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.
For an anthropology student, fieldwork is arguably the most anticipated part of the curriculum. It’s equally exciting and scary, especially if it’s your first time conducting ethnographic research. At SCAJ we wholeheartedly believe that students can learn tremendously from each other’s experiences. We thus thought this was the perfect platform to share this practical guide to fieldwork. This article marks the start of a six-part series where we (Miriam and Tamar) go over some of the things we wish we knew before doing ethnographic research. We have compiled everything that we have learned during our experiences into this practical guide, so that the next generation of anthropology students can hopefully learn from our trials, errors, and successes!
You can expect to receive a segment of this series every week on Fieldnotes. And - perhaps even more exciting - at the end of these six weeks, we’ll release an e-book combining these articles with an additional eight (yes, eight!) chapters to add to your repertoire of preparational knowledge.
We’re starting at the beginning. Or rather, before the beginning. Because preparing for fieldwork is perhaps just as important as actually collecting data.
For context: Miriam conducted her bachelor’s research in Melbourne, Australia between February and April of 2023, without a fieldwork partner. Tamar has done fieldwork twice: Once for her bachelor’s between February and April of 2020 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, with a fieldwork partner. And once for her master’s between June and September of 2022 in Ottawa, Canada, without a fieldwork partner.
What to arrange for your fieldwork
A lot goes into preparing for fieldwork. Yes, even besides your enormous research proposal. These are some things to arrange and consider during the preparation phase, in - in our opinion - chronological order. This list will mainly be catered towards students going abroad for their fieldwork, but students staying in the Netherlands will also find helpful tips!
Orientation: People (three-five months pre-departure)
You will probably choose your research population based on the topics that interest you. It’s possible you won’t even be able to choose what specific part of the population you will have as your research participants. We have found that most people, especially once they get to know you, are willing to help. A lot of people are interested in the fact that you’re doing research and will try their best to add to your experience. However, there can be some things that make connecting with your research population slightly more difficult.
Be aware that the identity of people in your research group - as well as your own identity - might influence how to best communicate with them. Consider a person’s age, religion, ethnic background, gender, etc. when approaching them. It may also be good to avoid using anthropological jargon in your first interactions, such as participant observation or focus groups. Instead, explain your research and your methods in terms that non-anthropologists will understand. For example, say that you are interested in learning about how they live their day-to-day life, by spending time with them and engaging in conversations.
We recommend starting the process of reaching out to potential research participants early. During this orientation phase, be sure to send emails to interesting organizations, persons of interest, and other relevant communities in your field. Perhaps set up some video calls, too. You’ll quickly be able to get a feel for a community’s willingness to participate, and you can also gauge whether your topic is researchable within that setting.
Orientation: Place (three-five months pre-departure)
You are going to live in the place where you will conduct fieldwork. And living there means living there. Of course, you shouldn’t decide on where to go based on location alone, but it can help to keep it in mind. Look into how livable the place is, if you need a car to get around or if public transport is enough, which areas are safe to be in, if there are any grocery stores kind of close by, etc. You will carry out fieldwork, but this is also where you will come home at the end of the day and have to cook your meals and do your laundry. Take this into consideration when choosing where you will stay.
Financial support (three-four months pre-departure)
The university is unfortunately unable to provide students with subsidies to cover travel and housing costs for their research. But there are other ways to secure financing. Start looking for suitable funds and grants early, as they usually take quite a bit of time to review your application. Apply to as many funds as you can to increase your chances. While there are no funds specifically aimed at ethnographic fieldwork - that we could find anyway - here are a few scholarships you could appeal to for your time abroad:
Fonds Hofvijverkring. The UU’s Hofvijverkring provides financial contributions to research with “current themes that need additional funding to achieve greater impact”. This covers both beta sciences as well as social sciences. Their criteria are quite broad, making it well-suited to appeal to for anthropology students.
Travel Green Grant. The UU offers to cover travel expenses for students who opt to travel to their foreign destination by train or bus rather than by plane.
We also recommend giving beursopener a browse. This is a database filled with other scholarships for students. The requirements of these scholarships are often quite specific, but there might be something in there catered to your specific field or country of interest!
Credit card (three months pre-departure)
Many countries, especially outside of Europe, will not accept your debit card as a form of payment. Instead, you will need to get a credit card. Different banks have different protocols for this. Some banks might have bank accounts for students, with less requirements before you’re able to get a credit card. Getting a prepaid card might also be an option. We both got a credit card that was connected to the bank account of one of our parents, and repaid them afterwards. Just be sure to look into it early, as it may take a few weeks or months to acquire that magical piece of plastic.
Public transport reimbursement & uitwonendenbeurs (two-three months pre-departure)
If you receive study financing from the Dutch government, you can get a reimbursement for your free public transport card during the months you are abroad. You could also be entitled to a temporary uitwonendenbeurs (living-away-from-home-grant), if you meet the requirements. This process takes a bit of time and there are a few different steps involved, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
Ask your supervisor to sign a form confirming the location and duration of your fieldwork. You will likely be able to find this document on Blackboard. If not, request it from your supervisor or coordinator.
Upload the signed form to Osiris in an application to stay abroad during your studies.
Download the form “aanvraag ov-vergoeding buitenland en/of uitwonendenbeurs” from DUO and fill in the required information.
Email the document to the International Office of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Ask them to fill in the rest of the form and to sign it.
Upload the signed form to DUO and await for their approval.
