No Longer a Field 

No Longer a Field 

by Rachel Howard

(Fieldwork in a Time of Coronavirus series)

An intersection at the author’s fieldsite. Image by the author.

Suspending my fieldwork due to the COVID-19 pandemic inspired a set of questions about the nature of ethnographic research: about how it is different from other kinds of research. About how the rituals that mark our initiation into the discipline proscribe a kind of boundary-making in which the field becomes a liminal time of exception. And about how these boundaries, especially in the context of a global health emergency, disappear. In this piece, I reflect on ethnographic practice, and the power of suspension and mourning for the research not done. 

***

I am sitting in a public place, let’s say a Starbucks coffee shop, in the beginning of what is meant to be twelve months of—as the University Institutional Review Board calls it—“human-subject research” in an age-restricted housing development. I am writing notes about an interview I just completed in a nursing home three miles up the road. Two older people are sitting close by, holding hands, heads bent towards e-readers placed in front of them on the table. The man is connected to an oxygen tank that has a Navy sticker slapped onto the front. 

I have been in “the field” for two months and have, many times so far, done things like sit in a coffee shop and write notes or talk to people. I watch these two out of the corner of my eye and reflect on the different kinds of forces that brought all of us to this place and time, and the practices, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot describes, that both “require and impose a vision” of aging in this conjunctural space (2000, 179). These two whom I observe live in this part of the country partly in order to access the quality, low-cost health care on a nearby military base; I am here to study the people who move here to do things like this. These activities, mine and theirs, come with their own rituals, their own practices, and their own imperatives. 

So far on this trip, I have tried to practice ethnography in a variety of ways, experimenting with interviews and intuition—“following my nose,” as an emeritus professor once suggested to me. I have been surprised to find resonances between my approach in “the field” and my experience completing archival research last summer. I hadn’t really known what I was doing and had picked up Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge. She describes immersion in archival research as rooted in both embodied practice and imagination: the shape of her body slowly settles into the unmistakable hunch of a reader who cannot touch the book she reads with her bare hands; at the same time, she is motivated by a desire or drive to continue reading, to see the streets of 18th century Paris, to imagine the faces of the people whose crimes she reads about. She anticipates the thrill of being confronted by “the surplus of life that floods the archives and provokes the reader, intensely and unconsciously” (2013, 31). Every day, she enters the building that houses the archives and hustles to get the good seat in the reading room, where she sits in the same chair for hours on end. Such a physical and emotional orientation to an archive that reveals as much as it obscures, that seems at once both contingent and over-full, is overwhelming to Farge. But in a good way. 

Image from the author’s archival research. Image by the author.

This aspect of the archival reminded me of the ethnographic. When I sit in Starbucks next to the couple hunched over their e-readers, I feel a shadowy echo across observation, text, and experience, across time and space and continents. And yet in my two months in “the field,” it was impossible to forget the way these two kinds of research are only partially similar. In my experience, the relation between researcher and text is not the same as that of between researcher and person. In my experience, the archived text or image does not reply as my interlocutors “in the field” do: the text does not have needs; it does not engender the same obligations. I have found that the affordances and requirements of relations constituted by co-inhabiting an ethnographic space are murkier and more contingent. I would not have suspended archival research in the same way that I suspended ethnographic research. 

Image from the author’s archival research. Image by the author.

I will not rehearse the story of how I decided to pause my research activities. It shares the same outlines, and many of the same details, as those of my friends and colleagues who have similarly suspended their work. I do, however, want to note a few dimensions of this decision. 

First, I cancelled interviews and stopped showing up to events about two weeks before the US state where my research is happening closed its bars and restaurants and encouraged people living there to “socially distance.” 

Second, at the time, my interlocutors thought I was being a bit extreme: one of them assured me that he had spoken to his doctor and that the media was the cause of all the hysteria. It was just a flu and would blow over soon. 

Last, I felt myself grieving the inability to continue with the research, which I had been enjoying and had been getting more comfortable with every day. This last point is a feeling shared amongst my friends and colleagues—and many others who have already written about stopping research. 

I’d like now to reflect on the ethics of exiting “the field,” and what this action, as part of the practice of ethnographic research, reveals about “the field” as a privileged space of “research.” As I have learned, many forms of research trouble these artificial boundaries. But this is not a novel insight, even though I learned it anew. So the question needs to shift. It is not enough to ask: what happens to the already-blurred distinctions between research and life when the situation in which the research is meant to take place is taken over by conditions of extreme stress and pressure? This question has been posed often, and answered in a variety of contexts, by many scholars. Instead, we must ask: what happens when the fluid boundaries disappear altogether—when “life” makes “research” impossible? 

