations in another.

4. Don’t take things so personally

Twelve months (or more) is a long time to be sad and stressed out about social mishaps, awkward moments, misunderstandings, and hurtful gossip. If anything, it’s a great opportunity to learn that it’s impossible to make everyone like you, and that’s fine. There’s absolutely no way to cater to every segment of society, and trying to do so will only make people more wary of your apparently disingenuous approach.

There are inequalities and cleavages in every part of society, and trying to act immune to them may simply infuriate people. Best to be fair and be friendly, while knowing your limits. In the end, these boundaries may actually produce more interesting material. For example, trying to figure out why people gossip every time you try to hang out on the other side of the neighbourhood might offer clues as to the nature of the social cleavages in the community.

5. Harness the power of your introversion

When I was conducting my pilot research last year I worried that I wasn’t being social enough. As a result I felt like I had to constantly force myself into uncomfortable situations to be a good anthropologist.

But when I noticed that my own supervisor is usually a quiet figure, I asked him casually what his strategy was for getting people to talk. I imagined that he probably did the same sort of thing, just trying to be everywhere at once and asking as many questions as possible. While that works for some people, I was surprised and relieved to learn it wasn’t his favoured approach.

He told me about what he called his “Teh Botol approach.” Teh Botol is a popular jasmine tea drink usually served chilled in a glass bottle. It’s often consumed in small diners or food stops called “warung,” where people like to order rice dishes and have a chat. When my supervisor wanted to meet new people, he explained, he would choose a warung, order a Teh Botol, and sip it slowly until someone addressed him.

Sometimes the server would be busy and the diner empty and he would sit in silence, losing hope of any meaningful conversation. But just as often a deep and fascinating conversation would start up from insignificant chit-chat just as he was paying to leave. If that didn’t work, he would just take his leave and move on the next warung, starting the process over again until he came upon something interesting.

I realized then that my own instinct to sit and observe rather than force an awkward interaction was probably best, and that has led to far more interesting conversations than constantly asking annoying questions. Sometimes patience is better than force.

6. Have fun!


It’s often difficult to turn off your brain when conducting fieldwork. Every conversation, every observation, every minute of every day is spent watching, listening, learning, and trying to speak with a discernable accent. When you’re not constantly absorbing, you’re writing and recording, and hoping that nothing happens to your precious data.

Don’t over-do it. Make sure to do things that please you and that take your mind off of your work, even if it is your passion. You’ll come back to it with a fresher perspective.

Bring movies. Watch them. Bring trashy (or good) novels. Read them. Malinowski did it, ain’t no shame in it. Go out to dinner (if you can). Go swimming. Take a walk. Whatever is at your disposal that will take you away from the persistent analytical thoughts of an anthropologist.

7. Find a routine that works for you

Equally important is to figure out your own routine or schedule. I found early on that trying to force myself to write 2000 words of field notes at the end of the day, when my head was still swimming from half a day of language classes, a funeral, and several conversations, often led to debilitating migraines. When I switched to writing scratch notes in my blackberry as mnemonic devices, I could still write excellent notes the morning after, and spare myself a sick day nursing a pulsating migraine in bed.

Don’t forget that you also need to take into account the daily routines of the people who live in your field site. If people are busy or working in the mornings and afternoons, but usually free and relaxed at around 7pm, reserve your interviews for the evenings and spend the days writing, exploring, and chatting with people who are free rather than imposing your own schedule on them. They will be much more receptive that way.

8. Keep a log book

I started doing this a couple of months into my field work, after I had finished with language classes. I use one of those clichéd black hardcover notebooks since they last long (and fine, because they look cool). Use the left side for planning your day.

Write down what information you’re looking for, who you want to interview, where you want to go and why. On the right side write down what you actually accomplished, where you went, who you saw, and what you learned or failed to do. The two sides are often different because unexpected things happen (ex. a funeral) but that keeps things interesting.

It also shows you that you’re actually accomplishing more than you imagined or remember. Sometimes it seems that you’re not doing anything, but the list of people and topics you’ve encountered on any given day will prove to you that you’re not actually a slacker (unless, of course, you are, and the logbook will show you that you need to get a move on).

9. Never reject an invitation (within reason)

Any anthropologist will tell you that you should never reject an invitation when you’re in the field. That includes boring governance meetings, religious events, funerals, going to coffee with a group of youths, or watching a soccer game (even if you can’t tell the teams apart).

Within reason, I would say this is good advice. Keep in mind the tip about gender norms though, and always make sure you take your safety into consideration. Although that political rally might seem interesting or crucial, ask around to see if it’s usually peaceful. If several people talk about how the rally is going to turn to into a  “battle” because of the rival parties, consider whether the risk is worth the invitation. Just two days ago there were rumors, photos, and reports (though no news coverage) of several young men murdered during political rallies, a reasonable deterrent for me even though I’m interested in the election process.

10. Become a foodie



Anyone who knows me is aware that cooking is not my forte, (for which I shamelessly blame my lovely mother). I have no interest in engaging in it, and any attempts so far have led to mediocre meals at best.

This has probably been my greatest woe during my year in Indonesia. While I can enjoy the fact that food is super cheap (70 cents to two dollars per local meal), so that I can eat out every day, I’m not a huge fan of the local cuisine. Growing up in a Quebecois household has taught my palette that Heinz Ketchup or maple syrup can accompany almost any meal, and that spicy foods are a source of torture rather than pleasure. Unfortunately for me, almost every meal here has hot chilli peppers mixed into it, or is accompanied by hot chilli sauce (sambal). Rice is the staple, so that any local might tell you that if they haven’t yet eaten rice, they don’t feel full “kalau belum makan nasi, berarti belum kenyang.”

If I had had the patience to take up cooking when I first arrived, I might not have overdosed on the massive amounts of rice and chillies served to me every day and actually enjoyed my meals. My advice would be to make some effort to become a “foodie.” It’s a great way to socialize with people, to share stories and recipes, and an even better way to be content during your year long stint in your chosen field site.

Obviously there are many other ways to make your field work an enjoyable and productive experience and not all will agree with the tips I’ve put forth, but hopefully some of them will have been helpful. Happy fieldworking!

by Jessika Tremblay