What they don’t tell you about ethnographic fieldwork

Two weeks ago I returned to the UK having spent six months in Belgium doing ethnographic fieldwork for my PhD. It was my first experience of ethnography and was one of the most amazing and enriching experiences of my life. But it was also one of the hardest, most challenging things I’ve ever done. And I really wasn’t prepared for it.

I wish someone had told me about the isolation, the pressure, the vulnerability, the guilt, the pragmatic challenges and the Club. Once you’ve done ethnography you’ll realise that you’ve become part of a club: the Ethnographers’ Club.

I wish someone had talked to me about it. I wish I’d known that there was a club, and that others had experienced what I was going through, but no-one told me that. And because doing ethnographic fieldwork is like nothing else, whilst I was doing it there were few who could meaningfully empathise with me.

So today I’m writing this for those of you who will soon or one day embark upon your first experience of ethnography. I want to prepare you, reassure you, and encourage you. I’m going to share some of the things and thoughts I went through and some coping mechanisms.


“I’m trapped, and surrounded”

When you do ethnographic fieldwork everything is potentially significant: every place, interaction, event, comment, news article, whatever. This means that for as long as you are in ‘the field’, you’re at work. Such a feeling affected me in two ways: it exhausted me, and it made me feel trapped.

I found two ways of combatting these feelings: 1) from time to time I went to a near-by city. There I couldn’t observe and so could switch off; and 2) I made friends in that city, who I spent time with. Because they didn’t meet the demographic criteria for my research, they couldn’t be a part of it; they had to just be friends.

“I feel so vulnerable”

However small they might be, as we go from one place to another – be it from county to county or continent to continent – we are met with different cultural norms. I’ve lived in several European cities and I don’t know about you, but I always feel slightly more vulnerable when I’m abroad. I think this is because I just don’t have the same cultural insight as a resident, which in turn marks me out as different and this makes me feel vulnerable. In the early stages of my fieldwork I felt quite vulnerable as I wasn’t familiar with the research site and its cultural norms. With time, and through participating in the community, my insight grew, I felt less like an outsider, and consequently less vulnerable.

 “Who’s doing the observing here?”

I did two lots of fieldwork, and in the first stint I had a constant feeling that everyone (be it the man walking the dog or the lady buying milk) somehow knew I was ‘observing.’ I felt like they knew, and that they were looking at me: a whole town was observing me. It wasn’t a very nice feeling.

In my second stint I didn’t have this feeling really, and I think this is why: in phase one I felt like my entire identity was ‘researcher-observer’. In contrast, in phase two I felt it was more like ‘human who does research.’ By getting some perspective on who I was in the grander scheme of things, I felt less conspicuous, more normal and better.

“This is beyond my control”

Although ethnographic insight feeds into my research, the data for my PhD comes from interviews with inhabitants from the region I lived in. I was principally living in the field in order to interview people. To interview people, you have to find people, ask them if they will participate, then, if they agree, organise a time, a place, and finally interview them.

However hard you try, if someone ultimately says no, or changes their mind, or cancels on you, there’s absolutely nothing you can do: it is entirely beyond your control. Being dependent on other people was quite stressful; however, eventually I learnt to go with the flow, which reduced the stress level.

“No-one understands what I’m going through”

As I explained right at the beginning, doing ethnographic fieldwork is like nothing else. At times when I was really struggling with the feelings above, I did what I think most people would do in that situation: I rang friends and family in search of comfort and support. They did their very best, and they were supportive. But they just couldn’t quite understand what I was going through, and sometimes that made me feel even more alone. However, I have a friend who has done ethnographic fieldwork and, before I left for Belgium, he told me to call him if I needed to. It’s like he knew what was going to happen: of course he did; he’s part of the Club.

So, when things got really tough, I rang my friend, and we chatted through what was going on. And I knew he understood. And that was a great comfort and encouragement.

“I only want you for your data”

This is a weird one, and it’s only now as I’m writing this that I realise how I overcame one of the most unpleasant feelings I had in the field. In the early days I had this slightly horrible feeling every time I spoke to someone: as we were chatting I couldn’t help but size up their potential to be a research participant. And this made me feel quite calculating.

