Blog Entry by Amélie Roussillon (PGR, SRU/AMA) & Cindy Wilhelm (PGR, DEV)
Fieldwork. A quick internet search shows harmonious images of groups of busy people and individuals walking through forests or rivers with various equipment, digging in archaeological sites, all wearing security gear and seemingly doing exciting and adventurous work. Yet, conducting fieldwork can encompass a very wide range of research practices, which cannot be reduced to the sole collection of data in a fantasised environment commonly called the ‘field’ - a highly fluctuating concept depending on the research project. Carrying out field research can be done in your hometown, as it could be at the other end of the world - each situation bringing its own set of challenges.
For many PGRs like us, fieldwork is an essential part of our research. Fieldwork is conducted by students in various departments at UEA. Amélie will be off to Papua New Guinea soon to study museum collections and collecting practices, and Cindy will return to Guinea to continue her work on bauxite mining.
However, during recent years, more and more awareness regarding the challenges and difficulties of fieldwork for PhD students has become public. The death of Giulio Regeni, PhD student at the University of Cambridge during his fieldwork in Egypt, but also some PhD students who were arrested or returned from their fieldwork after having experienced sexual violence (including rape) and mental health issues of all types in the field have sparked lively discussions in the PhD community (Pollard, 2009; Johansson, 2015).
Some universities have begun more fieldwork training and preparation (i.e. University of Sussex, Royal Holloway London), but some still rely on student-led initiatives and only one-day events and conferences (i.e. Oxford, Cambridge, University of Bath).
What is UEA doing to support us before, during and after fieldwork? We have connected various PGRs across faculty departments and we all acknowledged there is a lack. Hence, the idea emerged to become active. It needs to be said that this is not the first time that students have identified this need.
In previous years, a series called “Embracing the Unknown” was conducted, and the SU was also approached last year by a medical student who was asking about fieldwork initiatives. However, these student-led efforts have failed to sustainably materialize due to time constraints and unsuccessful transitions after the graduation of committed PGRs. We decided to give it another try, by establishing a fieldwork support group.
We have formulated the following aim: to better prepare students for fieldwork, support them before, during and after their fieldwork to ensure that PGRs experience this part of their work as safely as possible (in terms of physical and psychological safety and wellbeing), and to have a generally more reflexive approach to fieldwork as part of research practices.
We have thus organised our one-day Kick-off Event ‘Me, my PhD and the Field: Navigating the Challenges of Fieldwork’, which took place on 10 February. Approximately 30 participants from DEV, AMA (SRU), EDU, NBS, ECO, PPL, ENV, HSC and BIO took part in the event.
We organized three panels:
Panel 1: Research Relationships and Power Dynamics (Dr Hannah Höchner, DEV & Dr Giulia Nazzaro, AMA)
Panel 2: Mental health & well-being before, during and after fieldwork (Cindy Wilhelm, DEV & Touseef Mir, DEV & Jock Downie UEA Wellbeing team)
Panel 3: Fieldwork Now and then, how can universities better face the realities of the field? (Dr Chris Wingfield, SRU & Dr Ben Jones, DEV)
During the first two panels we had very personal conversations where the panellists shared their fieldwork experiences, the obstacles they encountered and how they tackled difficulties. The audience was very engaged in participating in lively discussions. We touched upon issues surrounding friendships in the field and the complexities around building trustful relationships, gender issues, the practical and logistical side of fieldwork, safety and security, health and illness, social isolation and lack of support, and many more topics.
We also discussed the uncertainty of the “supervisor lottery” which means that the mere luck of having an engaged supervisor can make a significant difference when it comes to fieldwork. This led us to ask what kind of “safety net” does the university provide if the supervisory team is not supportive enough.
The third panel moved this discussion further to explore how universities can offer better support. Our panellists expressed that although fieldwork itself may not have changed much; the profile of PhD students has changed bringing in more diverse backgrounds. It is still problematic that there is this image of the heroic lone fieldworker. We discussed that fieldwork requires peer support, a plan, but also thorough preparation. It cannot be expected from the supervisory team to cope on its own with such issues, and strong collaboration with other bodies at UEA, notably the Wellbeing team, would be more than welcome.
During the panels, but also reflecting on this event, we came up with numerous recommendations and practical suggestions how UEA, and universities in general, can improve the support offered before, during and after fieldwork.
If you are interested to read more about this, you can find our report here
We are optimistic that things will continue to move forward. Fieldwork does not have to be a lonely experience.
Are you also doing fieldwork for your research? Or have you done fieldwork? If you would like to be connected with likeminded people to exchange your experiences and get some more input, join our fieldwork support group by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Pollard, Amy. 2009. ‘Field of Screams: Difficulty and Ethnographic Fieldwork’. Anthropology Matters 11 (2): 1–24.
Johansson, Leanne. 2015. Dangerous Liaisons: Risk, Positionality and Power in women’s anthropological fieldwork. University of Oxford, School of Anthropology https://www.anthro.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/anthro/documents/media/jaso7_1_2015_55_63.pd