In this episode of AnthroPod, guest producer Aisha Sultan considers the question: what do you do when fieldwork threatens to break your heart? While graduate seminars and methodological reflections within anthropology often focus on the possibilities ethnography affords as the cornerstone of the discipline, Sultan here contends with its bleaker and more difficult dimensions: the toll it takes on the minds and bodies of ethnographers; experiences of mental illness; persistent feelings of distrust, frustration, and exhaustion. Sultan’s conversation with Helen Lee and Shoshanna Williams is interspersed with excerpts of poetry and fieldnotes from each of their fieldwork experiences. Together, these reflections offer a candid, vulnerable, and realistic insight into the quotidian experience of doing ethnographic fieldwork.
Aisha Sultan is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide. Her research looks at the way homelessness as an experience and identity shapes women’s reproductive and sexual health outcomes, focusing on the ways that women perceive and manage their health care needs and wishes.
Helen Lee is Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Social Inquiry and Deputy Head of School (Research and Strategy) for the Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University. Since the 1980s, she has conducted research with the people of Tonga, both in their home islands in the Pacific and in the diaspora, particularly in Australia, with a focus on childhood and youth, cultural identity, and migration and transnationalism. Her recent books include Mobilities of Return: Pacific Perspectives (2017, coedited with Jack Taylor) and Change and Continuity in the Pacific (2018, coedited with John Connell).
Shoshannah Williams is a social scientist, whose work explores the intersection of social marginalization, gender, and the conditions that shape chronic vulnerability within urban spaces. She earned her PhD in anthropology and development from Adelaide University, where her work explored the lives of women experiencing homelessness a train station in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She has a background in disability rehabilitation and public health, previously working as an Urban Health and Equity Research Fellow at BRAC University and iccdr,b in Bangladesh.
This episode was produced by Aisha Sultan. Special thanks to everyone who made this episode possible: Anar Parikh for serving as Executive Producer on this episode; Helen Lee and Shoshanna Williams, for bringing their insight to this conversation; the University of Adelaide and the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship Scheme; the PhD writing and support group The Squad; Helka Manninen; Kristi Urry, Sarah Pearce, and Anar Parikh for reading the poetry and fieldnote excerpts; Shelley Travers, Andrew Gramp, and Paul Chambers for their technical assistance; and Beth Derderian for offering additional support.
AnthroPod features interviews with current anthropologists about their work, current events, and their experiences in the field. You can find AnthroPod at SoundCloud, subscribe to it on iTunes, or use our RSS feed. If you have suggestions for future episodes or feedback on this episode, please leave us a comment to the right, or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.
Anar Parikh [00:00]: Welcome to AnthroPod. This is Anar Parikh, and I’m thrilled to bring you this episode, “When Fieldwork Breaks Your Heart,” guest produced by Aisha Sultan, a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Aisha and her interlocutors, Professor Helen Lee and Dr. Shoshanna Williams, explore the gritty underbelly of anthropology’s first love: ethnographic fieldwork. While our disciplinary tendency as anthropologists is to extol the virtues of our methodological and theoretical core, Aisha interweaves excerpted fieldnotes, poetry, and personal reflection into her discussion with Professor Lee and Dr. Williams to consider the less romantic realities of doing ethnography.