But I’ve realised now how I overcame it: I started doing what I do in any non-ethnographic situation and showed interest in them quite simply as human beings. My engagement in the conversation was honest. Then, as they reciprocated with showing interest in me, my research became quite naturally a topic of conversation.

“But no-one likes a nagger”

As my leaving date got closer, and I was still lacking research participants, my supervisor encouraged me more and more to chase up people (which I read as ‘nag them’). As someone who doesn’t like to ask people for help, or put people out, I hated this idea. No-one likes a nagger. But, when it came down to it, it was a case of nag, or not get my data. So I nagged; or rather, I chased people up and I was honest: I told them I was struggling to find participants and that my departure date was not far off. I hated nagging, but it was justified. And the thing is, people are good, and they are compassionate, and so, in the end, my honest nagging paid off.

“Oh these demography-tinted glasses are turning me into a terrible person”

My project requires data from men and women of all ages and from all socio-economic backgrounds. Inevitably, it got to a point in my fieldwork where I’d done a number of interviews, but was lacking participants of certain demographic criteria. Time was finite and so I didn’t have time to waste interviewing people who didn’t meet the right criteria. Resultantly, towards the end of my research, I found myself thinking about people I knew, wondering if they met the right criteria, or if they were likely to have anyone in their network who would.

I started to see people in terms of their age, sex and socio-economic background, or rather, I started to make judgments about their identity according to these criteria. It felt horrid judging people in that way. But, I had no choice but to do that; I had to be pragmatic about it. As soon as the fieldwork was over, though, the glasses got shelved.

“It’s all take take take”

It’s hard to write about this now as I really don’t feel this way anymore, but in the early days of my PhD I struggled with the feeling that when I did my fieldwork, I would go into the community, take from it for my own benefit, then leave the community. It all felt wrong to me.

When I arrived in Belgium, I set about trying to do as much to mitigate this feeling; looking for ways to participate in the community and give to it. In the end I managed to get involved in several different organisations and groups and share my teaching and artistic skills. In the early days this helped me feel better about ‘taking’ from the community. It also helped me to integrate, and feel more like a human and less like a researcher. So I would totally recommend getting involved in networks that interest you as a human.

However, and this is a big HOWEVER, with time I started to realise that the community were interested in my research. I realised that when I’ve completed my thesis I will share my findings with the community. And so, with time I stopped seeing my research as take take take; I saw it more as a co-production of knowledge. And since I’m going to share the research with the community, rather than me taking from them, ultimately I will be giving them something.

“I just want to go home”

When you’ve spent the previous X number of weeks stepping out of your comfort zone to try to pull off this ethnographic study, you’re on tenterhooks to see if you’re going to get cancelled on, your fieldwork isn’t going as you hope, you’re tired, you’re routine is different; in fact everything is different, be prepared to be hit with the thought “I just want to go home.” It happened to me from time to time, but I got through, and you will too. Try to get some perspective: it’s just research, it’s not your life; call your friends and family – they are rooting for you, even if they don’t fully understand; and stop to congratulate yourself on all that you’ve achieved. So to conclude:

Ethnographic Fieldwork Top Tips

  1. Find yourself an ethnobuddy: someone who has already done ethnographic fieldwork who you can ask if they will be prepared to take your calls when you’re really struggling. I can’t honestly imagine that someone would say no; we’re a small empathetic club, and we know it. If you can’t find anyone, email me. If you’ve got time before you head out, look around for ethnography research communities you can get involved in – you are certain to find an ethnobuddy there.
  1. Find your sanctuary: a place away from the research site where you can’t do ethnography. It is really important for your sanity that you find a place where you can take a break, and ideally people to spend time with who can’t be involved in your research.
  1. Congratulate yourself: we are so quick to focus on what we’ve not achieved, and that takes our mood down. So make sure you celebrate your achievements, no matter how big or small they are. Whether it is going into a shop and talking to someone, going to an event, or asking someone for an interview.

It will be challenging, but it will be amazing. Be bold and brave and know that we can’t wait to welcome you to the Club!