Passing the 50 yard line of fieldwork

In the beginning, there was all the time in the world.  In the beginning, there were seemingly endless days, weeks, months, and minutes to get this “fieldwork” thing done.  In the beginning, a year seemed like some massive field of Ansel Adams-esque black and white sand dunes that stretched out across a desert landscape with broad horizons unencumbered by…

This is taking too long.

Look, when it comes to my fieldwork, I am running out of time.  To cut to the chase: once I had lots, now I have much less.  If my time was a jar of change, I would start thinking about rolling up the nickels and dimes.  You know what I mean?  I am not thinking about pennies just yet, but those wonderful quarters are gone, my friends.  So things are not frantic or desperate, but it’s time to start coveting what’s left.  The other day it really struck me: several months have passed by, and I am on the downward slide of my being-out-there-in-the-world phase of my dissertation research.  Fast.  Times.

Ya, time flies and all that stuff.  And then you start looking at the number of interviews, meetings, transcriptions, and thousands of other tasks that lay ahead…and you freak out a little.  At least, I do. 

I suppose this is how things work.  Time seems extravagantly cushy when you have 11 months ahead of you to get an ethnographic field project done.  It all looks good on paper.  And then your time gets eaten up by really boring, everyday stuff like eating, changing flat tires, and looking for some little store where you can buy that essential thing you need.  And when you have a no-show for an interview early on during fieldwork, it’s no big deal.  Whatever, you say to yourself, I’ll just go back tomorrow, or next week, or next month.  But there comes a day when the luxuries of time kinda run out like some mega jar of peanut butter that seemed like it would last forever.  You find yourself relishing time, appreciating it just a bit more, and you start to look for ways to scrape just a little more of it from the containers that encompass daily life.  In the end, things might get frantic and you may end up resorting to unusual methods to find any residue of time that you can.

Yes, that was an extended time/peanut butter analogy.  I do what I can.

Here’s the update: I have about four months left for my fieldwork, piles of notes, more information than I could possible use, and still a good number of work ahead when it comes to getting interviews done.  I also have a lot of transcribing to do, and I have to reassess my goals for the last few months to determine what really can and cannot be done with my remaining time.  It’s all a process–one of continual revision and rethinking…at least for me.  The good news is that it has gotten a lot easier in recent months when it comes to interviews–the first few months were mostly about meeting people, being there, all that.  But now people know me, they know what I am doing, and this makes getting interviews a lot easier.  So what I see ahead of me is a big push for the last few months, and time management is more critical than ever.

So, for those of you who are doing fieldwork, have you hit the half-way point yet?  What happened?  Did you freak out or keep on trucking?  How did you adjust, rethink your project, or keep pushing forward?  What did you learn?  For those of you who look back fondly at the days of yore when you were doing fieldwork, do you remember passing the 50 yard line of fieldwork?  Any lessons, advice, or fumbles you’d like to share?

All in all, I’d say that I am somewhere between the 35 and the 40.  The game is going well enough.  It’s not a landslide victory, so I need to play it smart all the way down to the last seconds.  I definitely need to have another close look at the playbook as the last third of this thing winds down.

Wish me luck.



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.