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). ..now 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.