Feelings in the field: reflections on fieldwork in murk-o

Feelings in the field: reflections on fieldwork in murk-o

Meme image of an anime man in glasses, labeled 'me,' gesturing to a yellow butterfly labeled 'sending cold emails that no on answers.' Subtitle reads, "Is this ethnography?"
Image: Nick Seaver (https://twitter.com/npseaver/)

My lower back is sore. There’s a tension that’s rising from the place where my neck meets my scalp, and my eyes feel baggy. I’ve just woken up, am standing in my friends’ apartment. M and F have graciously agreed to host me for umpteenth time in what feels like as many months. It’s not yet 8am. F is in the shower, M is making a weak cup of coffee. M and I are discussing what the hell it is I’m doing with my fieldwork.

Mostly, I’m complaining. 

I slide the couch cushions back into their upright sentinel positions, transforming my temporary bed back into the living room couch. M insists with sympathy that the way I’ve been travelling has to affect the research I’m doing. “Couches, sore backs, breakfast with friends.” She insists there’s also a lot to think about in all of my expressed fieldwork frustrations. All the waiting, the unanswered emails, the phone calls and conference calls, negotiations and navigations, “all the frustrating stuff in your field journal,” she says.

My field journals and my research follow the communities of organizations working in the murky middle ground between climate change science and climate politics. Consistent with their work, my fieldwork has been episodic, partly itinerant and sometimes worked remotely or by telecommuting.

This work has felt fruitful yet fitful at best, disheartening at worst. I’ve frequently asked myself the question in the image that opens this post. Messages in the dark, emails sent across the void—is this really what research looks like, what it feels like? What does it mean, analytically, to sort through this frustration? In the rest of this post, I reflect on fieldwork in this murky space.


How is it, one friend asked me during a field trip back to Montreal, to do research on people who work on global climate change from an office with one or two other people? What does it mean to be thinking and working with these people from afar—from a room in my mother’s house, in which I passed years of dreamless nights, slowly growing up as the world grew slowly warmer?

I know I’m not alone in wanting to articulate the ambiguous affect or feelings of my doctoral fieldwork. Questioning, complaining, waiting: in many ways my fieldwork has been similar to the experiences of peers. Unlike researchers in the “hard” sciences, as anthropologists we’re expected to do year-long field research as individuals, away from our support networks. This expectation exists latently despite changing sentiments in the discipline in the last thirty or forty years. Following the model of the wartime exile, Bronislaw Malinowski, we embark on a self-isolationist rite of passage that teaches us to ignore both the social and citational supports that hold us up. In truth, we rely heavily on the support of not only faraway supervisors, but, especially, friends, colleagues and family.

Along the way we unsurprisingly experience some loneliness. We inevitably wallow some in self-doubt about what it is, exactly, we’re studying out here in the field. We question our abilities to accurately capture it, to do it justice, to make it legible or feel-able. We often feel confusion about our own roles among the people we study. For those of us whose topics of study require research at multiple sites, the isolation of the field can settle in hard as we keep moving to follow the object, question or people of our study. For those of us who are differently abled or have chronic health issues, visibly or invisibly, difficulties are compounded. Even those of us pale males, for whom the institutions of our society have largely been built to hold up, experience some degree of these hardships in the field. All of my colleagues have expressed similar feelings over the course of their research.

On the other hand, my experience of fieldwork in the murky middle of climate change science and action has been different than the general experience. My combination of multi-sited, itinerant and remote research has led me into murky affective territory, mixing familial obligations with field observations, hometown blues with fieldwork milieus.

Skype conversations with potential field collaborators conducted from my mother’s house often left my head spinning in a blur of past and future lives. Other parts of fieldwork had me feeling dislocated not in time, but place: interviews or conference calls from temporary rented apartments, back in the city I apparently call home, where my life-in-things lies waiting in storage. At other times fieldwork has felt joyful, exhilarating, but brief: staying with old friends in unfamiliar towns, fleetingly meeting familiar faces in person for the first time after months of remotely working together. There is a lot to think about, too, in all of my fieldwork frustrations about access to the field, a conversation that will be continued in subsequent posts.

These fieldwork feelings have led me to recognize that the flow of this type of fieldwork is murky or less than clear, that it has periods of activity and inactivity, isolation and socialization. It has taught me to accept that access will not often be easy, dozens of emails will remain unread, potential next steps never taken. Thinking about the murky affect of my fieldwork has illuminated the networks of support that I know all of us rely on, despite, or because of, our discipline’s penchant for peddling a fantasy of individualized fieldwork. I’m moved to ask what supports other fieldworkers lean on. Mine have come in the form of friends, family, writing groups, reading groups, medical professionals and tabletop role-playing adventuring parties.

If we want to study certain things, we have to do a certain kind of fieldwork—a consistency between content and form. My fieldwork on those working between climate science and politics has presented some peculiar affective hurdles, and even some bodily hurt. These obstacles can be said to be a shared among most fieldworkers, but are particularly plain to see in institutional, remote, itinerant or multi-sited fieldwork. As first fieldwork projects continue to negotiate the limits of the fieldwork paradigm, how can we ensure that succeeding anthropological generations remain prepared for the cutting edge? Follow the conversation to the next post, as we take a closer look at this fieldwork in action around the edges of a major climate change summit.