Arrivals, routines, interviews, field notes and chance connections

Let’s call this an update from the field.  I would like to call it a dispatch, but that doesn’t sound right.  I have wireless, so that probably doesn’t count.  Can a blog post really be a dispatch?  I imagine that a true dispatch would have to involve something more…mechanical.  You know, like a telegraph or something.  I’m thinking that dispatches require clanking metal and moving parts.  I could be wrong.

Today I was thinking about arrivals, and how all anthropologists love to tell their arrival stories.  We like certain kinds of stories, and we like to write about them and compare them like treasured little baseball cards.  Ok, I do it too.  We start off in place A with all sorts of plans, ideas, theories, methods, and hopes…and then we find some way to get to place B, take stock, and see what’s really possible given limited money, sanity, and time.  Leaving one place and entering another–especially with the strange, self-imposed  job of “doing research”–has all sorts of jarring effects.  Some places more than others.  We deal with these transitions, I think, through some of the stories we tell.  Whenever we get the chance to tell them, of course.  Sometimes it takes a while to find a pay phone, or a friend, or a high speed wireless signal so we can get the stories out of our heads.  Anyway, here’s a classic arrival scene:

Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight (Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, 1961[1922]:4).

A Malinowskian classic.  My version would go something like this:

Imagine yourself, fresh off a two-hour Alaska Airlines flight out of LAX, surrounded by all of your gear in the airport at San Jose del Cabo, Mexico waiting for the customs light to (hopefully) flash green, while the precious funds in your student loan dependent bank account seem to sail away, second by second, out of sight.

I think that sums it up.  The light was green, by the way.

So, here’s the update.  I have been down in the field for about a month and a half.  I think I am getting through the “settling in” phase and progressing to the “I really need to get this shit done” phase.  Everyone experiences these phases differently, of course.  One thing that happens to me during fieldwork is that I always think that I need to be doing MORE.  But then when I look at what I have done–tons of notes, interviews, lots of good contacts, and so on–and I realize I am doing pretty well.  Things are coming along.  So I am always tacking back and forth between pushing myself to get out and do more, and telling myself to relax and let certain things happen as they may.  Life doesn’t exactly pan out according to some ethnographically convenient schedule, after all.

What’s rule #1 of the early stages of fieldwork?  Go outside.  Right?  I think there is a tendency for many folks to do a sort of social retreat when they first get into the field.  I tend to do this a bit, and I think it’s pretty normal.  The thing about doing anthropological fieldwork is that once you go outside, you always feel like you’re working.  It’s kind of a strange feeling, at least for me.  Every step outside can feel like you’re punching the Boasian time-clock, and you have to be ready for any and every possible anthropological detail.  It can wear you down.  I think that’s why it’s pretty appealing to want to hide away in novels, or ethnographies, or dubbed movies at the local cinema (for example).  So, rule number one is GO OUTSIDE, because that’s where life is really taking place.  But rule number two, at least for me, is find some ways to turn things off and have a little balance as well.  We need to stay sane, you know.

In other news, interviews are coming along too.  A little slower than I’d wanted, but things are picking up.  There is always a difference between people saying they are willing to do an interview and actually getting the interview scheduled.  At least that’s the case for me.  The second part is by far the hardest, and I am always relieved when I finally get to push the button on the digital recorder and get another interview on the proverbial books.  And speaking of interviews, the more than you do them, the more comfortable they become.  I still kind of think that interviews are pretty strange social situations–asking someone to sit down and talk about a certain set of themes or questions while you run some weird recording device?  Who does that?  Charles Briggs wrote about the strangeness of the interview context, and he was right on the mark.  But, we all get used to them, and we get better at doing them.

The process gets easier, more relaxed, and I think the conversations start to flow a little better too.  When I was doing my M.A. work I used to get all stressed out about the moment when I asked someone if it was OK for me to actually record the interview.  It can be a delicate thing, you know, how you bring up THAT question.  But everyone finds their way.  How do I do it?  I like to have the recorder out early, so people know it’s there.  That’s better, in my experience, than keeping it out of sight and then pulling it on them like a gun at the last moment.  Good god what is THAT?  It’s can actually be pretty intimidating to be interviewed, so it’s good to make things as comfortable as possible.  I think we need to keep these things in mind.  For me, I like to put the recorder out on the table in plain view, during the pre-interview small talk and chit chat, and let people get used to it.  Then, ask them if they’re OK with recording.  And usually, people are fine with it.  If not, it’s no big deal, just take notes in a notebook and roll with it.  I’d be interested to know how other people handle this particular key moment in the interview process, though.  What’s YOUR technique?

