The field and The Field – Adventures in Multi-sited Ethnography
“Fieldwork is not what it used to be”, to quote the title of Faubion and Marcus’ 2009 edited volume on the changing nature of social/cultural anthropology in the 21st century. For my PhD, which I started almost a year ago now in the Department of Anthropology at University College London (I know, I suck at blogging when I’m busy) this couldn’t be more true. For context, I’m working as part of a multi-disciplinary research group that aims to develop participatory methods and digital tools to enable anyone, no matter their level of literacy or numeracy, to record and share their environmental knowledge in ways that other stakeholders can understand. The group is called Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS for short) and the projects that I’m engaged with in this group involve the development of applications for smartphones and tablets that will allow indigenous hunter-gatherers living in the Congo and Amazon Basin rainforests to accurately map their territories and collect evidence concerning illegal logging and poaching activity that impacts on their livelihoods. It’s the continuation of the work I was engaged in for my MSc (which I’ve blogged about on this site and elsewhere), and my role involves studying ethnographically the processes and relationships involved in creating technology that is intended to enable the co-production of environmental knowledge by people in very unequal positions of power.
My research is multi-sited – for the uninitiated that means that while social anthropologists usually carry out their research with a relatively bounded group of people in a single fieldsite, I work across a number of fieldsites and with a wide range of actors from very different backgrounds. Instead of travelling to and living in a single place for an extended period of time (usually a year these days, although the standard used to be longer), my ethnographic journey begins in software development meetings and research planning sessions held in UCL’s Chorley Institute (where ExCiteS is based), and will take me through the offices of NGOs operating at all of very-local, national and international levels, onto the base camps of logging companies and other extractive firms, across meetings with government officials, forestry scientists, conservationists and environmental lawyers, and into villages and camps deep in the heart of some of the most remote rainforest on the planet. This kind of approach, while vital for understanding what happens when environmental knowledge is co-produced using the ExCiteS methods and tools, is pretty challenging to pull off (as senior colleagues in the department keep feeling the need to emphasise to me). Right from the outset, multi-sited ethnographers have to face intra-disciplinary concerns about the validity of their way of working compared to more traditional anthropological fieldwork approaches – after all, if you are doing research in multiple fieldsites it is much more difficult to establish the kind of rapport and closeness with people that comes from having a long-term presence in their lives. Similarly, language can be a big issue – although my French is reasonable and I’m working on learning Portuguese and Lingala (a trade language spoken throughout the Congo region), I’m going to need to rely on interpreters for a lot of my work, which inevitably means more nuanced meaning is likely to be lost. And quite apart from the academic concerns, logistics can be a real nightmare when I need to co-ordinate with so many people!
However, one of the key challenges that is emerging for me right now is working out exactly how my fieldwork is going to work. You see, I’m currently frantically preparing to go to “the field” – in July I’ll be doing some work in the Republic of the Congo and to do this I need to prepare all of the risk assessment, ethics and study leave forms, obtain all the necessary vaccinations, malaria prophylaxes and visas, and pack all of the hardcore, waterproof, shatterproof latest techno-gizmo wotsits that all the cool fieldworkers are using these days. However, to think of travelling to Congo as going to “The Field” would be really quite deceptive – because one of my multiple fieldsites is the ExCiteS research group itself, I’m already, technically, *in* The Field. I’ve been in The Field ever since I started working with ExCiteS on my MSc research a year and a half ago, and I’m going to be there, to some extent, right up to the point where I hand in my completed thesis. Now, this is the point where this all gets a bit confusing, because at the same time as being in The Field, I’m also still inhabiting the life I was living beforehand – I still live in the same flat with the same lovely flatmates, I still hang out with the same awesome friends, I still get involved in shows with the same theatre company etc. etc. So while most of the other first-year anthropology PhD students are preparing to cut their networks here and spend a year immersed in their respective Fields, I get no such break between my life in the UK and my anthropological research. Sometimes it feels deceptively like I’m not in The Field at all – which is problematic when you’re meant to be maintaining the sort of heightened sense of observance and meticulous recording of data that anthropologists are supposed to employ during their year-long stint of immersion. And yet, sometimes The Field makes itself painfully obvious – like when research relevant meetings in The Field overrun through real-life social engagements, or when holidays have to be cancelled because I have to travel to the field (yes lowercase – this time I mean Congo, which confusingly is both the field and The Field) at a time that fits in with the schedules of a whole bunch of industry and NGO actors, and my supervisor’s other projects, and our tech team’s development horizon, and… well, the list goes on…
So what to do in this odd kind of situation? Thus far I have been trying to maintain some semblance of a life outside of The Field, but it’s slowly dawning on me that really this is impossible – I’m having to let down too many friends in the one sphere because although it looks like I’m still around and inhabiting the same old life I always was, actually I’m only half present – the other half of me is in the other, “exotic” sphere (whether that happens at the time to be software development meetings in the UK or dancing with forest spirits in the Congo Basin). But to submit myself to The Field for three full years would probably be even more exhausting than trying to maintain some boundaries – and not necessarily that productive either given that ultimately I also have to distance myself from my Field networks in order to write good anthropology. I suppose that really the only way is to embrace the liminality – to make as much as I can of being simultaneously both and neither here nor there. I’m pretty lucky, in many ways, to have the opportunity to exist in two realms at once. But practically speaking I guess that means this blog post is sort of an apology, or at the very least an explanation. To my friends in the Real World ™, I’m sorry if it seems like I’m only half engaged with your lives right now – the truth is, I am, and that’s going to have to be the way things are for a while. But if it makes you feel any better, it’s all for Anthropology, and Anthropology is cool.
NB. The meeting photo above is by my colleague Artemis, the Congo photo by my supervisor Jerome, and the Real Life photo by my friend Michael – copyright in each case belongs to them!
Faubion, J. & Marcus, G. (2009) Fieldwork Is Not What It Used To Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition. New York: Cornell.