Doing fieldwork with busy people
by Susanne Wessendorf
I’m sitting in a street café in a London neighbourhood where I’m currently doing fieldwork on ‘super-diversity’. While enjoying my daily dose of caffeine, I’m wondering how I could get an insight into the lives of the many people walking past. While a few privileged ones have time to stop and drink a cup of tea or coffee by the side of the road, most hurry to get to work, drop off their kids at nursery, or go shopping. While watching these busy people, lively memories of my last research come to my mind. At the time, I did fieldwork in both a rural and an urban context - in southern Italy and in a Swiss city - as part of my research on second-generation transnationalism. After a few months in an enjoyable southern Italian village by the sea where, especially during the summer, my informants had plenty of time to chat to me at the beach or to invite me around for a coffee, I returned to Switzerland to embark on the urban part of my fieldwork, full of enthusiasm and questions which had arisen during my stay in southern Italy. Soon I realised though that doing fieldwork in my home town and in an urban context was a very different story, and my initial hopes of continuing to drink lots of espressos and cappuccinos and hanging out in street cafés with my informants were soon crushed by the realities of everyday life in a Swiss city. I quickly realised that my informants’ lives were characterised by demanding jobs and little spare time, and many second-generation Italians were rather busy with their work, family and childcare, as well as various hobbies.
The nature of their everyday lives in Switzerland not only led to challenges regarding the practicalities of doing participant observation in an urban context, but also to ethical questions. How could I justify taking people’s time? How could I accomplish the anthropological task of ‘hanging out with people’ if they did not actually hang out that much and, if so, in their private space? These questions came up after going through many years of anthropological training which emphasised the importance of participant observation, describing it as at least as, if not more valuable than, interviews.
The more I ‘entered the field’ and tried to spend time with people outside my own circle of friends, the more I realised that I needed a proper reason to contact people from the start. I figured that, contrary to many recommendations among my anthropologist colleagues who told me to do interviews after establishing a relationship (i.e. after several informal meetings), interviews actually served as a way to make first contacts and to justify taking up my informants’ time. People understand what an interview means and are mostly readily available to give a certain amount of time to a researcher. However, what would follow after the interview? How could I explain to people why I would want to spend time with them? How could I explain that anthropological research goes beyond interviewing and that much of it is about spending time together or, in anthropological terms, ‘participant observation’?
Not only was it inappropriate to expect from my informants to invite me into their private lives and spend time with me, but because I did fieldwork at home, my informants assumed that I would already know what their everyday lives were like, and they rightly thought that my life was probably very similar to theirs. When I asked them about their daily whereabouts, they often looked at me in puzzlement, emphasising that they just had ‘a normal life’, working, shopping, watching TV, looking after their kids, going out with friends, etc. To have somebody who leads a very similar life observe their lives seemed utterly absurd to many informants. Had I done fieldwork in an Asian or African context, perhaps my being a foreigner would have legitimized my curiosity about their lives, but in my home town, I lacked a proper reason to ‘observe’ how my informants went about their daily lives.
Because of these difficulties, my fieldwork took on a rather episodic character of entering and leaving ‘the field’. Everyday social relations with my informants consisted of casual encounters and participant observation in cafés, at Salsa classes and at Italian club nights, of visits to four families who had become friends, and of dinners with both Swiss and second-generation Italian friends who had been among my acquaintances already previous to my research.
My current fieldwork on social relations in a super-diverse neighbourhood in London is similarly shaped by such episodic encounters, with a combination of regular activities such as a weekly lunch-club and a knitting club, and one-off events and interviews with local residents. However, at least this time, thankfully, the pressure of doing ‘proper anthropological fieldwork’, which prioritises participant observation over interviews, is off my shoulder, thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of both the Max-Planck-Institute and the project itself. I am now free to play with different methodologies, take on more quantitative approaches with surveys and questionnaires, and do one-off interviews with people who I might never see again.