So, a few questions about field notes:  I’m interested to know how different people actually do their field notes.  Do you write all throughout the day?  Do you write every day?  At night?  Do you jot little things in books?  Or do you have a photographic memory?  Do you write NOTHING and plan to remember it all when you write your masterpiece dissertation?  Any favorite types of notebooks that you REALLY NEED TO HAVE to do the anthropology note taking thing?  Sorry for all the questions.  My ever-evolving technique involves jotted reminders in a small book (or sometimes any available scrap piece of paper) and then expanded notes once I get to the computer.  I write most days, but not everyday.  Michael Agar had some really good advice about writing field notes that I really liked: don’t try to record everything under the sun, try to focus things a bit.  For me, it makes some sense.  Some folks have this idea that ethnographers should be writing so many notes that it leaves little time for actually getting out and seeing what’s going on.  What’s the purpose of writing for 8 hours and missing everything that’s going down all around you?  So, once again: balance.

Last but not least.  What I really like about blogging are all the conversations, links, and connections that can take place.  The conversations that happen in blogging are really interesting because they can happen in a pretty direct manner–like when people comment on specific posts–or they can be indirect.  By that I mean that one person can post something in one place, and someone can take something from there and start another little conversational fire in another place.  Sometimes those dispersed little fires get linked up, sometimes they don’t.  But they’re out there, and I think it’s pretty fascinating.  Well, I just got a comment on the post I wrote a while back about bringing books into the field.  The comment is from Hannah, an anthropologist/ethnographer  from the University of Liverpool who is doing her dissertation work in Columbia.  She recently wrote a post that replies to the question I asked at the end of my post.   The question I asked: “If you are planning on heading out to do fieldwork, what books do you have in mind?  Are you bringing the classics?  Only the latest methods texts and ethnographies?  Or, on the flip side of all this, are you some techie hipster who has gone entirely digital, thereby completely eliminating this whole issue?”  Her reply:

Am I a techie hipster? Hmmmm. I have an iPad and solar charger (not much electricity in the Northern Guajira) which has been loaded with Murakami’s 1Q84, Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the sky, Thomas’ The end of Mr. Y, Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, and now Emerson’s Writing Ethnographic fieldnotes (as well as a series of mountaineering texts and pdfs on community media). But I am also taking a bound photocopy of a Colombian friend’s fieldnotes and a tattered and annotated copy of Guber’s La etnografía from his original fieldwork. I’m not taking Proust. I know myself too well, I would get lost and would not have Aomame‘s ability to only read twenty pages a day.

An iPad with a solar charger?  Now I feel low tech with my beat up four year old Macbook.  Check out the rest of her post–it’s a good one.  Interestingly, I happen to have a copy of Kingsolver’s Lacuna as well…it’s right next to Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  Do I have too many books?  Well, I think that was well established in my previous post on the topic.  Hannah even gives me some grief about my book addiction problem when she comments on my essential book list: “His final (?) list was heavy on the textbook/methods guide side and I must admit that it brought to mind the stories of Claude Levi-Strauss’ entourage making their way across Brasil whilst laden down with, well, everything.”  Ha!  I think she’s onto something.  I need to travel lighter.  One of my friends here joked with me that I have so many books on my table that they are blocking all of the sunlight from outside.  Ok, so it’s a problem.  I’ll work on it, I promise.

Anyway, I think the chance connections and conversations that are floating around out there are pretty amazing.  That’s why this whole anthropology blogging thing is pretty cool.  Vast networks of conversations pulsing on various continents.  Often, with people who haven’t “really met” in the supposed real world.  It’s cool–and it’s definitely different from the days of Malinowski, where people stayed connected through sonic dispatches and little handwritten or typed up papers, stuffed into envelopes, that had to literally be “shipped” from one place to another.  But then, I do realize that not everyone has a connection to wireless internet in the field these days, unlike some people.  The world is anything but flat, no matter what Tom Friedman says.  It’s an uneven geography, no doubt.  The internet may be far reaching, and full of potential, but it ain’t everywhere–and that includes places all around here where I am doing research.  It’s sporadic at best, and coverage is certainly tied in with larger social and political currents and conflicts.  But you already knew that, didn’t you?  Well, it’s part of the overall story that I am here trying to track down.  More about that later.

End of transmission.