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Aisha Sultan [02:34]: What to do when fieldwork threatens to break you? What if some of the things we encounter, as researchers, make us angry and leave us feeling helpless? How might we best prepare for and live with the suffering of others without burning out? How to reconcile the roles and responsibilities of outsider researcher and engaged participant-observer? To what extent is this even possible? These are some of the questions I have grappled with while working with women experiencing homelessness. I’ve felt joy, excitement, sorrow and anger. I feel their grief as a knot in my stomach or a tangle in my thoughts. I worry about the way my research might adversely affect my participants. At times, I’ve also been bored, frustrated, and even, let’s be honest, annoyed and conflicted not only with the system but with my participants as well. During fieldwork, we as anthropologists are expected to immerse ourselves into a cultural web or fabric and acknowledge that we are not detached or impartial observers, but in fact people who are emotionally, intellectually, and physically embedded in the world of our field sites. However, when we return from the field, we are encouraged to distance ourselves from the weight of these experiences and extricate our emotional insights from our analysis. The mental and physical strain of ethnographic fieldwork is at once readily acknowledged and sometimes romanticized, while at the same time we are discouraged from including these experiences in our formal writing. Even in scholarly discussions and prefield seminars about ethnographic methods, the emotional labor and the effects of ethnographic fieldwork on the researcher’s body, psyche, worldview, and moral compass are often elided. Moreover, even though the emotional and personal challenges of fieldwork are dismissed in anthropology’s more formal spaces, most of our informal and private conversations, in contrast, seem to be centered around how overwhelming fieldwork can be and how hard it is to speak of this because we fear that our research will not be taken seriously. So, in this episode, I reflect on my own experiences and challenges and explore the personal and emotional dimensions of ethnographic fieldwork, through a conversation with Professor Helen Lee and Dr. Shoshanna Williams. Helen has published widely on migration, transnationalism, as well as Tongan history and society. She is Professor of Anthropology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, where she teaches first-year students, as well as later-year students. Shoshanna’s doctoral thesis, in turn, explored vulnerability and resilience of women experiencing homelessness in a train station in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Shoshanna has a background in occupational therapy and has worked as part of numerous community-based health projects here in Adelaide, Australia, as well as overseas.
AS [05:39]: Helen, it's been roughly about thirty years since your fieldwork in Tonga. Can you tell us a bit about your experience?
Helen Lee [05:48]: So I went to Tonga for my PhD research and I wanted to very broadly study childhood and the experience of childhood with the basic premise of, you know, what is it that makes you Tongan rather than anything else. Partly for personal reasons but also because I just found it really interesting, the study of childhood, so I went to live in a village called Holonga on the main island of Tonga. And then during the fieldwork I also spent a little bit of time on the island called Afa.
AS [06:21]: What surprised you the most in terms of doing fieldwork?
HL [06:24]: I think I was not expecting to have to think on my feet quite so much. I didn't really have much preparation, I didn't go to Tonga armed with the whole interview schedule and questionnaires and everything. I sort of did that on the run and I hadn't really thought how difficult it would be to figure out, as I went along, what I needed to do and to deal with all of the different events that came up and just to be so flexible.
AS [06:50]: Thirty years ago, it was quite different in terms of what the uni would ask from PhD students in preparation . . .
HL [06:58]: Was completely different. I would never send one of my students out the way I went. I started my PhD and within a couple of months I went off to do my fieldwork. Because I've lived in Tonga before, my supervisors just assumed that I would be able to just step straight in and there was no ethics. There was only a very brief meeting, a prefield work meeting. I had very, very little advice about what I was going to be doing. I had written up a research proposal, which didn't actually include methodology. Just this is what I'm interested in looking at. Then I just set off.
AS [07:29]: Shoshanna, did you feel prepared or unprepared?
Shoshanna Williams [07:39]: I felt incredibly prepared because I'd been researching urban poverty for almost two years and all this feedback about how great my methods section was was in my proposal and I really thought that I had thought through a lot of issues, but I hadn't anticipated what it was going to be like and so I had a false sense of bravado and made a whole set of assumptions. For example, when I was doing fieldwork in slums people they were very willing to talk to us and seemed happy to sit and chat, whereas the women that I worked with initially really didn't want to talk to me. I just hadn't even thought through that that might have been a possibility.
AS [08:12]: Can you tell us a bit about who were you working with?
SW [08:15]: So I wanted to research women who experience homelessness in Dhaka, which kind of arose out of me working in this urban poverty space and urban poverty was really spatialized into slums. There was really no real discussion to talk about homelessness and it was largely absent in the literature, particularly qualitative work. There was a couple of surveys and that's it. I came into the field of anthropology and development not having done a undergrad in it. I studied occupational therapy, so disability rehab, and I'd been involved in public health for a while and that kind of segued into this. So I'd gone in with my ideas and my supervisors started to have conversations with me about the theoretical framings and so I'd just gone, "OK, great, let's just go with vulnerability and resilience. That's what I'll research, sure" not really knowing what I could or should research. And so I went in and I chatted to service providers and they were like "oh well, if you want to research vulnerability, you have to go to this train station." I was like "OK, sure!"
AS [09:14]: What was the most surprising, difficult element that you didn't anticipate while beginning fieldwork?
SW [09:22]: Not expecting that people just wouldn’t want to engage at all or that when I did start to talk to people about their experiences, that there was a lot of not wanting to talk about what was really going on. I hesitate to say lying, but there was a lot of obscuring of some of the most difficult painful realities of what made up women's lives.