To me, this question reflects the limits of anthropological debates about the nature of fieldwork. For those of us whose “first fieldwork” has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ethnographic practices we put into place now will affect our orientations towards such research for the rest of our careers (Marcus 2009)—however long or short they will be. 

It became clear to me that the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person research impossible: whether or not it was mandated by the government of the state in which I work, whether or not it was mandated by the University that financially supports me, and whether or not my interlocutors were concerned by the global situation. 

In early March, when I arranged for an in-person interview to be conducted over a video platform, the interviewee responded to me with some confusion. “Well, okay, if that’s what you want,” she wrote back. During the interview, she laughed as she related how her kids were “grateful” to me. In a check-in we had a few weeks later, she told me about how she was staving off loneliness by calling an old acquaintance or friend once a day, and had started seeing a friend of hers for walks three times per week. They are both widows, live down the street from each other, and are not seeing anyone else. The evolution of my interlocutor’s response to the pandemic is noteworthy for having shifted in response to the greater availability of local information regarding the spread of the virus—and in response to her own experience of being homebound for weeks. 

But her reaction, and those of the other people with whom I work, can only shape my decision to “exit” the field up to a point. The emergency that is unfolding in our research contexts is unfolding everywhere else: the crisis “in” the field is not just a crisis “of” the field. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the paucity in the easy and privileged assumption some have that such distinctions will protect us. 

In those weeks before we knew how widespread the global pandemic was—but before I made the decision to cut off research entirely—my own anxieties made it impossible to fully attune to ethnographic thinking. During the day, I would do an interview or spend time with a handful of key interlocutors. But in the evening, I would anxiously wonder about things like the air conditioner vent in my studio apartment, which had become an object of concern since it connected my apartment with the others in the complex via air circulation, like a landed cruise ship. Such a bifurcation of energy required for daytime research and evening fears—a bifurcation that speaks to the necessity of methods that rely on attunement to the local and the present—reveals the way that the distinctions between “research” and “life” are false. Care for others and care for the self, especially in the context of “fieldwork,” must not be competing propositions. These ideas have been discussed elsewhere. My inspiration for this line of thinking comes particularly from writers who have explored sexual- and gender violence in the field (Berry et al 2017). 

Any kind of research, but especially “human subject research,” is founded on an ethical relation and proposition: what kind of researcher do we want to be? What kind of researcher can we afford to be? Our obligations must be centered on the individuals with whom we co-produce an ethnography, not the research as an unqualified good. It matters that we “pause” our research, and also that we mourn it, that we allow ourselves to grieve the research that was maybe never possible in the way we are taught it can be. Mourning is a transitional time: it is the space between loss and the unknowable future. Mourning occurs in the tense of the “not yet.” 

On the road after leaving the “field.” Image by the author.

As we wait, we pause. And as we pause, we must affirm, over and over again, so that we remember, the importance of placing relational ethics front and center to our research practices. What does this mean for ethnographic research that has heretofore relied on in-person contact? The answer to this question will unfold in the coming months and years—however long this pandemic will last. For me, this means that it will have to unfold with the same premise of collaboration and relational ethics that drive my current ethnographic praxis. For my project, and likely for many in my position, this means sorting through a politicized healthcare media landscape; consulting with my interlocutors; and being secure with my own anxieties and responsibilities. It requires fidelity to the perspective of anthropological research as not just human-centered, but humanity-forward. 

Citations

Berry, Maya J.; Argüelles, Claudia Chavez; Cordis, Shanya; Ihmoud, Sarah; Estrada, Elizabeth Velásquez. 2017. “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field.” Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 537–565.

Farge, Arlette. 2013. The Allure of the Archives. New Haven: Yale University Press. 

Marcus, George E. 2009. “Introduction: Notes Toward an Ethnographic Memoir of Supervising Graduate Research Through Anthropology’s Decades of Transformation.” In Fieldwork is Not What It Used to Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition, edited by James D. Faubian and George E. Marcus, pp 1–34. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2000. “Abortive Rituals: Historical Apologies in the Global Era.” Interventions 2(2): 171–186.

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Rachel Howard is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her work is situated between linguistic anthropology and science and technology studies, with a special focus on race, capital, and the environment in the American West.

One Reply to “No Longer a Field ”

  1. would be interesting to see how anthro ethics line up with journalism ethics in times of trial (war, disease, etc) I think they are much closer in terms of interactions/interventions (and apparently feeling similar time/productivity stresses*) then say psychology lab work, perhaps time to draw some distance from previous desires to be seen as scientific.

    *https://newbooksnetwork.com/t-sangaramoorthy-and-k-kroeger-rapid-ethnographic-assessments-routledge-2020/

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