Moving Forward

If there is one thing I really wish we’d had a class on when I was a fresh-faced, enthusiastic masters student three dim and distant years ago, it’s exactly how wrong fieldwork can go. They’ve introduced such a thing now in the anthropology department at UCL, giving post-field PhD students the opportunity to talk to those just beginning their MPhils about the moments they thought their research was scuppered – when war broke out and they had to be evacuated, when they spent months on end sitting around some major capital trying to get research permissions, when the day after they arrived in their new field-home the head of their host family suddenly passed away. I’ve heard UCL Anthropology is even thinking of introducing post-field therapy sessions for final year students – a bold plan that could benefit many an anthropology department across the planet. When everything collapsed for my own fieldwork last year – figuratively in terms of my research, quite literally in terms of my lungs – I quickly realised that I was far from the only who’d had cause to make use of UCL’s excellent Student Psychological Service. In fact, anthro students who haven’t had to hump some major fieldwork crisis are probably very much in the minority. But there’s a kind of machismo to anthropology that sometimes stops us being open enough about the difficulties we’ve faced. Even if ethnographic fieldwork and all its attendant disasters is something of a right-of-passage for the fledgling anthropologist, I don’t think that should stop us being honest about the fact that sometimes it just really sucks.

New year, new fieldsite - the Dzanga-Sangha special reserve
New year, new fieldsite – the Dzanga-Sangha special reserve

I was amazingly lucky last year in having a hugely supportive cohort of PhD student friends (not to mention a hugely supportive network of non-PhD student friends, colleagues and family) to grab my back when I needed them most. Equally, while having two major operations on my lungs was not exactly a pleasant experience, it did force me to take some time out from my PhD and get exactly the kind of distance and space I really needed to process what I’d gone through in the field – the frustrating mess of being an applied, “activist” researcher trying to push an agenda that doesn’t match up with local bureaucracies, the physical and mental hardship of dragging one’s poorly adapted, unprepared and heartbroken body across unforgiving terrain, the *millions of fucking bees everywhere*. When the year finally turned, and with my lungs successfully secured to my chest wall to prevent further collapses, I could have chosen not to return to the field – I have more than enough material, I think, to write up my PhD as is. But instead I’m penning this from the rainforest, in the Central African Republic this time, chasing a lead that I think shows far more promise for my work – that, as Viveiros de Castro would put it, of “the ontological self-determination of the world’s peoples”[1] – than anything I tried to engage with in Congo. And this time I have the luxury of approaching the field fresh from the lessons of last year – I’m cautious in my optimism, my deep enthusiasm for ExCiteS’ work is tempered by the experience of its messy nature, and I have a much stronger awareness than before of my own limits and need for rest. Physically I’m much weaker than I was when I hiked through the Lefini Reserve and the Ndoki forest last year – I’m only 5 weeks out of lung surgery after all, and still very much on the road to recovery. But mentally I feel more prepared for the field than ever, just by virtue of having encountered exactly how unprepared I really am. As ever, I’ll let you know how it goes.


[1] I’ll write a post explaining this soon, I promise 🙂

Making Mess

Success stories are a powerful trope of international development and conservation work. They structure the way NGOs, governments and companies engage with powerful donors and public opinion. They also smooth over complexities, efface failures, and ignore contradictions. They present ongoing situations as if they are done, dusted, and thus can legitimately stand as a lesson to others who seek to achieve similar goals. They clean up mess. But conservation and development work is all mess.

Making mess...
Making mess…

As my ethnographic work proceeds here in Congo, it’s hard to keep a lid on all the mess I encounter. As I sit in Brazzaville trying to make yet another workplan for the coming months that I know is unlikely to stick, I fear the mess may overflow and overwhelm me. It’s been there from the start, from the very first day I started working on Extreme Citizen Science, but it’s here – in the field, at the point of implementation – where mess makes itself most apparent. Success stories are powerful (particularly those that begin with failure) and certainly I’ve told my fair share of them. But I’m beginning to understand that without accounting for mess it’s impossible to make sense of what is actually happening in the complex, multi-layered, power-laden realities of development and conservation work, or the global industrial processes this work simultaneously denigrates and supports. If we are to be faithful to mess, and we urgently need to be faithful to mess, then we need to unlearn old narrative tropes and engage with something quite different. We need to learn how to tell, and we need to learn how to listen to, unsuccess stories.