AS [09:45]: They were obscuring it from you?
SW [09:47]: I think so, but maybe sometimes also from themselves. Sometimes people would completely obliterate the fact that they had a child that was, that they'd either sold sometimes or that had died or that they felt like they were being forced to adopt to family or friends. Yeah, there was a lot of that and also there was a lot of shame around having experienced multiple marriages. A lot of women who had multiple marriages that they just kind of left out of their narratives on the first run took a lot of multiple sittings and conversations and piecing together what it was. And as we gradually built that trust, some of those details came out but other details like children were often told to me by other women.
HL [10:31]: For me I think the surprising thing is probably something that isn’t that common in people’s experience but because I'd been married to a Tongan before and I lived and worked in Tonga before, nobody took me seriously that I was there as a researcher and that was a shock for me because I went there thinking “well, I'm a PhD student, I'm going to do this big research project," and I went to live in the village with people that I knew and for the entire time I was there, they just humored me or and they sort of assumed I was there to look for another Tongan husband, even as the evidence of me being pregnant became obvious and I had my son with me. It was quite strange, so I had this very strange experiences of interviewing people who were just humoring me. So it was kind of, became difficult to take myself seriously. [laughter] Yeah, it was odd. It was quite odd.
SW [11:22]: That would have thoroughly fed into your imposter syndrome as a PhD student. [laughs]
HL [11:26]: It was absolutely, yes, and I've never got rid of that imposter syndrome, by the way. [laughs]
AS [11:32]: Do you feel that they were telling you a different story than what perhaps was the story?
HL [11:37]: No, I felt like it was actually good, they were treating me as if I was I was sort of an honorary Tongan. It felt that people were being very open with me and it turned out to be a great advantage to the fieldwork because I was living in households and people were just completely going about their daily business and treating me and my son as part of the family and everyone in the village just, I was just there. The fieldwork that I did had an indelible effect on my brain and my psyche and my heart. It wasn't that it was easy fieldwork in the sense of what I was observing, because I was focused on children and a lot of what I was seeing was violence to children, so that was very difficult. The ease was just the fact that people accepted me readily and were so open. I actually had an encounter with a woman at a conference not long after I'd finished my PhD who had done her fieldwork in Tonga with her husband and a small child with her, when they'd lived in their own separate house in this village, and she was arguing with me saying that she didn't see Tongans treating the children the way that I describe in my thesis and book that I published from the thesis. And I'm fairly certain it was because people didn't want her to see that, because she was very separate in the sense of being, you know, there with her white husband and her child and it was a very different thing. Whereas I was there living in a house with my son, who was regarded as a Tongan, and I was treated as a Tongan so I think I saw a lot of things that I wouldn't have seen if I didn't have that previous connection. So in that way it was an advantage, but it also meant that I saw a lot of things that I found very distressing. All the other kids were getting hit and he wasn’t. People thought I was a terrible mother because I didn't discipline him and he went pretty feral, I have to admit it. [laughs] But I couldn't. I don't believe in violence, to do it, and so you know I just couldn't go against my principles. But it ended up being valuable in the sense that it made me have conversations with people about why I didn't. But I was very, very careful not to try to impose my views on them and I wasn't going to preach to them about how to raise their children, I was there to observe how they raised their children.
AS [13:54]: Was that hard as a researcher and then as a parent?
HL [13:59]: It was hard as a person and a parent. It wasn't hard as a researcher because, as an anthropology undergraduate, cultural relativism was the emphasis and that was the main idea of anthropology was that you try to understand things from their perspective, which is exactly what I was trying to do and, for me as a researcher, I found it difficult to observe incidents of violence. There were also lots of very nice, you know, Tongans love their children and they do lots of lovely things as well. It was just the violence that I found difficult, as a parent and a person I found that really challenging. So I had this constant pull between me the person and my set of values and me the researcher. I mean, that's kind of what anthropology is is that, I think, that tension.
AS [14:46]: The conversations we do have about fieldwork are often tidied up or suppressed. Is there room to have those conversations? Would it be beneficial or not to have those conversations, especially with PhD students?
