Ethnographic Field Research: Do’s and Don’ts

When I was still safely in America, dreaming about this field research from the comfort of my arm-chair, writing my proposal, I imagined myself introducing myself to strangers, in the park, at the shopping mall, at the train station, in the library, or at café’s, bars and cafeteria, and asking them for their perspective on Polish norms and expectations concerning ‘a good life’ (my research question for Phase 1). that I’m in the field….however…. I have to admit I haven’t gotten any further than “hi, do you speak English?” ‘no? ok bye, sorry for disturbing you.’ I have come to realize I will need to take a different approach (with one month left in the field). Here’s what I’ve learned about field researching:

Don’t expect to talk to and engage in brief conversations with total strangers unless:

You know the language well and are a very confident speaker in it,

You are pretty self-confident in general (which I’m not really, but I thought I could at least pretend).

You are familiar enough with the culture to judge what would be considered appropriate and what might scare or offend people (when it comes to when and how, or whether at all, to approach them or start talking if you already happen to be in close proximity).

Do: join an organization or small community and let the people you’ll be engaging with know that you’re there as a researcher. For example, when I went to do my field research at the Ecovillage at Ithaca, for my M.A. program (at the Free University of Amsterdam) it was easy to talk to people (…still not as ‘easy’ as I had originally imagined of course. I tend to always over-estimate my self-confidence and ability to start talking to people, when I’m not actually faced with them 😉 but at least far, far easier than it is in this case) because everyone in the community knew I was there as a researcher and was expecting my questions and curiosity. I didn’t have to explain first who I was, what I was doing, and why I was asking silly questions.

Have (at least) one main informant with whom you’ve had good contact before you go into the field, who knows what you’ll be doing, is interested in your research (or at least some enthusiasm or positivity from them would help – it’ll be no good if they think your project is a stupid idea), is an ‘insider’ to the community and can introduce you to other people.   I had this when I went to the Ecovillage. After I wrote my first introduction email to them, asking if I could stay in their community for 3 months, to study them, an (officially retired, but still pretty active) anthropology professor who was living there, wrote me back and he became my second advisor for the project.

You could also post flyers or announcement about your research somewhere to tell people that you’re seeking participants/ volunteers to meet with you for a brief interview and possibly offer them a small compensation (e.g. money, gift voucher, food and/or drink) for their time, and wait for responses – one of my friends used this strategy, and I think it worked alright for her.

In any case, you’ll be meeting with people who know what you want from them and have more or less agreed to talk to you (in the case of working in a community, not everyone may be enthusiastic about having a researcher there, but at least they know what you’re there for and what your intentions are) – which is a better strategy than trying to approach or start talking to random strangers, who may or may not speak English, may or may not want to be bothered by your questions, and may or may not trust you.

I don’t know, maybe there have been anthropologists in the past who have gone into the field, without fully speaking the language yet, without a main informant who knew about their research prior to their arrival and was able to introduce them to other people along the way, who weren’t working with one organization or in a small community where everyone pretty much knows each other and you can’t remain a total ‘outsider’ for long – and yet were successful.   But from my experiences (and what I’ve heard from other anthropologists) I can say, it’s very helpful if you: speak the language, find a community or organization, introduce yourself and tell them about your intentions before you go (and of course wait for them to extend their welcome for you to work with and/or stay with them), and preferably find a main informant who is an insider to the community either before, or soon after, you arrive, who both trusts you and understands your research and has the trust of other people in the community, and can thus open up doors for you.

As for my research directions now: I’ll still try to keep going out to places to see if I can find anyone to talk to to answer my questions, but in the mean time, I’ve also posted some announcements on the couch-surfing website (which is not just a place to find a place to sleep when you’re traveling, but also for meeting people for social events, or, for example, a pretty popular thing among couch surfers in Poland, language-exchanges). Maybe someone will want to do a language exchange with me – I can help them with their Dutch or English, they can help me with my Polish, and that would also give me an opportunity to ask them my research questions. And I’ve also (finally) started asking friends if they can get me in touch with more people to talk to about my research, or answer the question in writing. (luckily I do already have a few good friends and contacts here in this city, so that is helpful). I probably should have thought of this ‘new approach’ sooner, rather than aimlessly wandering around the city, going to the library, hanging out at diners, shopping malls, and train stations – just people watching, but barely getting to talk to anyone (at least no more than “do you speak english?”), or resorting to writing essays (about culture, disability theory and such) – something I think I’m good at and enjoy doing, safely on the couch –  rather than doing ‘actual field work,’ and feeling like a bit of a failed researcher.