PS: At the end of her post, Hannah asks for more suggestions about reading material.  If you have ideas, send em her way.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

8 thoughts on “Arrivals, routines, interviews, field notes and chance connections

  1. One book I loved turning to in my research was Jean Lydall and Ivo Strecker’s “Field Journal. The Hamar of Southern Ethiopia Part 1” from 1979. It wasn’t just that Ivo was my teacher, and that I was doing fieldwork down in the valley next to Hamar, but their diary-dialogues provide intense insights into existential reflections, methodology, the history of anthropology, the personal tensions of a couple (with children) out on fieldwork, and other very human issues. Death, birth, trust, betrayal, worry and hope, it’s all there.
    A good read overall, and especially stimulating during fieldwork.
    I realize this is somewhat difficult to get these days, but a new edition is scheduled. Find it here:
    In 1979, this was far ahead of its time, I believe.

  2. I can just picture your office, the books blocking the light, scraps of paper flying about in the breeze created by an old electric fan. Was that the really important interview you just did or last week’s shopping list? :-p
    Don’t worry though, I also have a book addiction. I once had to move as there was no more space for them, and I have worked in a bookshop for the past 4 years whilst studying and doing other jobs for the sole reason that I would then have a discount, get free proof copies and be able to run the book clubs.
    Today I arrive at my next field site, so I’ll send an arrival story your way soon.
    I always use moleskine diaries. I could possibly still work without them but they are a delight to write in, and appeal to the part of me that believes Paris to be a movable feast.

  3. I am just about to start writing my bachelor thesis in social anthropology. I’ve cursed myself so many times now that I chose to make a feature tv-programme my field. It is complicated because it haven’t been done so many times and people around me doesn’t really get what I am trying to say, but anyhow…
    About note taking: I try to write when I watch the shows I am analyzing. And I write afterwards, about how I felt when I watched the show, how people interact with each other and the relationship between the experts in the show and the one’s being set out to learn from the experts on how not to mess up their lives again. And I try to write down all the ideas that i get when I am not watching the show. A lot of time is spent thinking and reading and trying to figure out how I can understand the role of the experts in this particular milieu.
    And often I wake up at night with ideas in my head, but them … I just try to memorize them (which is not something I’d recommend to anyone else because I tend to forget the exact words).

    Good luck in the field!

  4. This is a great post! As someone who is fairly new to fieldwork and in the beginning stages of my own field experience, I really appreciated your words and the humanity of your post. And I completely understand the ‘retreat’ instinct. I’ve been making myself go out and find success when I do, but it is easy for me to stay in and think “but there’s so much I have to read! Notes to write! Things to do!”. I was worrying that I was somehow the only non-extroverted anthropologist, but I don’t think that’s it…I think ‘settling in’ makes more sense.

    As for interviews, I’m finding that there is so much variation in the degree to which it becomes an awkward exchange – which I believe (for me) has to do with how much the people you are interviewing grasp what it is you are doing and how much they trust your task. I have one key informant who is magnificent, and I feel like I’m talking to my own grandfather when I talk to him – he is very comfortable with the whole process. I have another who is not terribly forthcoming, and I sense a lot of mistrust from him – although he has agreed to work with me. Anyone have tips on how best to communicate what you’re doing? I know this is a beast and depends on your topic – I am interested in health, so perhaps my task is easier even to explain than others. Thoughts?

    I love moleskine, but I already filled up two so now I’m stuck with whatever I can buy at local shops.

  5. @Hannah:

    Thanks for the link! I’ll check it out. Safe Travels.


    “And often I wake up at night with ideas in my head, but them … I just try to memorize them…”

    I know what you mean about this. Sometimes ideas pop into your head at strange times, and not always the best times for writing things down. It’s not easy to try to keep them in your memory, but sometimes that’s all we have until we find our way to a notebook, scrap of paper, laptop, etc.


    Thanks for your comment. Glad to know there are others out there who are dealing with the whole “settling in” part of ethnography and fieldwork!

    “Anyone have tips on how best to communicate what you’re doing? I know this is a beast and depends on your topic – I am interested in health, so perhaps my task is easier even to explain than others. Thoughts?”

    Well, one thing I would say is that taking things slow and having more than one conversation about what you’re doing might help. It also might help to use a couple of concrete examples that will give people an idea of what you’re doing (eg specific examples of things you are looking for, or maybe specific examples of your methods). Just some ideas…