HL [14:59]: Oh, I would have loved someone to have had conversations with me before I went to the field not even specifics about what I was going to experience in Tonga but just what I was going to experience as a researcher. Even talking through that kind of tug between you as a person you as a researcher. I'd gone through when there were no methodology subjects as an undergraduate student no one had ever really talked through those issues and ethics, as I said I was not an issue. So yeah I would have loved it. I've been an avid reader of people's fieldwork accounts for years and I think it says I'm trying to dig through them to find those little bits where they admit the difficulties and often, I think, they're tidied up a little bit. I'm always fascinated by other people's fieldwork accounts.
AS [15:45]: There seems to be a need for those conversations.
SW [15:47]: Yeah, very much so, and I put lot of pressure on myself when I was in the field to really engage with critically analyzing what was going on, and I wish that I had given myself the space or been told to give myself the space of just not knowing and being encouraged to make sense of those feelings and work through them in the field. And then, you know, put my analysis hat on later.
HL [16:11]: That's true actually, because we don't get encouraged to do the feeling part of it at all. And if you do get any methodology, it's the intellectual work of it, not that emotion work.
SW [16:23]: No, and I think when you are researching violence or when you encounter that and you're forced to sit with people for months at a time and just talk about horrific violence and this idea that nothing could ever change and it's very difficult and it changes you. You start to believe that nothing could ever change and that's deeply, deeply painful and deeply difficult to navigate.
HL [16:53]: And I guess as a researcher you can't, you can't be saying to your research participants how emotionally distraught you are by their accounts, you’ve got to keep up a face. You can't be saying “I'm really badly affected by all this” because you're hearing their stories, it's, they're the ones who are in a precarious, awful situation.
SW [17:13]: It's nothing about you, exactly.
HL [17:18]: Yet you are having that experience.
SW [17:20]: Exactly. And we were talking about me and how I was a trained therapist and how I was told that the people that you engage with, they sense how much you can deal with and if you show that you're not going to be able to deal with it, then they're going to stop talking to you.
AS [17:34]: I think I'm in that stage with my fieldwork now where my participants are testing me, sussing me out: how I react to things that they do. Trying to see if I am genuine, reliable, worthy of being given this temporary custodian role of their experiences. Do I understand something? Not the whole experience because, of course, I as a researcher wouldn't be able to understand what the lived experiences women experiencing homelessness have and that would be wrong for me to say that I do understand. But that I can, in some ways, feel at least a little bit of what they are feeling or going through and that opens up some of that relationship-building and maybe understanding.
HL [18:25]: I think empathy is a good term there, where you can't sit there and be blank. Because then you might be seen to be unfeeling or uncaring. So you need to show that you're empathetic. But yes, without all of the other reactions that may be flying around your head and your heart, but simply showing empathy which I guess is the same sort of principle. So, human contact.
SW [18:51]: Right, actually, it's really interesting that you say that because this woman who verbally assaulted me when I was first in the station, we later had a conversation about how she perceived me and she had a conversation with me about how important it was that I was sitting in the dirt with her and how, for her, that meant that she was worthy of being seen and being treated like she was human. She talked to me about how "these other people they treat us worse than dogs but you, you come and sit with us" and then she talked about "you, you show loving care, you hug us." I had no idea that, like, sitting with and these hugs meant so much. What I failed to think through was the fact that I was working with people who had very rarely been shown love and care and their whole life histories were ones of people abusing and exploiting them and being told that they weren't worthy. The public would just walk past them and say “you're never going to get buried.” We forget how very small things can be important and that showing love and care is just as much a project as anything else that we might do.
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Impossibly high heels
How is it that the largest shopping centre in Melbourne reminds me of the station?
I hear the scream
see her face
watch the hands
do unspeakable things
smell the Betadine
mixed with decaying flesh
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Curls up my legs
I can’t breathe
I sit in a coffee shop for hours
Drawing angry black lines
Waiting for the shaking to go
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AS [20:44]: There is a homelessness researcher, Catherine Robinson, who's done work in Sydney with homeless youth and she talks on embodied research. She feels that her body is a register for the felt dimensions of homelessness. It's what you were, Shoshanna, talking about as well. The kind of hopelessness and how that then manifests as sorrow through the researcher’s body. Prison ethnographers talk on a lot about how their body reacts to the confinement of prison even though they are clearly able to walk in and walk out. But how they get cold sores, they get respiratory infections, and it's their body responding to what they're hearing and seeing. Is there a role for those embodied experiences to help us think through or is it more of a hindrance?
