Fieldwork then and now: from graduate student to professor

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Dr. Weaver interviews a woman whose garden is the only consistent source of fresh vegetables for purchase in the Brazilian study community.

I just returned from two fieldwork trips: one to India for 6 weeks, and the other to Brazil for 4. The purpose of the first one was to scout new sites for my ongoing work on women’s mental health in India, the country where I did my doctoral research. The second was to continue my NSF-funded research project on food insecurity and mental health in rural Brazil.

More so than almost ever before, these two trips brought to the forefront the challenges of maintaining an active international research program as a young faculty member, and I want to talk about that in this post.

First of all, here’s an obvious truth that nobody ever told me: fieldwork changes once you’re out of graduate school. In the department where I studied, a year of fieldwork was the unstated minimum for anyone doing research with ethnographic components, and almost all of this work was international; those who stayed longer got extra hard-core points. Because this was simply the way things were done, it never occurred to me that this was the exception–rather than the rule–to most fieldwork experiences for anthropologists in academic positions. Faculty simply don’t get that time very often: most sabbaticals are only a semester, and a full year only comes about if you receive an external fellowship, are willing to go with half-pay, or something similar. Also, sabbaticals are increasingly few and far between; in my current department, I will get my first sabbatical after receiving tenure. That’s six years, typically. During my doctoral fieldwork, I was fortunate to have few other major life responsibilities, and no other professional ones. By contrast, faculty anthropologists doing fieldwork are often expected to supervise online courses, prep syllabi, write the book or paper about the last major fieldwork project…the list goes on. I didn’t know any of this as a graduate student, however.

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A woman carries a pot of freshly-caught swordfish to market in Southwestern India.

In so many ways that I only now realize, fieldwork in graduate school is a golden period. Not “golden” in the sense that it is always happy and wonderful, but golden in the sense that it was a one-time deal.

So, changes have come about, and many of these I believe are relevant for anthropologists at any stage. The obvious first change I’ve made in my approach to fieldwork is to stop judging an anthropologist’s mettle based solely on the length of time they have spent in the field. Ethnographers fetishize extended time periods. Just think of Malinowski, out there stuck in the Trobriands, a political exile for years on end–his experience is the model on which we’ve judged the acceptability of our fieldwork for a century. Now, this is not without reason; immersion is indispensible for good ethnographic fieldwork and must be done at some point, but generally academic employment isn’t set up for that. Increasingly, neither are the funding structures on which we rely to pay for this research.

I’ve come to realize, rather, how incredibly much can get done in six weeks, or even three weeks, if you know the right questions to ask. So much of fieldwork is figuring out what to ask, to whom, and when. If you are returning for a short time to a place you already know, it goes much faster. Thank goodness for that.

This depends, of course, on having already spent extended time in a place so that one has the necessary familiarity. “Parachute ethnography,” as it is sometimes rather pejoratively called, can be highly problematic, and this is not what I am advocating. Yet at the same time, I find myself pulled to make more happen in shorter periods of time, and figuring how to do that without losing authenticity is an ongoing challenge. So perhaps my point is that returning to a former field site as a junior faculty member can be highly rewarding and extremely productive, even if time allows for only a few weeks of work. If one were to go to a brand new field site for only a few weeks of work, things might look very different, but many anthropologists make this work. I’m not sure how yet, to be honest. Stay tuned.

A second change I’ve made is to prioritize regular contact with friends and acquaintances in my research sites during the 9 months when I am teaching in the US. This is true both for older field sites and for the brand-new ones I just began developing in India. Social media has been great for this. Now, I can get on Facebook and tell Arlete that I will be coming back to Brazil for 3 weeks in June, and can she work with me again as a research assistant? This smoothes the entry, too. I remember spending weeks–perhaps months–setting up this stuff as a graduate student. Now, it is much easier for me to hit the ground running when I arrive in India or Brazil. And again, this is true even for newer field sites, and exploiting that to its full potential is, I think, key to getting the most out of short fieldwork periods.

A third change I’ve made is to develop research projects that proceed in discrete phases and span multiple years. A good example is my current project in Brazil, Food Insecurity and Mental Health in Global Perspective, a 3-year, 3-site study I am conducting with colleagues Craig Hadley and Bonnie Kaiser (Craig works in Ethiopia, and Bonnie in Haiti). Phase 1 was dedicated to freelisting and ethnography only. Phase 2 is for ranking and rating exercises on freelist items plus participant-observation surrounding food buying and preparation, and Phase 3 will consist of questionnaires using instruments developed in the first two phases, biomarkers, and anthropometrics. Each of these can be done in a summer, especially with the help of graduate students. (Speaking of, I am currently seeking a new Master’s or Doctoral student to assist with this project in summer 2017. Read more about this here.)

And this brings me to the fourth change: increased collaboration. I wanted to do a cross-cultural comparative study with multiple phases of instrument development and mixed methods. Don’t have time to spend a full year in each of 3 countries? No problem! Team up with colleagues who can each work in one country, then split the work into short phases. This way, each person ends up with a manageable chunk of work in a single country to do each summer. Fortunately for me, biocultural work is especially well suited to this phase-based work because it often involves methods that build on one another.

Fifth and finally, I have learned tricks that help me capture more data from shorter periods of time. Good, deep ethnography takes time and investment, no question, and you have to give that time at some point. But there is so much that goes on in the everyday interactions of fieldwork that rarely made it into my fieldnotes when I was a graduate student because I was so singularly focused on what I imagined to be Ethnographic Experiences. At some point in my early research, however, I started voice-recording interviews where I was doing anthropometrics, blood tests, and questionnaires. So much valuable material has come out of those recordings. I didn’t expect this; these seemed to me like the most cut-and-dried structured interviews one could have, not those real Ethnographic Experiences. Yet, when I began transcribing them, people’s side comments about the questions I was asking added up to rich qualitative material. Now I always voice record interviews, no matter whether they are “ethnographic” (i.e. unstructured or semi-structured), or whether they are structured interviews organized around pilesorts, freelists, questionnaires, or other exercises. It creates a lot of work after the return from the field, but these recordings allow me to pick up on extra data that I would otherwise miss. They help me get the most out of those short fieldwork periods.

Despite the constraints of short fieldwork periods, I think I am a happier fieldworker now than I was in graduate school. It is not an easy thing to pick up and leave one’s life for a year (or more). Increasingly, work by anthropologists about anthropologists is documenting that fieldwork can be particularly hard on mental health (see, for instance, Rebecca Lester’s and Eileen Anderson-Fye’s presentations at 2015’s AAA meeting). For me, the hardest part about long-term fieldwork was missing the people and the rhythms of my everyday life. Short periods of fieldwork like those I now have to do are in some ways positive because they allow me to maintain that balance more effectively. It’s more feasible to bring my children on shorter trips. I won’t have to be out of contact for as long with my aging parents when I am away on shorter trips. I can–and indeed am expected to–keep working on other projects during fieldwork. All of this adds up to fieldwork becoming a part of everyday life, part of the yearly rhythm of my and my family’s existence. This to me is what being a career anthropologist is all about.

Lesley Jo Weaver (PhD/MPH, Emory) is an Assistant Professor in the Biocultural Medical program and an affiliated faculty member in UA’s Asian Studies program. She studies health and illness in India and rural northern Brazil.

Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.

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