What’s in your fieldwork bag?

A comment from uiolliioo about bringing a solar powered battery pack made me think about the things that we bring to the field for our research. Since what’s required is largely based on where we do our research, I asked a number of colleagues to list what is in their fieldwork bag.

In 1995, when I moved my family to rural China, I took a desktop computer (Gateway) and a Kodak DC-50 – with its 640 x 480 resolution and its $1,000 price, it was top of the line back then! The desktop was also a mistake, and made our move difficult – I remember watching my monitor (in its original packaging) bounce down a long escalator in the new Guangzhou rail station (but it still worked!). Anyway, this is what is in my contemporary fieldkit:

  • Lowepro Compu Day Pack (for transporting equipment; for everyday use, I use a messenger bag with equipment kept safe using photography wraps)
  • Canon D60 digital SLR, with extra batteries and SD cards
  • Canon SD 550 (digital point and shoot)
  • Canon GL-1 videorecorder (with extra batteries, shotgun and wireless mics, tapes; smaller than a GL-2 or XL-1)
  • Tripod (for use with any of the above)
  • Toshiba Tecra M4 tablet PC
  • USB hard drives (the kind that don’t need power cords; my latest is a Seagate FreeAgentPro, 160 GB; I bought a couple of smaller USB hard drives when I was last in Shanghai)
  • Thumb drive (USB)
  • Plug adapters (for China, two different styles; I also bring a Hong Kong type adapter – looks like a UK one)
  • Hand counter (the click kind, like the ones ticket takers at cinemas use; I’ve had it since my dissertation fieldwork, and it’s kind of a good luck charm now)
  • Chinese Cell phone (cheapest Nokia I could buy, with local SIM card)
  • Passport photos (printed off my deskjet, always useful for extending visas, etc.)
  • Treo 700 (or older versions in the past; I bring a lot of e-books to keep me sane, and use Mobipocket Reader to read them; mostly bad sci-fi from fiction books and Baen; also my MP3 player)
  • Leatherman utility tool
  • Portable office kit (with minature stapler, paper clips, etc.)
  • Name cards (double-sided, English and Chinese characters)
  • Medical kit (first aid supplies, antibiotics and other medicines to treat everything from gout to a heart attack; my parents are physicians, and loaded me up with what they think is necessary)

I usually buy a lot of other supplies locally, since they are too bulky or I can never remember to bring some essentials (like poster tubes,notebooks and pens, surge suppressors, etc.)

From Rachel Newcomb (Rollins College)
From 2000-04, I conducted dissertation and post-dissertation fieldwork in Fes, Morocco, examining women’s changing roles in the Moroccan middle class, particularly in non-profits, the family, and new urban spaces such as exercise clubs and cyber cafes. I’m an assistant professor of anthropology at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Currently I’m doing a smaller collaborative fieldwork project here in Florida with one of my students concerning former migrant workers and their exposures to pesticides, but I plan to go back to Morocco and begin new research within the next six months. Technology changes so rapidly that what I took to the field in 2000 would no longer be current now: a Nikon N-65 35 mm camera, a laptop computer, and a small Sony microcassette recorder that I’m still using. I switched over to a Canon PowerShot digital camera, which takes great pictures and is less obtrusive, and I’m coveting Roland’s Edirol R-9 MP3 recorder, which I plan to get my hands on before my next venture into the field in Morocco… So, next time around, I hope to take the Edirol MP3 recorder, my MacBook laptop, and the trusty Canon PowerShot. I’d also like to add that “pen and paper” ARE essential to my toolkit, but I’m excited to learn more about the new note-taking software.

From Thomas Malaby, (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
I study those who produce online virtual worlds; in 2005 I did field and online research at Linden Lab of San Francisco, the makers of Second Life. My fieldwork bag is a medium-sized messenger bag, and here’s what I take with me for that kind of ethnographic research (whether in person or online):

  • High-end laptop that can run beta or public release versions of virtual world client software (MacBook Pro, Dell XPS, or similar)
  • Logitech MX 610 USB wireless mouse (8-button programmable, excellent for online games and virtual worlds)
  • SteerMouse software for Mac OS X (to make PC USB mice like the Logitech MX 610 Mac-compatible)
  • Olympus WS-100 Digital Voice Recorder (USB-integrated)
  • Canon Powershot A550 Digital Camera
  • Cell phone
  • Two 2GB flashdrives for daily backup of all files (kept in different locations)
  • Ethernet cable (for extra performance vs wireless during remote online research)
  • Cables and extra batteries for laptop, cell phone, recorder, camera, and mouse
  • Moleskine Large Ruled Notebook & pen (pen & paper is always a nice break from the digital)

From Melissa Caldwell (UC Santa Cruz): I study religious charity and philanthropy in Russia.