SW [21:40]: I had reoccurring nightmares and it was of the largest boy in my high-school class and this hand reached out and grabbed his hair and smashed it repeatedly on this metal bench. And I think it was a metaphor for how angry I was at men, particularly because I witnessed so much police violence in my field site. So, and then also this perceived helplessness of this boy to do anything against this hand, and ah, it was very frightening. So yeah, I think it is important. It was just one manifestation that . . .
HL [22:18]: But you don't have a choice.
SW [22:19]: Exactly!
HL [00:22:21]: I mean, I don’t think it’s a choice. I think you are going to have embodied reactions if you're fully engaged as a fieldworker. You are going to have those reactions, whether it's nightmares or I spent a lot of the time crying or being angry or crying and being angry at the same time. There's no way I could have not had those feelings and not being able to sleep, having bad dreams, all of those sorts of things. And a long time after fieldwork, not just during. A long time, and going through my fieldnotes in preparation for today brought a lot of that back.
AS [22:56]: And that was thirty years ago.
HL [22:58]: Thirty years ago and, when I look back on those field notes, it was as if I'd written them yesterday. The incidents that I was looking at were so vivid in my mind. I know exactly where I was, I know exactly where the other people I was writing about where. I can, it's completely burned into my brain.
SW [23:15]: There are very problematic narratives around how trauma and grief and loss operate and how—this idea that you go through a grieving period and there’s a diagnostic criteria, having to experience it for six months, and then you’ve got chronic depression. And my experiences of PTSD and depression were really not like that. I had really good days and then really bad days.
HL [23:38]: I think I was lucky, in that sense, that there were a lot of really great aspects of my fieldwork as well. Lots of really fun times, beach picnics and you know, nice time sitting around with the family. The things that I'm referring to were daily events but they weren't all day every day. It was balanced out, so I don't think I was nearly as badly affected. But if you're talking to people with the kinds of issues that you were dealing with all day, that would be extremely difficult to deal with and I really, ir makes me wonder about a duty of care as supervisors when students come back from the field having had such experiences, or even while they're in the field. What is our duty of care to help them deal with that? My students talk a lot about things that happened to them in the field, but really we should be urging students to go and get professional help if they've had difficult experiences. But typically people don’t.
SW [24:35]: I was really lucky that mine did.
HL [24:36]: That’s good.
SW [24:38]: I went to this counselor and I started crying within, like, the first two minutes of our session, and she was like: “I think maybe you should go see a psychologist.” But then I was on a waiting list for a couple of months.
HL [24:49]: No . . .
SW [24:50]: Yeah. But, like, I'd asked to have access, like I was really interested in the area of mental health as an occupational therapist. I'd done, like, a whole self-care plan and stuff, and I asked to have access to psychological services because I knew the counsellng services were available through the uni. But they couldn't hook it up when I was living overseas.
AS [25:09]: In my ethics application, I wrote that I will be able to access counseling services through the university if need be, and mine most probably wouldn't have gone through without.
HL [25:23]: Usually, it's counseling services for your participants and you had to put it in for you.
AS [25:27]: Yeah, for myself.
HL [25:29]: I've never seen that. It made me think, though, of the change in anthropology from the old days, where doing fieldwork was seen as a kind of initiation.
AS [25:37]: Yes, the rite of passage.
HL [25:39]: Yes. And so as little information was given as possible. I suspect there's a little bit of that now still though, even though you know you might have to say on your ethics application where you can get counseling and you might have a supervisor who directs you to counseling when you get back. I still think there's a little bit of that ethos of fieldwork as a rite of passage around today. It's almost like you have to suffer during your fieldwork or it's not real fieldwork.
AS [26:07]: But then again leaving the field, you should be able to leave all that aside. Do you really leave the field? Have those experiences then informed you of future research . . .
SW [26:21]: Your future self. For me, it completely and utterly changed me. I used to be a fundamentalist Christian. I became a very strong feminist.
HL [26:32]: It does have an ongoing impact on your life. It does.
SW [26:36]: It completely shifted my narratives about how I could understand the world and how I made sense of it and how I understand myself. But another thing I wanted to briefly say was around space and creating space. I mean, I went to the station about three times a week. I had to wait for translations and I did a lot of coding, but also because some days I just couldn't go and I mean, I had this privilege, I guess, of being able to remove myself and just be in a completely different space.
