Being there, in the field, with and without internet

Another update from the trenches of fieldwork.  This one is brought to you by the sweet, streaming, wireless connection of an internet cafe that’s about 45 minutes from my fieldsite.  It’s the bloggers version of an oasis to find these sorts of places, especially when there’s a breakfast special that includes coffee with the juevos rancheros.

First of all, I’ll admit that I was pretty spoiled during the first few months of fieldwork because I had WIRELESS INTERNET access anytime I wanted.  That’s right, a wireless connection right in my room.  Madness, I know.  This was definitely not the case when I was here in 2009 and 2010 doing prelim work for my dissertation.  I had no problems with my fantastic and luxurious internet situation…until it evaporated like spilled gasoline.


For the last month the internet has once again become a rare, fleeting occurrence that is only attainable (it seems) when the wind blows in the right direction.  You can’t always get what you want.  The funny thing is that once something like the internet comes into a place, certain technologically-skilled folks (like the local satellite internet tech) become high demand individuals–and almost impossible to find.  The internet is wonderful, amazing, and very useful…until it breaks and there’s nobody to fix it.  So anyway, my extended vacation from Savage Minds has a little something to do with the sudden loss of signal syndrome (SLSS)…but the truth is that this might not be a bad thing considering the fact that I am in the middle of fieldwork.

Still, having internet for fieldwork can be really beneficial, especially in my case.  Why?  Because many of the residents of this area use the internet to communicate with one another instead of telephones (and sometimes instead of walking over and tapping on a neighbor’s door)*.  So it helps to be connected into this network in order to keep a certain level of communication going.  It also helps to have internet when I need to try to set up meetings in places that are 1-2 hour drives away, since there’ nothing worse than making a long, dusty drive to find out that the official you wanted to talk with is away for two weeks on vacation.

At the same time, internet access in the middle of fieldwork can be a time-sucking curse (I’m sure many of you know what I mean).  In the old days I think a lot of cultural anthropologists used to wile away the hours and fieldwork anxieties by reading massive books.  This is still pretty common.  But what about now?  Are future generations of anthropologists going to deal with culture and fieldwork shock by playing solitaire or Angry Birds?

There are lots of conversations out there about how the internet is going to affect fieldwork.  In my case, it’s both a positive and a very negative thing all at once.  It’s useful to have, just like anywhere, but it’s also not really a good idea to depend upon the internet.  Why?  Because when it isn’t there, and your research methods are counting on it to make connections, then what?  Well, that’s where flexibility comes into the picture.  If there’s one thing that we all need in fieldwork, it’s the ability to adjust what we’re doing to the situation at hand.

I’ll go ahead and admit that I may have been counting a little too much on having internet access to get in touch with certain people in the communities where I am working.  I planned on using it as one of my recruitment tool, mostly after I learned how important it was for many community members down here and how often they use it.  And when the net is on and accessible, it works great for getting in touch with people, setting up meetings, and even arranging times to meet for interviews.  But when it goes out, it’s like getting stuck on top of some massive roller coaster…the whole system got you this far, but now you’re stuck.  Now what?  Well, this isn’t exactly a new problem in anthropology.  Veronica, my wife, who is also a cultural anthropology grad student, always reminds me about the fact that old Bronislaw Malinowski used a pretty simple yet effective anthropological method when he needed to learn what was going on: he went for walks.

He went for lots of walks.

So there you have it.  If your research design counts upon having access to high-speed (or even excruciatingly slow speed) internet, here’s my advice: don’t count on it.  This is not just advice for field sites in places where the internet is a relatively new luxury.  This applies everywhere: haven’t you ever experienced a day or two when the net goes down at your university of office and the whole world seems to freeze and nobody knows what do to?  Ya, it’s the same thing…kinda like when the power goes out and then everyone realizes that maybe having candles, water, and flashlights would be a good idea.  So, the lesson of the story (and I am learning this myself) is to find the fieldwork version of candles and flashlights for when the communicative power known as the internet flickers into nothingness.  Two feet, motivation, and a decent little notebook can still go a long way in the 21st century.**

So, there you have it: keep on walking, people.

Over and out.  I’ll write when I can.


*In fact, where I am working, there are many people who PREFER to be contacted via email, since that’s what they use for all kinds of social planning.  So, another issue here is that we might have to face the fact that our preferred methods of meeting and recruiting interview participants might not always be available, so we have to adjust accordingly.

** Repeat this mantra as necessary if you are an intractable online junkie/fieldworker.


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.

2 thoughts on “Being there, in the field, with and without internet

  1. At my field site, internet is patchy. There are cafes in the neighborhood, but they’re not very reliable. The family I live with does have a dial-up connection that I use when I really need it, but then everybody likes to stand around and watch me type (it never gets old for them, somehow). The electricity’s usually out for at least a few hours a day, so I sometimes find myself racing to finish an e-mail and press “send” before the scheduled cut-off. (Hanging out with people during the black-outs is actually a great way to have conversations.)

    I do take a Kindle to the field, loaded with classic novels and some works of anthropology. And I take a headlamp/flashlight to read by. It’s a great sanity-saver for me. I do have so much more time to read books when I’m not whiling away hours on the internet.

  2. I’ve just gotten started on my dissertation fieldwork in Moscow, and I’ve actually been surprised at how essential the internet has been for my research. Not just for learning about events and communicating/setting up meetings with different groups, but for interacting with the communities themselves. People meet in person to discuss events and ideas that went viral on YouTube, their Facebook groups are constantly active with discussions about strategies and events, announcements go out on Twitter. I don’t think I could avoid using the internet if I wanted to. If there ever was a distinction between “virtual” or “digital” ethnography and any other kind, it’s already long gone, at least in studying some communities. We have to go where the people are, right?

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