  6. Hey Ryan,

    I don’t know if I’m exactly wanting to answer directly to some questions you pose or if I’m simply sharing my own experience, and in that way trying to grasp a little better what it is to do fieldwork. You talk about material, methods and books and for me, for all that’s worth, that is surely a classic. I remember packing up and wondering which things I would need the most where I was going. I ended up packing up a DSLR camera, a full HD camera, a laptop, sound recording material, comprising of a TASCAM and microphones. You never know when the urge to go documentary comes by and so I organized myself to have my own private production set. I had done a documentary film before in the same field i was going to do fieldwork, but to be truthfull, then I had no institutional frame and no specific programme but filming, not the case on the following experience. As for books, I avoided anthropological stuff, ending up by choosing three titles, Tzevtan Todorov – The fear of barbarians, Naguib Mahfouz – The sons of Medina, and Lawrence Durrell’s – Alexandria Quartet, but, of course, in my laptop a whole library of all kinds of titles in PDF, anthropological, philosophical and africa related, as my field is the western african country of Senegal. I’m also addicted to books, and believe Sloterdijk when he says that reading and writing is like sending and receiving letters (see, Rules for the Human Zoo), hoping to hear and be heard. The continuity in theory and academic practice coming precisely on the ability of certain ideas to be communicated between the literate. I’m not discussing here the value of that statement tough.
    My fieldwork started only in my third stay in the field, after having been 2 months and 4 months in a village in the north of Senegal for different matters. My first stay resembled quite alot to what anthropologists write as their first encounters with the field. Estrangement and the feeling of beeing outside my natural environment overcame me. But you know, two months is not long, and it was soon over, albeit the intensity of the experience. The first experience was on the penniless side, no material, no preparation, no institutional framing, voluntourism kind of thing. The first act openened then to the second act, a year later, a documentary on the access to potable water, directed and produced on my own expenses with a friend. We were telling ourselves we could do it and we should insist that experience comes from practice, and waiting for funds is waiting for the never coming opportunity. We did it and went nowhere with it as could be expected. We learnt alot though, on all aspects. And again the field was resisting and recalling me. I finally enrolled in a PhD, skiping the Master degree, after having completed a degree in Anthropoogy in 2005. I had been 4 years out of the academic world, came up with a project based on the two previous experiences, comprising 6 months, and finally arrived for the approved project and my“fieldwork” in January 2011, almost six years later from the degree in Anthropology, and 4 years later from the first experience in Senegal. I had by then started to weave a network of contacts permitting me to stay easily in the country. When i finally came back I was returning to a new family and not just making “first contacts”. I was prepared then and had plenty of material i wouldn’t use. I have been in Senegal ever since, discounting for a month by the end of 2011 when i went back to my home country, Portugal.
    Fieldwork. As an outsider in the academy that ended up by achieving funding for a PhD project i didn’t stuff my head with methodology. I always kept on reading upon my own questions through academic material, my favourites were always philosophers. I felt i had to know myself and where i was coming from much more than imbue myself of otherness by reading loads of anthropological stuff. I realised that fieldwork had started long ago out of sheer need to make light of my previous experiences. I pondered on senegalese history, religions, traditions, and had started to understand local languages. I read on african academic issues. Little anthropology. The first seven months i did what i had done in my 2007 and 2008 experiences, write almost everyday, registering every little detail. Enregister becomes a way of life. I pondered on and on about perception, about misadjustement and cultural differences. Then, suddenly, because of personal issues, all registry came to an halt. Until this day, almost eight months after, register is halted. I’m still on the field. I actually live here. I married someone on the field.I started finally to understand many things i had only seen at a distance, because I was caught by the social relationships i had been studying.
    On this day, i write you from the field. On this day I’m still going through a whole experience of cultural change, not exactly ex-change i would say. There is no ex-change. In total i spent almost two years in Senegal, the “field”. But now the field is no longer field-work. My work, here, on my network of social relationships no one quite understands what it means. I don’t try to go through it much, when i need a testimony i try to register it. All other understandings are coming from the repetition of daily life, and the coming across with different realities, and reading. I read local romances. I read newspapers. I read weekly magazines. I follow internet media. I read local academic works. I watch local filmed “theathers” in wolof. But above all i accompany the lives of certain people as they go on.
    You posed a question that had quite an echo on me. “Pushing to work more because there’s this feeling that not enough work is beeing done”. I posed that question to myself and did what you did, “went out more and came back in, to a detached space”, but nowadays i see it a little differently. What is exactly going out for work in anthropology while on fieldwork? Does it mean go out and pose the questions that might have an echo on academia? Does it mean know better the object of your knowledge? Does it mean to learn processes and methodology to acquire information on a specific issue? Let me take a little time in this last question, as I’m in Senegal. To acquire information in Senegal is not always easy and people don’t go on just giving away what they know just because we ask them. We are in a society where “secrets” are a mode of life, people seem to have an axiomatical mistrust towards one another, which is actually something that can be perceived in the codified «shared values». From