Writing in and from the Field

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Ieva Jusionyte as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Ieva is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. She is the author of Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border (University of California Press, 2015). Ieva is currently conducting fieldwork for a new project about emergency services on the U.S.-Mexico border, funded by NSF and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.]

This morning, as I am sitting down to write this blog entry in my rental apartment in Nogales, I peer through the window: The sun has illuminated the dark brown border wall that coils over the hilly landscape and reminds me of the spiked back of a stegosaurus. Six months ago I arrived in Southern Arizona to begin fieldwork with firefighters and paramedics for a new ethnographic project about emergency responders on both sides of the line, as the international boundary which abruptly separates Mexico and the United States is locally called. Though ethnographic fieldwork takes many forms – I am conducting interviews, participating in the daily activities at the firehouse, volunteering at a first aid station for migrants, teaching prehospital emergency care at a local fire district, and engaging with the first responder communities in Arizona and Sonora in multiple other ways – my primary activity continues to be writing.

I have always been a morning writer. When I was working on the manuscript of my first book, Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border (University of California Press 2015), I would shut the doors of my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house in the forested suburbs of Vilnius, Lithuania, where I was fortunate to spend my research leave, and would sit at my large desk, facing the barren trees outside, until noontime. I did it every day of the week for several months during a long and cold winter. The manuscript was complete and sent off to my editor on the eve of spring.

The bollard-style border wall between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.
The bollard-style border wall between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.

But during fieldwork keeping a regular writing routine has been difficult. The topic of our research inevitably shapes how, where and what we write, and my study of fire and rescue services under heightened border security is no exception. Often I spend the entire day on shift with the crew at the fire station, riding along with them to the scenes of emergencies. Other days there is training, community events, long drives to do interviews at more remote fire districts. Having a background in both journalism and in anthropology affects how I go about conducting research. Instead of dividing my time into chunks for doing fieldwork and writing up fieldnotes, I tend to pursue the story as far as it takes me before I finally sit down to reflect on the new material. I think of it as combining the in-depth view of an anthropologist with the fervor of an investigative journalist. It can be exhausting.

Because of this, I write anywhere and everywhere, whenever I have a minute to jot down my thoughts and observations. I scribble names, places and dates in my pocket notebook, in a handwriting that has become illegible, especially when the entries are made while riding in the back of a fire engine or on a 4×4 truck plowing through the dirt roads to where the fence between the U.S. and Mexico is nothing more than a Normandy barrier and four-strand barbed wire. I type abbreviated notes on my cell phone during stops at gas stations along the I-19 connecting Tucson with Nogales, and whenever pulling out my phone to quickly enter some text seems more polite – and less intrusive – than opening my notebook. When I am driving and I can’t pull over to jot down a thought that I want to keep, I record voice memos; I have done so passing through Border Patrol checkpoints on Arivaca Road and on Sasabe Highway, back when I used to count the times I was stopped and to document what the agents were saying.

Approaching a Border Patrol checkpoint on Arivaca Road near Amado, Arizona. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.
Approaching a Border Patrol checkpoint on Arivaca Road near Amado, Arizona. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.

I also take pictures. Many pictures. On my cell phone or using one of the two DSLR cameras that I carry around. I take pictures of dumpster fires and vehicle accidents, of picturesque sunsets over the Tumacácori and the Baboquivori Peaks, of hazardous materials equipment and of tacos al pastor being prepared for dinner at the firehouse. In fact, photography has been a particularly important ethnographic tool. I am frequently asked to take pictures of official community events, bi-national meetings, and training exercises, and to later share them with the participating agencies and the media. As a designated photographer, however, I may not have time to take notes, so the pictures later become cues for the activities that took place and help me write about what happened. Writing from photographs changes the way we convert experiences and events into prose, suggested Casey N. Cep in an article for the New Yorker. They serve as powerful tools to enhance memories about the encounter that begin to twist immediately after it is over. When I finally open my laptop and begin writing, I draw on all of these cues – notes on my cell phone, handwritten memos, voice messages, photos. They neatly fall into places and begin to form a story. I may not have a well-structured writing routine, but this haphazard creation of fieldnotes has been surprisingly productive.