  • Nikon Cool Pix 4100 Digital Camera
  • Olympus WS-100 Digital Voice Recorder
  • 6 AA and 4 AAA rechargeable batteries and charger
  • Dynex All-in-1 Memory Card Reader/Writer
  • Dell D610 Latitude Laptop
  • 3-prong to 2-prong adaptor plug (this now stays in my computer bag after the one time I forgot it and FedEx lost the package my husband sent me; FedEx only “found” it and attempted to deliver two days after I had returned home)
  • Ethernet cable and retractable phone cord
  • App. 6×8 inch spiral bound notebook (buy first day in the field)
  • Schneider Topliner 934 0-4 pens, blue and black (buy first day in the field; these pens are more like markers but with a tiny nib – they write beautifully on any surface and last forever)
  • Box of Papermate Sharpwriter #2 mechanical pencils
  • Ancient Nokia mobile phone with GSM and unlocked for pay-as-you-go foreign SIM card
  • Moscow City Atlas
  • Calendar
  • Mini Solar calculator
  • Package of post-it notes
  • 3-4 File folders
  • Scotch tape
  • Pocket knife
  • Corkscrew/bottle opener
  • Extra passport pictures; copies of passport, visa application and visa, and credit cards

Allison Alexy (PhD candidate, Yale). My dissertation is about experiences of divorce in contemporary Japan. I spent a good amount of my fieldwork time in Tokyo and the surrounding suburbs, but also did research in a city on Shikoku island.
What I carried:
Early in my fieldwork, I bought an enormous thin canvas bag that, I thought, looked descent and presentable, but would stretch to hold a lot and wasn’t particularly heavy. I lugged around a lot of stuff most days, and made frequent use of the lockers in Tokyo train stations. The most important thing in my bag was a small spiral notebook with a particular muji brand pen stuck in the spiral. The notebook was about 3 by 5 inches, and the pens fit perfectly in the spiral, so I bought both by the bushel. The notebooks were entirely chronological, and anything I needed to write down went in there. In addition, I usually carried an Olympus DM-20 digital voice recorder and the small microphone it came with. It took me a few months to figure out, but I started carrying around a little bit of makeup (mascara, etc.). I had finally realized that wearing makeup is something that marks women as “adult” in Japan — it wasn’t until an informant told me a story about how her mother had sat her down and demanded that she wear makeup that I realized I probably should be wearing some, too. I also always carried a stack of my business cards (with Japanese on one side and English on the other), that listed my names, affiliations, email, homepage, cell phone number, and home address (in Japan). One of my close male friends always yelled at me for including my home address, but nothing bad ever came of it, and I thought he was being overprotective. I also always carried my ipod, onto which I frequently dropped digital copies of my fieldnotes. I was very afraid that an earthquake would destroy the two back-up hard drives that I’d left at home, so it made me feel better to have a copy in my bag. (I was also backing up off-site, to my mother’s computer, in the US.) I kept my digital camera (Canon elph, small and flat) in my bag at all times and really couldn’t leave home without my cell phone (which was some sort of AU brand phone). Unfortunately, the phone’s camera wasn’t good, so I had to carry to carry my camera as well.
Throughout the course of my fieldwork, some of which occurred in support groups, I realized that it’s a good idea to carry tissues. If people were upset and crying, or if I was upset, I could share tissues. Many days, I’d also have printed pages giving a summary of my research (in Japanese), so I could hand them off if anyone seemed interested. However, similar materials were on my website, and I usually found it less pushy to point people there. The website, which included a Japanese-language introduction to me and my research, in addition to pictures of me with family and friends, was probably one of the most helpful things I had in the field. I was surprised by how many people really looked at it and would say, months into our relationship, “Oh yeah, I know what your mom looks like because I saw that picture!” It also helped me contextualize myself, and introduce some of my personal life to people who I’d met during moments of their personal explanation. Although I was always willing to talk about my personal life when people asked, I was also happy to have pictures up, giving different perspectives.
When I went to Japan, I brought two hard drives with me — 250 gig, LaCie, externals — and a Fujitsu scansnap scanner. The scansnap was one of the most useful things I had in the field — everything I found, got immediately scanned, and though I kept the hard copies, it made me feel better to have a digital back-up. It’s about the size of a loaf of bread, so I never carried it around. I also had a small digital video camera, but I didn’t use it nearly as much as I thought I would.

What’s in your fieldkit?

2 thoughts on “What’s in your fieldwork bag?

  1. Can anyone recommend a good quality digital voice recorder for ethnographic interviews in noisy, outdoor environments? I don’t want to spend more than $200 and I need to upgrade from my Olympus WS-100. Any suggestions?

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