Fieldwork: Be prepared for the unexpected

By: Pooja Patel

For aspiring anthropologists, fieldwork is described as the “rite of passage” where the young anthropologist is finally able to fly out of the academic nest and enter the field site. For first timers, this is an emotional journey filled with excitement, nervousness, fear, and nostalgia. As a graduate student, I too got an opportunity to experience this “rite of passage” and this blog will outline some of my own experiences as a researcher.

I did my Masters research in India, and when I reflect on my work and experience as a researcher I found that it was filled with amazing memories and many first-hand experiences. Prior to officially beginning my fieldwork I had mixed emotions. I was excited and over joyed about re-visiting India because I felt I was prepared. I was familiar with the country, able to speak the local language, able to move around the field site independently, and most importantly I was familiar with the social and cultural norms. I had only one concern: is two months of fieldwork enough? Will I be able to collect enough data to adequately analyze and successfully complete my thesis? These were my initial concerns prior to my departure. When I had arrived at my field site, the excitement was gradually disappearing and fear and anxiousness were settling in.

When I had arrived at my field site I had received a warm welcome but being far away from home and its familiarities was making me nervous. To make it worse my initial research had to change because continuing with my original idea was not feasible, therefore within a week I had to alter my research topic, and design. This was the most stressful time of my experience, but throughout this period I was in constant contact with my supervisor who helped ease some of my concerns. Therefore, my advice to anyone doing fieldwork (especially internationally) is to remain in constant contact with your supervisor (if possible), particularly when unexpected issues arise. When you are far away from home, and unsure of what should be done, or are frustrated with what you should do when things are derailing, an email to your supervisor can change your perception. It is important you remember that your supervisor has the experience and knowledge of how to handle all kinds of issues one can face during fieldwork, and tapping into their experience and asking for advice will only make you a better researcher. I learned this while I was at my field site, unsure of my next move. I wrote an email to my supervisor who helped me out with my problem, and I was successfully able to complete my fieldwork.

After I successfully completed my fieldwork and returned home I felt nostalgic about my field site. A soon as I landed in Toronto, I started to miss my field site, the people I met, and the routine I had while I was there. Though this is not a major fieldwork issue, it is normal to feel nostalgic and emotional about leaving the field site. Although I spent only two months at my field site, I had formed great friendships with everyone I had met there. When I was far away from home it was the people I met who made me feel at home and made my experience memorable. Now as I reflect on my experience, if I were to give one piece of advice to anyone doing field work for the first time it is: enjoy the ride. Remember that unexpected events may arise but don’t panic, try to communicate the issues with your supervisor. Be prepared for the unexpected because sometimes things do not go as planned. So learn and prepare yourself to adapt to situations as they change. Being able to adapt to situations is what makes a great researcher. Remember that any data you collect can be useful, therefore always try to look beyond your research participants and have informal conversations with people outside your topic area, because you never know what information could be revealed. Hence, when doing fieldwork always keep your eyes and ears open because you may never know what information you might get access to.

Pooja Patel is a recent graduate of the International Development Studies and Public Issues Anthropology Master’s program at the University of Guelph.

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One thought on “Fieldwork: Be prepared for the unexpected

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Pooja! It sounds like a “roller-coaster” ride when you have to do all the data collection, and also be present as a human being in the experience: getting to know people, and making new connections. Perhaps one can witness some theories execute in practice. I have always pictured field work – & of course depending on the area of study – to be a stretching zone for experiential learning. You know.. beyond the classroom & the textbooks. I am sure there was a lot to learn way more than what could be written in MRP/thesis!

    Liked by 1 person

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