Fieldwork also precipitates other genres of writing such as writing for the public. There used to be a delay, a pause between ethnographic research often conducted in remote locations, and anthropological publications carefully crafted at academic institutions and perfected through cycles of rigorous revision. It could take years of going back and forth to the fieldsite before scholars would decide to share their findings with the public. Still today many monographs and research articles do not see the light of day until long after the events they depict have transpired. But this has been changing. Ethnographic fieldwork and public writing now happen simultaneously. Federal funding agencies that use taxpayer money are pressured to demonstrate the relevance of the research that they support to the society at large. Meanwhile, technological innovation and easy access to the internet allows us to share photos and news about our fieldwork instantaneously via e-mail, blogging or social media. These developments, among others, have led anthropologists to more openly talk about our work-in-progress. More of us now report preliminary findings from the frontlines of ethnographic research.

Children at a home safety and fire prevention fair in Nogales, Mexico, watch firefighters extricate a supposed victim from a damaged vehicle. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.
Children at a home safety and fire prevention fair in Nogales, Mexico, watch firefighters extricate a supposed victim from a damaged vehicle. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.

While conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Northern Sonora and Southern Arizona over the last half a year, I have written across different genres of public writing. I created a public website, http://www.borderrescueproject.com, which I update with news, excerpts from my fieldnotes and interviews, reflections written by my research assistants, and numerous photographs. The website is also linked to the project’s Twitter account and displays a feed of the most recent events linked to my work. At the request of my contacts in the fire service and emergency management, who invite me to participate in their trainings and meetings, on a couple of occasions I wrote brief news pieces and sent photographs to the local newspaper in Nogales, Arizona. I have also given interviews to several Mexican news outlets in Sonora. As a former journalist, I am familiar with the practice of deploying information to promote activities in the community and I eagerly engage with the media in ways that benefit the people with whom I work. News media provides a powerful and readily available channel to communicate the significance of the research project to the broader public. With that in mind, I wrote an op-ed for the Guardian that was a critical commentary on existing federal policies that blend emergency healthcare with immigration policing, and thus the riskiest form of public writing I have done. This article likely had more readers than any of my scholarly publications ever will. It was shared instantaneously via social networks and thus was immediately available to the firefighters and paramedics who have been participating in my research project. I had reasons to fear their reaction. Politics are generally seen as a threat to camaraderie, and thus are a taboo topic in the firehouse where people of different political leanings have to rely on each other in life and death situations. Had they found my op-ed to be politically aggressive or provocative, my fieldwork relationships could have ended there and then and the future of my research would be uncertain. To my relief, they liked it.

Messages to the media are different than other narrative genre more familiar to anthropologists. In “Why Ethnography Matters: On Anthropology and Its Publics”, Didier Fassin writes about the challenges that scholars face when their research goes public. The shift from the academic realm to the world of news journalism, which substitutes nuanced accounts of complex social reality with flashy, explicit headlines, is often frustrating to those who invest years to understand a multifaceted problem with no easy solutions, such as the political, legal and economic conundrum on the U.S.-Mexico border. Talking to the press and writing for the public before the research is over can be even more problematic. Preliminary findings can be inconclusive or contradictory. What if, once you are back at your desk, going through your fieldnotes with analytical focus, you regret what you said or wrote while your experiences were still fresh like wet paint? It seems safer to create a distance between the messy stage of ethnographic research – the fieldwork – and the structured phase of reflection and scholarly production that comes afterwards. It may be wise to wait before you reach out to the public. But such caution has its cost: the lost opportunity to build and maintain bridges between the scientific community and the multiple publics who we want and need to address.

Bi-national emergency exercise at the port of entry. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.
Bi-national emergency exercise at the port of entry. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.

Writing in the field and writing from the field are forms of ethnographic writing that, because of their unpretentious character and temporary relevance, are overshadowed by academia’s focus on full-length monographs and peer-reviewed scholarly articles. Fieldnotes posted on the blog may be unpolished and haphazardly put together, news articles too narrow and shallow, editorials and commentaries for the press – candid and biased (“wrinkles” which anthropologists as authors soften out after long hours spent on drafting and then revising our CV-worthy manuscripts), but they also come with the immediate reward of sharing knowledge in the making.

Writing is not the aftermath of fieldwork. Fieldwork is writing.

 

 

 

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.