Blog | June 2009

Anthropological Travel: between institutional support and the perils of paperwork

by Tilmann Heil


On a recent trip to Senegal I met a friend of a friend, also a German, who was travelling in West Africa. Sitting in the little backyard of a house in suburban Dakar, the capital of the Senegal, we were drinking a glass of wine and talking while waiting for our Senegalese friends. That night we would celebrate my last evening before returning to Europe. Some months later I emailed with the same German, and told her about the successful start of my PhD. She jealously replied: ‘When we’ll meet again, you’ll have to tell me how you manage to travel so much and get paid for it!’ True, I am very far from complaining, but is it just that?

I only started my PhD a couple of months ago and I am researching the perceptions of Casamançais migrants and their families of the European immigration society in Catalonia, Spain. The comparative dimension between experiences and ideas of difference and diversity prior to migration and in the migration context will play a big role in it. Thus, fieldwork will be both in Spain and Senegal. I admit it is a rather complex geographical arrangement, also because I am a student of Oxford University and a stipend of the MPI. Apart from going back and forth between Göttingen and Oxford (and I don’t think this was the part my friend was envious about), for my fieldwork I will be spending the autumn in Catalonia and winter and spring in the Casamance, and the following summer in Spain. Meteorologically perfect timing one would think.

But what does one need to actually get started and to be able to stick to this timetable apart from detailing research questions, reading the literature, writing-up extended outlines, all aspects of the academic endeavour? As I am in the process of learning, it is a lot more than that! For one there are formalities, a lot of formalities: A risk and safety assessment form, the CUREC (Central University Research Ethics Committee) form, fieldwork permission, a budget plan, scholarship mid-term reports, re-application for scholarships, travel grants, and the usual preparations for a journey outside of Europe, to mention only a few. Although many of these forms do make you think about practicalities of your research, some of it is just absurd and you wonder whether enjoying the short hours of Göttingen summer outside would not contribute a lot more to your general progress and wellbeing. Let me only dwell upon the first ones of these examples.

The health and safety assessment: Right at the beginning it states in bold “You need to submit this form (and the H&S Plan [oh no, another one of them]) to the Administrator at least 6 weeks in advance of your proposed departure date. No travel should be booked until approval for your fieldwork has been obtained.” Great, I am good at least time wise – but this also confronts me with rather surprising questions: Before booking them, how can I know addresses and telephone numbers of exact places where I will stay and which I have to fill in for my different field sites? How can I know my insurance number for a trip that is not yet booked? I am exposed to very practical problems. But there is more to it.

Skimming through, I see a request to check the websites of the Foreign Office (UK) and the Auswärtige Amt (Germany) for travel information. Both advise against overland travel in the Casamance. Now, the form states that I need to seek approval before making any arrangements. Is this not equivalent with applying for the PhD in this area? I guess not. Scrolling down even further, I see links to university policies, which will help me identify hazards and levels of risks of my research. I click on the websites; they are very detailed and long. Seeing all this, I decide to postpone to another day or afternoon, hoping for some more motivation to help me sustain my efforts. Especially since I know that once the form is sent off I’ll be getting an email asking me even more questions, from a caring member of the university who is concerned with my personal safety. Better to double check seems to be the paradigm of a society obsessed with health and safety.

The ethics form is not going to be any easier. Although there are detailed ethical guidelines of the discipline of Anthropology to not harm my respondents or me for that matter, I also have to comply with the university wide procedures. Their ethic forms originate from medical studies and still don’t quite fit anthropological fieldwork. During my masters, we got an hour long introduction to how to fill it in. It’s all about which boxes to tick and which ones not to tick or to tick differently to your initial intuition. I do feel intuition is not asked for in this process. This is puzzling because of the stark contrast to good anthropological fieldwork. It is crucial though, because if you tick the box about written informed consent wrongly it makes you fill out a much longer form – I am pretty sure nothing to look forward to. In the past, I argued that I would seek ongoing negotiated informal consent. It worked last time and will probably do this time. But a note on the website states that the rules have changed recently, as has the form. The changes do not seem to be substantial; however, there can be enough to have to be cautious to not fall into a potential bureaucratic trap.

Instead of engaging with these two heavy tasks, I call one of my colleagues asking for her forms as a frame of reference. While she is looking through her mail, I decide to turn to the budget instead. This at least is very directly linked to some of the positive institutional support I get and I am thankful for. Though, it is difficult to figure out how much I will spend on mobile phone calls in the Casamance during 6 or 7 months and how much my transport there is going to cost. Yet, I feel it is manageable; finally something.

Indeed, all the forms do trigger some thought about the rights and security of your informants and your own health and safety. They make you calculate important aspects of your fieldwork and help you plan the trip. Also members of the institute and the university are very supportive. However, the aspects described reveal that going on fieldwork is not just the usual bit of buying a guide book, getting the vaccinations, buying a ticket and getting off for a holiday. No, it is more and hence implies more preparation. And although both institutions I am based in give me a lot of support, there are aspects of administration involved which seem to have developed a life of their own.

This weekend the girl who was travelling in West Africa is passing by Göttingen. I think this blog provides a good first step in explaining what you have to do beyond travelling and getting paid for it.


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