I don’t think I like my fieldwork site

What if we don’t like our fieldwork site? I’m not only talking about “failed research” or the problems of doing fieldwork discussed by Amy Pollard.  Her study of graduate students doing their first research projects revealed that many felt lonely, fearful, frustrated, depressed, trapped, and paranoid. I have in mind an additional issue: I don’t like this place. Is it possible to untangle the fieldsite from the fieldwork and the fieldworker? Why is it a taboo topic for anthropologists to discuss?

My research trips to Moscow some years ago were successful. I was there as part of a large, multi-member project on second language acquisition by American university students during study abroad. I liked the research carried out on two solo trips in 1990 and 1991. But I never wanted to go back a third time, or ever again. It was not simpatico. I enjoyed meeting with Russian people but did not appreciate the actual physical location–the food, the smell of the air, the toilets, and the other mechanics of being there.

Unlike the American students learning Russian who were the focus of the study, I was never bothered by pesky Soviet era fartsovshchiki, black marketers who hounded foreigners for their jeans, cigarettes, and watches. I was not targeted as a foreigner except by the KGB agents assigned to trail me. This was most likely due to my sensible shoes and a shabby Columbo-like raincoat. The young university students studying Russian during a year abroad could never understand why some people instantly knew they were Americans and immediately began stalking them. Perhaps it was their clean, color-coordinated clothes? There was also the way they walked around the streets with big smiles on the faces (from a Russian perspective, only Americans and the cognitively impaired do that). I was left alone and never had any bad experiences. Russian people were kind and had a wicked sense of humor I found very appealing. Yet I lack any feelings of positive nostalgia or longing for the place. This contrasts with my feelings of affection for Japan, where I always look forward to returning for research.



12 thoughts on “I don’t think I like my fieldwork site

  1. For all of the reasons you mention, I was so glad not to have actually made the trip! It was a good project though and I am proud to have been a member of the team.

  2. @Livia I learned so much from working with top scholars like you. And sadly with the untimely death of the wonderful Ralph Ginsberg, we lost many interesting publications that were in progress as well.

  3. Is it taboo? I’ve met a number of aid workers or corporate people who don’t like where they work. Nothing necessarily shameful in that.

    In Tristes Tropiques Lévis-Strauss starts his book saying how horrible fieldwork is (and his disdain for those travelers who think otherwise).

  4. @Carlos I was wondering how important it is that we like our field sites. Does the taboo have something to do with the idea of objectivity in research, and the scandal that rocked the discipline when Malinowski’s diaries were published? I don’t especially enjoy areas of my field site (multi-sited) since I’m dealing with issues of massive environmental destruction, pollution, and violence, but I recognize the importance of doing work there. My commitment to my issue overrides any personal discomfort I feel.

  5. @ Carlos Yes, corporate workers often hate their jobs. But even quitting an overseas assignment is not really the same as quitting a research site, is it?

  6. Yes perhaps. I have no research experience sadly. Currently abroad working for an NGO though. Can’t say I’d come here for vacation.

  7. @Tristan Right, we are able to do research in nasty places because we feel a sense of commitment to the issues and the people we study. The fieldwork is important, even if the fieldsites are not great locations. But I think Malinowski’s diaries were a somewhat different issue –they denigrated the people he studied, aside from any issues relating to the place.

  8. The complaint I hear most often is about food, but I think pollution is something that we should talk more about. I know someone who spent a year and a half in Beijing and got asthma as a result. I think Beijing cleaned up a bit for the Olympics, but there are many industrial cities in the world which are much worse as far as pollution is concerned. I love visiting our friends in Ahmedabad, India, and the air there is much better when I first started going, but I still get headaches and a sore throat whenever I’m there for more than a few days.

    On the one hand I would like to protect my graduate students from going somewhere that might damage their health (and the health of their family members!), but at the same time I feel we have an anthropological commitment to go to such places. As neoliberalism shifts the burden of pollution more and more onto some of the world’s poorest, this issue will only get worse…

  9. Thanks for raising the issue, Laura! I was thinking about quality of life during fieldwork while walking around (coincidentally enough!) Moscow the other day. The issues here seem to have changed a lot in twenty years–I think I look pretty American (casual dress, bright colors, sneakers instead of stilettos, smiling a lot at nothing in particular) and people almost always assume I’m Russian until I make a language mistake. What does worry me are the health and lifestyle issues: poor air quality from traffic, long commute times, exposure to secondhand smoke just about everywhere.

    It’s not enough that I’d consider changing my site or not doing fieldwork at all, and on the whole I’ve gotten to like Moscow quite a lot. In a way the discomfort is part of the research–a lot of Muscovites also express concern about the air quality and time spent commuting. But it is the kind of thing we don’t ever talk about as grad students preparing for research. It seems obvious that a person’s feeling about simply living in the place have some effect on the research and the person’s ability to complete it.

  10. But it is the kind of thing we don’t ever talk about as grad students preparing for research.

    Really? I’ve had lots of discussions on the subject. I suppose it depends on the nature of the fieldsite, but a lot of researchers and students that I’ve met have expressed concern about their quality of life. Someone I know had malaria repeatedly over the course of eighteen months and lived on a diet of boiled rice and papaya leaves (unless there was a feast at which animals were slaughtered). She still didn’t hate the site, by the way. But her quality of life was severely impacted.

    I suspect the rise of doing fieldwork in the developed world is related to the desire to avoid this kind of painful experience (at least partly – obviously the nature of research questions has changed as well). So even if it’s not talked about much, it seems to me to have had an effect on ethnography as a whole.

  11. Thanks for starting a discussion on this Laura! I think that it is important to consider the impact one’s feelings on the field site itself may have on the research. Personally, I just finished working in a jail as part of my dissertation research, and I am overjoyed at not having to go into the space again. Like you, I liked my participants and got along well with them, but the space itself made me cringe whenever I entered it. It is unpleasant at just about every sensory level–the curious smell, the echos of doors slamming, the lack of air flow. Of course, in my case these poor conditions are relevant to my participants as well, and will play some role in my analysis. But, I cannot help but feel that my strong dislike of the environment shaped my interactions and observations in ways that may be hard to recognize. I think conversations like these are a good place to start making those connections!

  12. Talking to anthropologists of all stripes over the last thirty years I haven’t found many people who selected their research sites very rationally or dispassionately. Many people have interesting “origin stories” that relate to serendipitous events and encounters that went into the decision. The first time I visited Japan in 1972, a trip that led me away from California archeology to Asian studies, many households and businesses did not have flushing toilets, and there was a very distinctive smell that I will never forget. I’m glad it’s rarely present these days, but ultimately I would say my choice of Japan as a research site was purely an emotional one.

Comments are closed.