AS [27:05]: That's what I struggle with a lot, because I have fortunately been given by the service that I'm doing my work through, open access and they're like 24/7, the service. So basically I make my own working hours. When I started, of course, the whole fear of missing out, worrying if I'm not there every second of the minute, every minute of the hour and so on that I would miss something really fundamental. I treated it as a full-time job plus overtime and that in itself was hard, because I didn't have that time to think through what was going on in the field or what was going on for my participants. So one afternoon, I was reading the Aldi catalog and I started crying and I was like, oh, so this is the most inoffensive, you know [laughter] reading material that I could find at home, because I couldn't read anything or I couldn't even listen to music or watch anything because I was just so highly alert. I was like, OK, this may mean that I need to have some time away, but then it still went for a few weeks, and it was actually this PhD writing group that I go to and talking with them through things like: should I be in the field every day, seven days a week, or five days a week, kind of not knowing things like that because it's not talked about. It’s not talked about that, ah, you have to give yourself some breathing space if possible. Sometimes you can't have that breathing space.
HL [28:38]: That's true. Because, I mean, that's another thing nobody talked to me about. They knew I was going to go and live in a house in a village. Nobody ever said you might want to figure out a way to have time to yourself and I spent a lot of the time in that house feeling sort of angry with myself, because I'm quite a private person and I'm not an extrovert and I kind of wished I was. Because I thought, you know, I'm there 24/7 in the field. I had to make myself go and be in the midst of everything because my instinct was to want to go and hide out in my bedroom. And I think personality makes a big difference to fieldwork. Which is another thing nobody ever talks about. But if I had been a real extrovert and just been out there being a lot more loud and not as reserved as I am, maybe I would have coped differently. I don't know.
AS [29:33]: But that could have also changed the way people will talk to you or feel comfortable talking to you.
HL [29:39]: I think the way I am worked well because it was seen as respectful. I wasn't pushing myself on people. I just sort of stayed in the background and when people were willing to talk to me, that was great, but I didn't push myself on anybody. But I mean, my son and I both got really sick for the first couple of months that we were there. We constantly had stomach upsets. We both lost a lot of weight and couldn't sleep very well. There's a television set right next to the wall where a bed was that was on 24/7, really loud. He was losing weight because everyone was treating him as Tongan. He was reacting to that because he didn't speak Tongan and nobody would speak English to him and he didn't like the food. So I came very close to going home after a couple of months and then we figured out a routine where we could get a bus into town once a week and go to a hotel and have a hamburger and he could have a swim. That changed the whole dynamic because we had that time. It would have been difficult for him, too, it really would have been challenging for him as an eight-year-old. So yeah, I think in the field you have to find those spaces that you claim as yours to do what you want to do, even if it's just half a day or something. It makes a huge difference.
SW [30:56]: I found it even more all-encompassing when I started to write. Like, that's when it became all-encompassing, particularly in those first few months. I was having quite significant PTSD and depression. I was so committed to make sense of my data and work out what my thesis structure was going to be and so it became my world for six months. And when I would start to read people's narratives it was so painful and distressing, so I could really only read a little while before I just got so overwhelmed with emotion. So I had to create space for that, but then I would do other things like read theory and it was constantly, everything in my life became about trying to figure it out. And in the end, I actually write about in my thesis how so much of the vulnerability that constructed women's everyday lives was this uncertainty and how uncertainty was really the only ongoing feature of women's everyday. And so that's where I kind of arrived, because there's no making sense of it. There's no grand theory, that you just have to be OK with it.
AS [31:04]: How should we balance that immediacy and emotional impact of fieldwork, and how to untangle those emotions and plots without it becoming more about us as researchers rather than our research and our research participants?
SW [31:40]: I think it can detract from what our participants go through. Hearing and witnessing—for a short period of time—the violence is nothing like what they have to experience, often for years, decades at a time. And I think there is the danger of us detracting from that and that's important to acknowledge as well, because in the end it's not really about us.