This is a tall order in an industry dominated by one principle agenda – securing the next round of project funding. It’s a tall order in a world obsessed with the inspirational force of TED Talks, Disney movies and cheery motivational posters. It’s a tall order when the storyteller risks upsetting or offending friends and colleagues, and the listeners risk treating unsuccess as failure, which is quite a different beast. Unsuccess is not intended to be judgemental. It’s just a story of what is, on the ground, sur le terrain. A story of mess.

I’m still thinking this through, but here’s a (tame) example from my recent work. I wrote a blog post for ExCiteS about the potentials of using ExCiteS’ icon-based software Sapelli to support a group of community-organised ecoguards to collect data about wildlife and hunting activity in the Lefini Reserve. We piloted the system in the context of a research project, and the two ecoguards who participated were very enthusiastic about the possibilities. So far so successful. But what I left out of the story was that these ecoguards are supposed to be engaged in the same process as the conservation organisation that supports them – trying to stop other members of their community from hunting. This means that they are not only not necessarily representative of, but are often directly opposed to, the community at large – so what then for the radical community participation philosophy of “Extreme Citizen Science”? Furthermore, the conservation organisation does not have a government mandate that allows it to provide official support to the ecoguards – and thus the sustainability of the project is questionable and rests on political decisions being made at the national level. Additionally, there are some doubts within the conservation organisation as to whether it is strategically desirable to continue working in Lefini at all rather than focusing on “priority” landscapes where elephant poaching is a bigger issue.

There is worse mess here, but I am struggling to find a way to tell it. To be faithful to it I’ll need to weave narratives that may directly contradict the success stories my colleagues and I have told in the past. But if we are to make any progress towards the lofty aims of Extreme Citizen Science – to support truly community-driven, bottom-up processes of data collection, analysis and use – then however uncomfortable it is, these messy unsuccess stories will need to be told.

The field and The Field: An Addendum

On Monday, I return to The Field.

Now, since this basically involves me moving my books and computer equipment back to an office just over the road from the UCL Anthropology Department where I’ve been hiding out for the last six weeks, it doesn’t sound like too big a deal. But things are never quite what they appear in multi-sited ethnography. If I was feeling the dull ache of liminality when I last posted about the anxieties of straddling two worlds at once, that ache seems so much more heightened now that I’ve actually had a chance to inhabit just one world, my life, for a short period of time.

You see, I quit The Field to concentrate on writing my upgrade paper (a research proposal and literature review that outlines what I’ll be doing for the next two years of my PhD) – I moved all my stuff to a desk in another building, I stopped attending ExCiteS meetings, I only replied to the most urgent of ExCiteS-related emails, and I sat and I thought and I wrote. I worked hard, because time was limited and the paper complex. I stayed late each night and I worked through the weekends. I’ve wrapped myself up in the warm, dark cloak of the writing process – the reading and the ordering and the fixing, the agonising writer’s block days and the beautiful days of flow when words just tumble out in the right place. And in spite of all that, I feel like I’ve recuperated from an ailment I didn’t realise I had. I’ve partied frantically, intensely when I haven’t been working, as if inhabiting the Anthropology Department were some blessed release. I love my field research, of course. I love my fieldsites and my colleagues and the projects that we all work on. I’m incredibly lucky to be doing what is basically my dream job while getting a PhD at the same time. And yet, I’m apprehensive as Monday looms closer.

When she read my last post, my mum said my description of multi-sited ethnographic research made it sound a bit like partially inhabiting the realm of Faerie. It struck a chord. I’d kind of forgotten what it was like to be able to live just one life. I hope that when I return to Faerie this time the glamour doesn’t kick in too soon.

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.

Excites meeting
The Field – a research group meeting in UCL

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!

Participatory software development in the Congo
Also The Field – participatory software development in the Congo

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…

Real Life - joint 30th birthday at Playzone
Real Life (TM)? Joint 30th Birthday at Playzone, Portsmouth.

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.