Intense Fieldwork

By: Amy Kipp

This week the University of Guelph had the privilege of having Dr. Homa Hoodfar visiting our campus and sharing with us many insights into her experiences. Last summer, Dr. Hoodfar was imprisoned in Iran for several months with the charge of “dabbling in feminism, and security issues.” She presented a fascinating lecture in which she discussed her experiences as a prisoner in Iran, as well as her thoughts on the importance of academic freedom. There are many important issues that Dr. Hoodfar talked about, but for the purpose of this blog I want to focus on what she said regarding fieldwork.

Dr. Hoodfar explained that one of the things that got her through her time in prison was turning the experience into fieldwork, she laughed and said “intense field!” She recounted her experience saying that each day she would scribble notes with her toothbrush into the wall in order to remember the various aspects of her interrogation. She also spoke with her fellow cellmates about their experiences in prison. Dr. Hoodfar told us that during her interrogation, her captors had argued that she was in the country researching without a permit. Again, she laughed and said that as an anthropologist, unless she was walking around with her eyes closed she was always researching!

During our round table conversation with Dr. Hoodfar the day after her public lecture, she spoke more extensively about field work. She explained its importance, stating “when you go into the field you may have questions, but when you get there you might realize that those aren’t the right questions to be asking.” Furthermore, she explained that there is often difference between what people say and what people do… and what people do might in reality be more telling.

Dr. Hoodfar’s talk got me thinking about many aspects of fieldwork. As someone with an inherently inquisitive personality, I completely understand Dr. Hoodfar’s sentiment that unless my eyes are closed as I go throughout my day, I am continually researching… continually in “the field.” I am constantly observing interactions between people, and – as a geographer – between people and their environments.

After the Dr. Hoodfar roundtable talk, a fellow student raised some important questions to me, specifically about the idea of “field work” or the “field” (in relation to this blog) and what the term really means? Can we, or should we conceptualize something as the “field” or is it better to think of the places where we research as someone else’s home? Does thinking about the places we conduct research in as the “field” create boundaries between researchers and participants that do not/should not exist?
Thanks to the insightful comments of both Dr. Hoodfar and this fellow IDEV student, I have been thinking more and more about what it means to conduct “fieldwork” and how we as researchers should think about the sites we study. I would be incredibly interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this issue as it’s something that I have only recently begun to grapple with. I also pose my own question to international development graduate students: as researchers can we ever truly separate our everyday environments from the “field”?
Amy Kipp is a current Master’s Student in the International Development Studies and Geography Department at the University of Guelph and is on the editorial team of “Fieldnotes”.

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