Blog | October 2011

Fieldwork at ‘home’

by Laavy Kathiravelu


When I first met my fellow researchers on the GlobalDivercities project, I was struck that we were all “locals” in the cities we were going to study. If not born in those cities, we had each lived for an extended period of time in the field sites we were about to research. Anthropologists doing fieldwork in their own home countries is not a new development, but this also seemed to me, to pose some methodological challenges. Many of the methodologies we will use on the GlobalDivercities project draw from anthropological and ethnographic perspectives to understand everyday interactions. Anthropology as a discipline, as we know, originated as the study of societies and cultures foreign to the researcher’s own. This assumption has shaped some of its methodologies, but how do they translate when studying ‘home’?

One of the possible issues that could come up, was highlighted by Susanne Wessendorf, in a post some time back, where she discussed difficulties in getting her informants to explain to her their daily routines. They assumed that as a “local”, she would know! While there can be devised specific tactics to negotiate such circumstances, the bigger question for researchers at ‘home’, is how to make the familiar unfamiliar again. How do we look at spaces and people intimately known to us with a lens that is different? I wonder how successful I will be in maintaining my critical eye and keeping those outsider glasses on in my own society and country. Being back ‘home’, it is even easier to slip back into taken-for-granted modes of thinking about places and routines. It takes a much more self-conscious questioning and constant reappraisal to keep from losing the Outsider’s distanced (but not necessarily more objective) perspective.

This is not perhaps, just a problem for researchers conducting fieldwork in their home contexts, but for all fieldworkers. After a long period of being in the field, a sense of fatigue sets in where everything does not seem as new or significant any longer, and we start to take for granted the rules and norms that govern such spaces. What tactics are useful then in order to maintain that anthropological gaze? With the GlobalDivercities project, the plethora of visual methods we have been introduced to should aid in this process of de-familiarisation. Looking at a situation or place through the (physical and conceptual) lens of a camera, for instance, lends fresh perspectives and ways of understanding a space and the people within it. The lens frames episodes, peoples and spaces in ways that allow for concentrated ways of looking and examining.

Conversely, doing fieldwork at ‘home’ also has its advantages. My status as a “local” opens up many doors. There isn’t a constant need to legitimate and explain my presence in most spaces in which I do fieldwork. ‘Blending in’ is easy. Because of my already existing networks, it also saves a period of having to build up contacts in order to source informants. It is much easier to tap into already existing networks. However, this can also change existing relationships. Asking friends or family who have known you for many years to introduce you to their friends, or include you in particular activities means involving them in a part of your work. It may, happily, deepen a relationship, or perhaps lead to conflict when there are ethical or ideological differences of opinion.

Another challenge is the difficulty of drawing the line between “fieldwork” and “non-fieldwork” activities. I am just at the start of the fieldwork phase but already find myself rushing back home to scribble down field notes about something interesting someone had said at a social gathering of friends, or at the pub that evening, when supposedly unwinding from work. But perhaps that is the nature of such research, where personal interactions become the stuff of conference papers and journal articles.

The question of getting away from the field also becomes interesting. When fieldwork is a ‘home’, even if writing up takes place in a different location, the connection with the fieldwork site remains strong and constant – primarily because of ties with family and friends back home. This adds a dimension to the discussion by Jovan Maud in a previous post, where he muses about how researchers often stay tied to their field sites through the internet and other media tools. As Jovan points out, the clearly conceived disconnect between a period of fieldwork and then writing up becomes even more blurred.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to completely distance myself from my home/field site of Singapore, but am excited at the prospect of being able to re-discover the society I come from in a way that is only possible through the critical imagination fostered by the social sciences.


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