that mistrust comes deliberate manipulation. So, the means to acquire information aren’t at all straightforward. Sometimes you have to be “well placed” within a structure of precedent relationships to get to the person you want. More often as not, that means taggling along the right informant, or the with the person with the best social capital. Social capital opens doors and frames experience. In time you acquire your own social capital, and in my case, as i am married to someone on the field, I’m obliged and expected to accomplish certain local rituals that more often than not mean that I’m in situations simply to try to become someone here. Become someone on the field, i underline the idea. All that means the way of working is going to change. If on the one side i can just go wandering off in the bush and find a peasant with whom i can find a close tie and will be able to have him talk, on the other side these relationships become affected by a certain protocol, leaving little space for unbiased information. The more I practice it the more it becomes a form of relating. Daily notes wouldn’t add anything at this point.
    My fieldwork has been made, so far, of change, of periods. I see a gradual interiorization of the different cultural traits lived in Senegal. Things that were once shocking become things one doesn’t remark anymore. It’s a whole process of de-personalization and re-personalization. As for methodology every now and then it seems necessart to re-evaluate the way things are done. Foreseeing consequences and outcomes becomes easier. Choosing the right informants is, in what concerns my job, anticipating a certain social structure and what it might mean. Making the right choice is the first method for discarding useless work. Sometimes the most open people are not the best people to question, making it quite difficult to discern between the easiness of getting somewhere and the hardships of chasing some information in an inaccessible person.
    There is then the language. I had my share here of wondering about the best way to create a interview scenario. You are totally right in saying that the interview set is unnatural, and that’s exactly why a fixed set of questions seems not to be the right approach to it. There should be enough fluidity and openness to be able to go along new lines that come during an interview. Some people are not versed in what we would love them to be, they have other unnexpected things to say. But the language issue comes when the informant translating your questions doesn’t do it in the way you posed the question. I’ll give you an example. I was once, while interviewing a Peul village chief for my documentary, having the impression that the guy was deliberately trying to cut it out short. Turns out that in the middle of the interview he actually states his opinion on those people living in the sahelian drylands, that they are savages, have no manners and are ignorant. His translations reflected his way of seeing them, and the position from where he would ask the questions was also a reflexe of that. I was asking about prosaic things as an access to potable water and the way they went around the difficulties found, not exactly about religious beliefs or symbolical representations of gender roles, and the answers suited what I was looking for. The interpretation made on spot by the informant-translator is something else. Later on, nowadays, i understand wolof enough not to be caught on deliberate simplifications or mis-translations made by informants. There is no saying how much that is important. I don’t depend anymore of anyone to be able to conduct an interview. I can actually do the interview myself and then ask an accute translation later on, to someone i can trust that job to. By eliminating the interpreter, not just I can create a more intimate environment in the interview, but I also eliminate a certain bias introduced. In the case a wolof interpreter in an interview of a mistrustfull Peulh. The Peulh (Fulbe) stated that he would never say certain things in the face of the wolof, and that’s how bias can inadvertedly enter your interview.
    What is methodology then? I have quite a thing with the epistemological field. It has been a domain I insisted on since the early beginnings in the field of Anthropology. I owe it to my teachers in ISCTE-IUL, between 2001-2005, that critical approach. They always insisted on the unclear status of anthropology as “science”. Methodology is, for certain people, a requirement of the attribution of the status of “science”. Positivist minds think so. The debate is profound and never-ending. I would only like to separate methodology from methods. Methods are something quite different. Art can be a method of approach, as film, or photography. Writing notes is also between the “approved” set, as are semi-structured interviews and “focus groups”. But that being said it will always be the way the things are put in place that counts. The relation to each interviewee is singular, at least in my experience.
    “Getting out”, “evading”, “breathing”, “turning off”, “cutting the flow”, are all more than necessary for the sane state of mind of an anthropologist in the field. One easily starts loosing it if we don’t listen to something talking with our written thoughts. One can, on the contrary, get too far away from the field if one just keeps on evading, through books, emails or chats with friends. Maybe simply finding new ways of letting out pressure with people from the field is also a good approach. Creating relationships that are not directly connected to the work, otherwise the anthropological syndroma installs itself and everything becomes work, even the smallest talk, or the smallest thought. If it’s not object information it’s reflexive wanderings. I for myself use photography and film as an escape because i enter a different mode of thought by doing both those activities. Another of my escapes is farming, i created a homegarden in the house I inhabited, which is now taken care by my friend that took me in and its family. Curiously enough this parallel activity ended up to have a much bigger echo on all people that now visit a small 100m2 garden filled with banana trees, mangos, and papayas. It is actually an idea being taken seriously by other local people. An “escape” becomes a constructive project, proving that we never know too much about the outcome of your presence in the field. I work on ICT technologies, by the way.

    Hope that i wasn’t too exhaustive. Just contributing.

    Ricardo Falcão

Comments are closed.