Un-immersive Fieldwork

For me as for many geographers, fieldwork implies immersion. That is, immersing myself in a place I seek know better; immersing myself in the language and cultures of research collaborators. For over 25 years, on and off, this immersive research approach has included travel to Honduras, where I have worked with indigenous communities in the Moskitia region to understand their economic and political relationships with the biodiverse forests of their homelands.

Now, in a global pandemic, social immersion is neither possible nor advisable. Does that make fieldwork impossible? Certainly, it challenges the sorts of social interaction that, in my experience, can yield ‘ah-ha!’ research moments. Like the time I’d spent the day doing ‘participant observation’—helping a friend weed her bean field under a cloudless tropical sky. As we poled her canoe back to the village, she casually mentioned some forest lands she’d claimed since the massive flooding from Hurricane Mitch a few years before. Her comment led me to ask new questions about how the community had rebounded from the disaster, which ultimately revealed surprising strategies that challenged common understandings of rural peoples’ vulnerability to climate shocks.

Professor Kendra McSweeney during a research trip in Honduras. Photo courtesy of Kendra McSweeney.

But as we’ve all learned, social interaction doesn’t end just because we can’t travel, or meet face-to-face. And neither does fieldwork. This past month, Deborah Lupton, a sociologist in Australia, began to crowdsource fieldwork strategies for the COVID era. The result is the open-source Google doc, “Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic.” The options seem endless: on-line surveys, wearable cameras, ‘epistolary interviews,’ diaries and journaling, video-based focus groups, and much more.

I’ve used some of these strategies, and I can attest to their effectiveness not only as a fieldwork ‘hack’ but also as a way to deepen solidarity across space. I’ve been doing research with Honduran collaborators remotely for a while now. Not because of a pandemic. My research has been virtual ever since drug traffickers took control of travel routes through the Moskitia, and since indigenous communities have been wracked by the violence and in-fighting that the traffickers and corrupted officials deliberately foment. My friends there tell me they can’t guarantee my safety, and I know that my presence would compromise theirs.

So, we “meet” and “talk” via WhatsApp, Facebook and Messenger. It still feels odd receiving texts in Tawahka and Miskitu; even stranger receiving cell-phone video from a village that still has no running water or electricity but does, if you climb a nearby hill, get cell phone service. Peoples’ willingness to stay in touch with me is, of course, predicated on that prior time spent together, the trust built from shared experiences in the past. For the same reason, the biggest challenge of remote communication, for me, is to do right by the testimonies that my friends send me, describing their lives of fear, insecurity, and poverty. They have asked that I help to spread the story of their situation. In effect, they’re asking me to leverage my privileged remoteness from their everyday experience; to make good use of our socially distanced worlds. In this case, that means mobilizing their words to help explain and denounce the drug war violence that they endure. For several years now, this goal has guided my research program.

Professor Kendra McSweeney presenting her research and findings at the United Nations. Photo courtesy of Kendra McSweeney

So, yes, the pandemic is challenging how we do fieldwork, and probably will for a while. It is one thing to maintain contact with long-term collaborators via technology; it is quite a different task to initiate new fieldwork connections in a “remote” mode. How do you build trust with potential collaborators with whom you can’t share space? Is there any virtual equivalent to the social connection sparked over a shared pot of tea? These are the sorts of questions that will likely be answered in the months and years ahead, as we adapt to this new research reality. I am hopeful that we might find, in these strange times, surprising ways to build social connections across space, in ways that hold promise for not only making our research better, but more meaningful.

Kendra McSweeney

Professor, Department of Geography

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