Pause your public transport subscription before you begin your travels. You can do this at a public transport machine at a train station.
Enjoy your extra money!
Housing (two-three months pre-departure)
You’ll need a place to stay, of course. If you already know people in the area and you feel comfortable with it, you could ask to stay with them for the duration of your fieldwork. If you prefer a place of your own, there are a few options to explore.
Your best bet would be to sublet a place. This is usually the cheapest and most flexible option, as you won’t need to sign any sort of long-term contract and you can negotiate about the price with the subletter. You can find places to sublet through official rental websites, or on the country’s equivalent of Craigslist/Facebook marketplace.
Or give Airbnb a browse. This is especially suitable if you’re looking for a place to share with your fieldwork partner. Many Airbnb listings will give great discounts if you rent it for a minimum of a month and most places will come with some necessities such as kitchenware, bedding, etc., which you won’t always get in a sublet space.
Make use of your network. Ask around to see if anyone you know can help you find a place to stay. And ask any potential research participants for recommendations as well. The locals know best!
Especially when you are subletting a room or coming into contact with people via other people in your network, make sure that they are trustworthy and try to draft up some sort of contract. It doesn’t have to be fancy or difficult, just make sure that there is an agreement you can fall back on if the other person/people change(s) their mind.
This would also be the time to search for a subletter for your space at home while you are away. Be aware that some renters don’t let you sublet your space, so read through your own contract carefully. And again, a written agreement with mutual expectations would be very useful here, too.
Booking your travel (two-three months pre-departure)
Now that you've decided where to go, you will have to figure out how to get there. If you're staying quite close to home, it might be nice to travel via train. You will be able to make use of the Travel Green Grant and you'll likely also be able to take more stuff with you (no weight limits on trains!). An Interrail (for European citizens) or Eurail (for non-European citizens) pass would be worth looking into, especially if you plan on taking a few trips during your stay.
However, you might travel to a place that is unreachable by train as we have done. Make sure you buy your train/plane tickets pretty much as soon as you know where you're going, as often the prices will go up closer to the departure date.
Visa (two-three months pre-departure)
Now that your plans are set, it’s time to secure your Visa. Please check what this procedure will look like for you. Depending on your nationality/nationalities and your destination, the process can look vastly different. Sometimes you won’t need a permit at all. At other times, it’s just a matter of submitting a Visa application and paying a small fee online, after which your Visa will be automatically linked to your passport. For some destinations, however, it may mean that you need to make an appointment at the consulate, which can take quite a bit of time. Also note that some countries (like the USA) also require you to get a Visa even if you just have a layover there. Check your flight pattern to make sure.
International driver’s license (one-two months pre-departure)
If you’re going to be driving in a country outside of Europe, you probably need an international driver’s license. You can get one in pretty much any ANWB store, and it will be ready while you wait there. Though to be frank, I (Tamar) have never been asked for this document in Canada, even though I’ve rented a few cars during my time there. They seemed to just trust my Dutch license. So do with that information what you will…
Healthcare (one-two months pre-departure)
Check with your health insurance how much of abroad-made expenses are covered for you. You may need to get additional insurance in the country you’re visiting. Or just pray that you don’t get sick or injured. (Although we do really recommend that you get yourself some healthcare).
Phone plan (upon arrival)
If you have one, take an old mobile phone with you. You’ll have a (field)work phone, and you can get a local sim card placed in this phone without having to miss any other information on your personal phone. You can also use this (field)work phone as a hotspot for your personal phone (or laptop) if need be. This applies especially in countries not included in your data plan. Check with your provider.
What to buy/acquire for your fieldwork
Besides these preparations, here is a list of gear and materials to acquire before you set off:
Some notebooks and pens. We recommend getting two sturdy hardcover notebooks. One for field notes, and another to serve as a diary. We also recommend a notebook that isn’t lined. This will make your field notes notebook a lot easier to use when your notes aren’t as straightforward. We made drawings to help aid our memory, and Miriam even took notes during a movie screening in the dark. Lines would have restricted our use of the notebook and impeded our fieldnotes. Both of us used this notebook and we highly recommend it! Otherwise, look into Moleskin and Leuchtturm, for example. They make some damn fine notebooks, too.
An audio recorder. A smartphone could work to record your interviews, but we find that the presence of a phone can be an unconscious distraction during the conversation. Therefore, we recommend getting an audio recorder specifically to record your interviews. Miriam used this one: LifeGoods Digitale Voice Recorder - Dictafoon - 8GB Opslag - Ruisonderdrukking - USB Oplaadbaar (link).
A hard drive to store your (perhaps sensitive) data.
A short description of your research, both in print and digitally. This can come in handy when people approach you about your research. With a small kind of “business card”, including your contact details, they can now read more about your research and they have a way to reach you if they want to participate.
An endorsement letter from your supervisor and/or coordinator. If people are hesitant to participate or they are weary of journalists/researchers, an endorsement letter could come in handy. Ask your supervisor or fieldwork coordinator to provide a signed document that you can show to people when they want to have an official record.
A general reminder
No amount of preparation will fully prepare you. You can read as much as you want, but the field is always going to be different. It’s actually half the fun. Keep an open mind and listen to what goes on around you. Instead of trying to find what is in the literature, try to first see as much as possible, especially things not in the literature. After all, you’ve not seen it before, so why not take a closer look now? And remember: everything is data!
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 4 October), we’ll discuss how we take care of our mental well-being while on ethnographic fieldwork. Stay tuned!