HL [32:46]: It's been interesting over the course of my career, because I've seen the waves of change. So when I did my undergraduate, when the Clifford and Marcus Writing Culture had come out, and so there was a lot of issues of representation and all the angst around who has authority to speak for whom, all of those kinds of questions. And then we had the reflexive turn, where it was good to write about your experiences and people went forward into writing blow-by-blow accounts of their fieldwork and what worked and what didn't. And I remember examining theses from that period, where there'd be an entire chapter of someone telling me every detail of what happened in their fieldwork and what went wrong, and I was very frustrated with that actually. It got to the point where it veered over into self-indulgence and I think since then we've pulled back from that a lot, and I still tell my students, my undergrads and my postgrads, that you have to be reflexive and it's very rare for people to write up fieldwork without having a reflexive discussion of their position and their impact on the research and vice versa. But I think we've pulled back from the self-indulgent vein that we headed down for a while, and it's more balanced now. But I think there still needs to be that avenue, somewhere, for people to talk about those experiences.
AS [34:10]: So almost, in a sense, two different things.
HL [34:12]: Yes.
AS [34:14]: There is the thesis, there's all that goes with the academic scholarly side, but then to find somehow an avenue to also talk about emotions.
SW [34:23]: Yeah, to make sense of the feeling . . .
HL [34:26]: So we're trying to really have a pattern for our students of a prefieldwork seminar where they get lots of impact from staff and from other students about what they're planning to do, so that we can have those conversations about what can be expected that don't seem to happen much. And then have a postfieldwork seminar for people to debrief. And I think if we can try and get that happening, that will be a good way for people to have an opportunity to talk. But some people won't want to talk to a group about their personal emotional reactions and I think that that's the role of, if it's a PhD student, it's the role of supervisors. If it's, if it's someone post-PhD, it's the role of the people they're working with—their colleagues. We need to be able to talk about those kinds of things and not see it as a weakness. You can have very emotional reactions that have a long-lasting impact and we shouldn't have to pretend they're not happening.
SW [35:24]: For me, so, it was also about identifying people who were in Bangladesh with me who could in some way understand what I was going through. So a very big part of my well-being was talking to my research assistant, and I would frame it in terms of getting her to be reflexive about her well-being, acknowledging that this research is having an impact on her but in facilitating those conversations for her, it was also cathartic for me in allowing myself to express what I was going through.
AS [35:53]: I’m nearing the end of my fieldwork and, somewhat unsurprisingly, I have more questions than I have answers. Is it possible to be deeply engaged and a legitimate researcher at the same time? I’m exhausted in a way that belies words. Does this make me less of an anthropologist? Does this make my data less valid? I’m not sure. But what I know is that the emotions we both convey and suppress shape the stories we tell and the social realities we live in. I also hope that working through the range of emotions, especially the unease and the uncertainty, will foster valuable empirical theoretical insights. I have been fortunate enough to be able to have these conversations with my peers as well as my supervisors. Without them I would've drowned in a sea of affliction and I hope this conversation might be a starting point for further reflection on the challenges of engaging in fieldwork. I will leave you now with a vignette from Helen's fieldnotes that is indicative of a situation in which a researcher might find themselves in.
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Narrator [37:01]: December 29, 1988. Leiaso was going to be hit for not having his bath when told. He got one hit with the broom and ran away to the end of the garden. Kalo yelled, yelled to him to come, standing with a broom in hand. He just screamed and sobbed. She walked down to where he was and moved in on him, whacking him with the broom as he stumbled before her, then turned the broom around and whacked him two or three times with the stick end. He ran ahead of her, hysterically screaming. He still didn’t to go shower, was too beside himself and she kept yelling at him but was interrupted by people coming and he was left alone for a while.
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AS [37:46]: Thanks for listening to this episode. This work was supported by the University of Adelaide under the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship Scheme. I would like to thank Helen and Shoshanna for their time and for sharing with us some of the more heartfelt and gritty aspects of their fieldwork. I would also like to thank my PhD writing and support group, The Squad, for their ongoing love and collective wisdom. I would also like to thank Shelley Travers for her general podcast advice. A shout-out to Andrew Gramp and Paul Chambers for their audio editing and recording advice. I am very pleased that Helka Manninen, Kristi Urry, and Sarah Pearce were able to read out the poems heard in this podcast. And, of course, a big thank you to Anar Parikh and the rest of the brilliant and supportive AnthroPod crew for giving me the opportunity to try my luck in podcasting. My name is Aisha Sultan, guest producer of this episode of AnthroPod. AnthroPod is the podcast of the Society for Cultural Anthropology and produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.