Fieldwork’s Hard Reality is in the Soft Stuff: Part 3: Emotional Support

fieldwork, research

Hanging out with a research participant

For as long as I can remember, I have been a traveler. The exhilaration of being on the move has trumped inclinations of stability in my personal and professional life. For ten years, my life choices seamlessly integrated airports and train stations into class assignments, work commitments and family responsibilities. And then I got married. The welcoming chimes of domesticity rang loud and true from the mountaintops. All this happened while I was in my second year of graduate school – two years later, I would temporarily leave my husband and American life behind for one year of fieldwork in Trinidad.

My first two months in Trini land felt like a stint of preliminary fieldwork. By the third month, I was feeling the emotional drain of distance between my husband and me. I missed our constant routine, our bed, our conversations and his familiar company. This was ironic in one sense because I rarely found myself alone during fieldwork; if I wasn’t interviewing people, I was making conversation in cramped taxis and maxis; if not that, I was hanging out with my hosts. This past year, I stayed with nine different families ranging from one member to more than 10 in a single household. Since 2013, I have stayed in 13 houses in Trinidad of which two doubled as guesthouses. I was surrounded by people and yet loneliness never left my side.

As a researcher, the emotional weight of “fieldworking”- of actually doing anthropology – came as a shock to my system. I know myself as a fluid-like-water, no-fuss kinda gal. I eat anything that doesn’t bite back, can sleep like a tranquilized horse, and travel like a trooper. But I was lonely in Trinidad, and the lonelier I felt, the more guilt-ridden I became. What had I to complain about? I had secured university funding, I had a supportive committee to work with, and I loved my research topic. Perhaps I was the only one making a big deal about the emotional strain of fieldwork. Perhaps, just perhaps I wasn’t a real anthropologist because real anthropologists don’t cry, and I had done that too.

During the second half of 2016, I seriously started paying attention to my emotional state of being. This was precipitated by a nasty health scare I had in the field that lasted three months (read Part 1 for more on that). I was mentally drained from concern about my own wellbeing. A Facebook post about my medical situation connected me with a colleague from my program. I told her how emotionally unprepared I felt to do long-term fieldwork, and viola, she confided on having a similar experience. We had both been trained well to carry out scientific research – to determine sample sizes, ask the right questions, make observational notes, seek out patterns and apply theories to phenomena. The curveball was the soft stuff of fieldwork – including its emotional impact.

In additional to health concerns, these three recurrent experiences provided regular doses of stress during my data collection:

  1. Travel: For my research, I compared two field sites in different parts of the country. I used only public transportation to commute which is not a novel experience for me by any means. As a distinctly foreign-looking female traveling alone, I made it a rule to be off the roads before sunset. Consequently, I missed out on more than one ethnographic experience because community events often took place after people got back from work, at around 7pm. My limitations of travel connected to safety were a big source of anxiety. I felt I was missing out on potentially important information because of my inability to be in many places; when a meeting did run late, I was always nervous walking alone on streets that quickly cleared out after sundown. This limitation was also the cause of frustration – I found myself constantly hustling for rides and requesting emergency rides when my contacts fell through.
  2. Sexuality: The wedding band on my finger didn’t do much to keep flirtatious men at bay. Catcalling and heckling are common in India as well, so neither was this a new experience but as with any new culture, one has to quickly learn the boundaries of socially acceptable and non-acceptable responses to male advances. I once flashed quite the menacing look to a man who called out to me from a bar only to discover a minute later that he was one of my research participants I had recruited over the phone. Sometimes, the taxi carpool would clear out before me and I would find myself alone with the taxi driver in an unfamiliar part of the country, searching for the house of a research participant. I was constantly vigilant about my safety.  
  3. Housing: I chose not to rent an apartment in a central location but rather find rooms to rent in people’s homes in both locations. In my mind, this was a safer (not to mention, cheaper) option for a single woman. If I could turn back time, I would not have done this. I spent agonizing days not having a place to stay or worse, realizing I am overstaying my welcome in my desperation to stay put. My closest friend in Trinidad came to my rescue every time my living arrangements fell through but the sense of being unanchored would not go away. Once, I was locked out of my room by a landlady for refusing to give her extra cash. In short, I had no place to call “home” during my one year in Trinidad and that perhaps was the biggest source of mental exhaustion.

It is true that preparing for the emotional side of fieldwork cannot easily be taught prior to commencing fieldwork. This is simply because experiences are situational and our dispositions to respond to them are unique. More than a skill set, I was looking for a community of empathizers – others like me who are either in the field or have been in the field who I could shamelessly vent to, ask advice from, and quell my feelings of guilt and incompetence as a researcher. I didn’t have access to such a group and so my husband bore the brunt of my fieldwork fatigue. Communication apps like Skype, Google Hangout and WhatsApp became my constant companions as I sought out familial support from 2,200 miles away.

I am now back in the US after one year in Trinidad. I know I will return to the country soon because my itinerant lifestyle endeared me to facets of Trini life that I haven’t had enough of yet! Trinidad offered me an exhilarating experience of discovering myself in relation to an “other” but it was tempered by concerns over competence, access and ability that I sincerely believed I was alone encountering. Especially at the graduate level, anthropological research is almost always conducted alone and in unfamiliar/new terrain. In this context, the management of one’s safety, travel, housing, health, sexuality, and nutritional needs is really about striking a balance between the emotional and logistical. As aspiring professionals, we tend to get so caught up in the preparation and anticipation of data collection that we sometimes forget that long-term commitments also extract an emotional toll.

My musings on the emotional toll of fieldworking are not an exercise of finger-pointing or self-pity but rather a clarion call for a new type of graduate training in fieldwork, one that incorporates the non-technical aspects of living and working in a foreign country. More than anything, such exposure would reinforce the emotional and physical universality of experiences seasoned and new researchers are bound to encounter in the field.

 

Postscript:

I figured the easiest and quickest way to have access to a support community is to have an invitation-only chatroom where past, present and future field researchers from across disciplines can exchange notes, ask questions or simply hangout! If you are interested, create an account on hipchat.com and request to join the existing team “fieldresearchers”. There is probably nothing simpler than instant messaging your woes away.

 

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