Well this excessive ‘couch-time’ hasn’t been a complete waste of time. I’ve been working on essays (which I hope to publish some day) and proposals (for more funding), learning Polish, reading Polish newspapers online (to also get a sense of the culture). Just haven’t gotten  as much actual field-work done as I would have liked in this past month. But I still have one month left. The glass is still half full.



Another theme I’ve come across in my conversations and readings is that Poles highly value stability and certainty (e.g. when it comes to employment/work contracts, and life) …although this may not be uniquely “Polish.” I think many people would prefer a permanent/stable contract over a temporary one (although perhaps not I, because I have slight aversion to/fear of the word “permanent” 😉 My contract when I worked in PL (for almost 2 years, 2 years ago) was technically “permanent” but it was called “indefinite” instead. That sounds a lot nicer/less scary than Permanent).

My friend told me that many Poles would rather have a permanent, stable job with a guaranteed income until retirement, even if they didn’t earn very much with it (but at least being able to rely on the fact that that little amount would always appear in your bank account at the end or beginning of each month), than keep switching jobs every few years, in the hopes of making more and more money (but not being certain/guaranteed of that).

Perhaps one could say that stability is more highly valued over (the prospect of) upward-mobility in Poland?

This attitude can also be seen among many disabled people in Poland (and I think also elsewhere in the world). They receive a disability pension/check, which is not much at all, but at least it’s certain. As soon as they get a job contract and enter the labour market, they lose this check, and this certainty. They might not be able to keep the job for very long, and might not be able to find a new job again after that, but not be able to get the disability pension anymore either, because they’ve already “proven” that they can work. Thus it’s a big risk to try to enter the labour market. And even non-disabled Polish people prefer to choose certainty over risk.

Here are a few links to articles that express concern about the rise of hourly-paid/zero-hours contracts (“kontrakty zerowe”) or temporary (“tymczasowy”) jobs – also know as “śmieciówki” or “trash” jobs in Poland – over permanent or “normal” contracts,100897,18091282,Odrobina_empatii_w__tymczasowym_swiecie_.html,132486,13874661,To_nie_jest_swiat_dla_mlodych_ludzi.html,101562,13701859,Kontrakty_zerowe__czyli_brytyjskie__smieciowki__coraz.html,100896,15643594,Smieciowki_bija_rekordy__Mlodzi_ludzie_bez_szans_na.html

Making babies

Don’t worry, this is not a post about sex.   But as part of phase 1 of my research (exploring Polish ideals, values, norms, and expectations about the kind of life people ideally ought to have and how they ideally ought to be(have) in society), I’ve been reading Polish newspapers and magazines online to find common themes and representations in the media concerning these ideals and expectations. Yesterday and this morning, I’ve come across article after article about the importance and necessity of increasing the birthrate in Poland. Theory upon theory about ways to effectively increase the incentive for Polish women to have more babies (longer paid maternity leave (which is already a full year in Poland), increasing tax deduction per child, extra special benefits for large families (and specifically poor families), increasing taxes on childless households, etc. note: some of these are actually government policies and some are suggestions from readers), and speculation after speculation as to why the birthrate is decreasing and why young women are postponing or skipping motherhood (“wasting fruitful years chasing western dreams of modern life.”) It seems like a ‘hot topic’ at the moment.

Although, I think that once you’ve clicked on/read an article about a particular topic, it shows you all the related articles, and that’s why it appears to me now that Poles are obsessed with making babies :D, for the demographic health of the nation, and all the articles in this newspaper are related to this topic. I think it might be time for me to find another topic to scrutinize.

I won’t go into detail about my own opinion about these baby making articles, but all this pressure on women to have more children (especially when it is described as a “civic duty” or “the job of every woman is to have at least 3 [children]” sounds to me quite offensive, or cruel, to people who choose not to have children (and yet are Far from egocentric and materialistic, as childless women are often portrayed) or those who want to have children but can’t, or those who want to and probably can but haven’t found the right person to have them with yet . (and some of the articles, or opinions to articles, reflect this sentiment too).

Anyways, it seems that one of the ‘ideals,’ norms or expectations’ [or economic demographic, national necessity, as it is portrayed in the articles] in Poland is that people should be ‘fruitful and multiply’ (within a stable , 1st time, heterosexual marriage).,100897,18083502,Polko__nie_badz_glupia__rodz_dzieci_.html,100896,17233341,Ulga_w_demografie__czyli_boj_o_przyrost_naturalny.html,100897,17173691,Jak_sie_robi_dzieci.html,101562,13342525,Mamy_miec_dzieci_i_juz___W_Polsce_trwa_jalowa_debata.html …these are some of the articles. there are many, many more related to this topic to be found.