What if we don’t like our fieldwork site? I’m not only talking about “failed research” or the problems of doing fieldwork discussed by Amy Pollard. Her study of graduate students doing their first research projects revealed that many felt lonely, fearful, frustrated, depressed, trapped, and paranoid. I have in mind an additional issue: I don’t like this place. Is it possible to untangle the fieldsite from the fieldwork and the fieldworker? Why is it a taboo topic for anthropologists to discuss?
My research trips to Moscow some years ago were successful. I was there as part of a large, multi-member project on second language acquisition by American university students during study abroad. I liked the research carried out on two solo trips in 1990 and 1991. But I never wanted to go back a third time, or ever again. It was not simpatico. I enjoyed meeting with Russian people but did not appreciate the actual physical location–the food, the smell of the air, the toilets, and the other mechanics of being there.
Unlike the American students learning Russian who were the focus of the study, I was never bothered by pesky Soviet era fartsovshchiki, black marketers who hounded foreigners for their jeans, cigarettes, and watches. I was not targeted as a foreigner except by the KGB agents assigned to trail me. This was most likely due to my sensible shoes and a shabby Columbo-like raincoat. The young university students studying Russian during a year abroad could never understand why some people instantly knew they were Americans and immediately began stalking them. Perhaps it was their clean, color-coordinated clothes? There was also the way they walked around the streets with big smiles on the faces (from a Russian perspective, only Americans and the cognitively impaired do that). I was left alone and never had any bad experiences. Russian people were kind and had a wicked sense of humor I found very appealing. Yet I lack any feelings of positive nostalgia or longing for the place. This contrasts with my feelings of affection for Japan, where I always look forward to returning for research.