By Miriam van den Berg & Tamar Oderwald
This article is also available to read in our ebook "Ethnographic Fieldwork: An anthropology student's toolkit". Click here to download.
As an anthropologist, there is nothing you’ll do more than reflect on the things you’ve seen, and experienced, or what you’ve yet to do with your research. You’ll write your field notes about what you’ve seen, including how these experiences made you feel. You’ll lead interviews, while also negotiating your own preconceived ideas. You are the research instrument; you’ll process all of the data and, in the end, you’ll write the results. Reflection helps you understand and process your own actions. There are a few different ways in which you can carry out that reflection. Reflection is mainly just for yourself, so there’s no pressure on how you go about it. You might be asked to write a reflection in fieldwork assignments, but we suggest that you reflect on your actions and emotions a lot more often than just when it’s necessary. It’s helpful, and also interesting to look back on later.
Who are you?
Before you even go on fieldwork, it is crucial to examine who you are, as this has a considerable influence on your research. Your personal characteristics will determine with whom you might get into contact, how you might see certain situations, what you are and are not comfortable with, what you think of the things people say, etc. As mentioned above: you are the research instrument. Whilst we believe that this is one of the best things about anthropology, it also means that you will have to embrace (self-)reflection. In order to produce research results that other people can take something away from, it is important to keep in mind all the different factors that influence your results. Reflecting on who you are and what the consequences of this can be during your fieldwork before you go ensures that you are mindful of the advantages and obstacles that you’ll encounter. For example, I (Miriam) was unable to attend certain workshops during my fieldwork, as they were safe spaces for Indigenous people only. So, I had to find alternative ways to speak to workshop leaders and attendees.
During your fieldwork, you’ll get to know yourself better, and reflect on the things you face, your feelings, and your actions. It is a non-negotiable and unavoidable part of being an anthropologist, and whilst it might not always be your favorite activity, there are lots of ways to navigate all of the self-reflection you’ll do. It is really beneficial to your research and your growth as an anthropologist and person. So find what works for you and embrace all of the self-reflection.
Whilst you’re writing all of your field notes, it’s easy to add parts on self-reflection. I (Miriam) used to write a few small sentences or words in my field notes. If one of my participants had said something interesting, I underlined it for example, and added ‘check this out!’ next to it. Or when something shocked me, I’d write that next to it (often as ‘what the fuck???’). My thoughts on the topics were there in my head when I’d received the information, so I just wrote them down next to the info right away.
When my research wasn’t going too well, my self-reflection sections stood on their own a bit more. I’d write about the work that I had done, why I thought it would or wouldn’t work, and how that made me feel. Especially writing about my feelings helped me rationalize them and think through my actions. Because writing things down takes longer than actually thinking the thoughts, it forces you to slow down and carefully think through every step. I would sometimes lose patience whilst writing because my brain was going too fast. In case that happens: just write down a few words and then connect the dots with arrows. Your self-reflection is for yourself, so it’s okay if it’s not written out fully for other people to understand.
For self-reflection, I (Tamar) honestly prefer speaking over writing. I blame my short attention span. Spending an hour to write a few pages in my journal, knowing I could say much more in a 15-minute video diary entry, just seemed like a lot of effort for quite little reward. As a bonus, speaking allows for all of my streams of consciousness to be recorded as well, which would normally be edited out, so to speak, when writing. So, for my master’s research, I decided to dabble in making short reflective videos throughout the (almost) entire process, starting during the preparation-phase. In every (bi)weekly entry, I would discuss what I had been doing since the last video, what hurdles had crossed my path, how I handled them or how I thought I should handle them, interesting data I’ve collected, and other progressions, good or bad, of the research. If I was having a bad day, I’d talk through it. If I felt joyous and excited, I’d explicitly express that, too. Though I had no clear structure or clear talking points, these seemed to be topics that came up often.
I asked myself a lot of “why”-questions in these videos. “Why does this piece of information interest me?” “Why would it be interesting for my research?” “Why did this prompt in the interview work so well?” “Why did this method not work?” And then, a lot of “how”-questions. “How does this information relate to what I’ve learned so far?” “How do I ensure I can learn more about it?” “How should I (re)structure my interviews?” “How do I adapt my research methods?” At first, it felt a bit silly to articulate these questions out loud - as if I was having a Socratic conversation with myself. But that’s essentially what it is. This is the place to be explicit, and having these narrowed questions to answer made it much easier to contemplate on the progress of my research. Even if it feels alien, I encourage you to try this method. You’ll notice that you ease into it quickly.
Conversations with your peers and supervisor
Self-reflection doesn’t have to be done alone. As we have mentioned in part two of this series, it might be helpful to talk about some of the issues you’re facing, or fun to talk about the amazing things you’re experiencing with a friend, family member, peers and/or your supervisor. Especially regarding ethical dilemmas you’re encountering, it could be very beneficial to talk to other people who are able to see the situation in a new or different light than you. You’re just one person, maybe with a fieldwork partner, and you’ll likely get stuck in a bit of a rabbit hole if you’ve been thinking about something for a while. Other people can ensure you don’t lose sight of the big picture. For me (Miriam) it was also really helpful to call Tamar so often that she basically knew about everything I was doing. It was kind of like talking in a video diary, but then to another person who had good advice and asked thoughtful questions. Make use of the good connections you have and don’t be afraid to ask for an outside opinion!
It is often advised to have a separate notebook or place to serve as your diary, away from your field notes. As mentioned before, though, it’s also very much possible to have just one notebook in which your data and your diary entries coexist or even merge together. We’ve found that to happen quite naturally as time goes on. However, a more separated space for your diary might encourage you to also focus on your mental state and your personal development, rather than just your interpretation of the data you’ve collected. In our experience, both topics are equally important to dwell on.
Reflection can also take place when you’re not directly interacting with the field. Oftentimes, it’s a bit easier to reflect on everything that’s happening when you’re not in the thick of it. Take a couple of minutes at the end of each day to check in with yourself and reflect on how you’re feeling. We keep saying it, but your safety and mental well-being are of the utmost importance. Taking a step back at the end of each day, or on a regular basis, will help you keep an eye on your mental state and examine your feeling of safety and comfort. Whether you do that in a separate journal or digital document, in between your field notes, or through other mediums, we encourage you to continuously express and reflect on how you’re feeling, both as an anthropologist and as a person.
What about you?
What do you wish you had known about ethnographic fieldwork before embarking on that journey? Leave us a comment below and share your experiences with fellow students! We always appreciate your insights and stories.
In our next segment (to be published on 1 November), we’re getting open and honest about money. How expensive can it be to conduct ethnographic fieldwork? Stay tuned for the final article in this series!