Fieldwork in a 250 sq ft Studio

One of the sampling methods commonly used in fieldwork is the snowballing technique. The method is to recruit the next research participants by asking current participants to help researchers in identifying potential participants, which is a kind of referral system. I took advantage of the method in my preliminary fieldwork last year. My generous interviewees gladly introduced me to someone they knew and sometimes took me directly if it was not far away from their places. Yet, COVID-19 changed everything.

The goal of my fieldwork this summer was to compare the two largest strawberry production regions in South Korea. I was supposed to participate in farm conferences and local education programs to recruit farmers for interviews and then apply the snowballing technique. However, most of those gatherings were canceled due to the virus. Even if there were meetings, they were held behind closed doors. I had no choice but to conduct “un-immersive fieldwork,” relying on cold calling from my rented studio in Seoul.

Three strategies that got me through this challenge were calling organizations’ representatives, virtual snowballing, and random calls.

Calling organizations’ representatives: There are several farmers’ organizations in the Korean strawberry sector (i.e., cooperatives, agricultural corporations, and strawberry research groups). The contact information for the organizations’ representatives is often posted on the government’s website, making it easy to make contact. Also, the representatives are usually more likely to be extroverted. If things went well, an interviewee was interviewed by phone while they were driving long distances, enabling in-depth interviews to take place over one to two hours. In the worst-case scenario, however, the interviewee was not able to answer questions properly, because they were on their way to visit a hospital or bank. One-third of the potential interviewees declined to be interviewed, refusing in the same manner as they would with spam calls. They said, “I don’t do such a thing. Sorry.”

Virtual snowballing: At the end of every telephone interview, I asked interviewees to introduce me to another close farmer. They were a little reluctant to introduce another farmer than I expected, and said, “Other farmers will say the same anyway.” This was in contrast to the welcome introduction of the surrounding farmers during the in-person visits last year. Meanwhile, experts (researchers, technicians, etc.) and government officials whom I met in person last year gladly introduced farmers they knew this year. I guess people become willing to introduce me to other people when they are sure that an interviewer is reliable and the introduction will not harm their reputations.

Random calls: I tried random calls to various farmers through a Google search. Usually, farmers who left their contact information on the Internet were selling agricultural machinery and fertilizers or running pick-your-own strawberry farms in addition to farming, and most of them willingly accepted the interview request. They answered my questions as comfortably as they treated their customers. I also posted a promotional post on the web communities for strawberry farmers, hoping to coax the farmers to call me. Despite the offer of compensation, only a small number of farmers contacted me. Interestingly, they had something in common in that they felt sorry for Ph.D. students because they or their children had graduate school experience.

In the COVID-19 era, while many people are getting used to new technologies such as Zoom, there remain difficulties in applying these technologies to fieldwork. The use of video calls or online messaging platforms was almost impossible, especially since farmers are of high average age and are usually conservative. Nevertheless, there must be huge room for improvement: a more friendly way of phone calls, writing an attractive promotional post, and many more creative methods. We keep learning how to adapt to uncertainties by doing everything in the virtual field.

As mentioned, there is always room for improvement, and I welcome new ideas. Please feel free to contact me if you have any suggestion for my virtual fieldwork!


Sohyun Park, PhD Candidate

Department of Geography

The Ohio State University

“Before-and-After” Pieces of the Climate Change Puzzle in Bolivia

As other colleagues have previously posted in this blog, un-immersive fieldwork1 has endless options that can unravel new ideas and research approaches. Inspired by Max Woodworth’s re-visitation2 to his photographic archives, I started looking back at my pictures of Bolivia – both my native land and my dissertation study site. Ever since I moved to the US in 2016, I have been able to go back to my home country twice per year, and only for a few weeks each time. This means that my photographic collection is intrinsically incomplete chronologically. However, when re-imagined as scattered pieces of a puzzle and integrated with images from other sources, it is possible to recognize some intriguing “before-and-after” stories. These other sources are various and somewhat unorthodox: Google Earth imagery, online newspapers, sometimes even pictures from unrelated trips. Capturing either the aftermath scenes, or unplanned “beginnings,” these images accompanied my journeys researching mountain ecosystems in Bolivia. The stories that these images narrate remind us that the impacts of climate change are true and tangible even in very short intervals of time.

For example, in July 2016, I joined my co-advisor Karina Yager from Stony Brook University on a few trips to the Bolivian Altiplano. We were surveying potential study areas for future research on bofedales (high altitude wetlands of the Andes). While in the Hampaturi Valley, we observed the surroundings of a water reservoir and took some casual pictures of the site (Figure 1a). What I did not know at that moment is that a few months later, the drought caused by the 2015-2016 El Niño would completely dry out the reservoir. When I came back to Bolivia in December that year, I was able to see it with my own eyes. The scene was heartbreaking. Not only were a quarter of million people of La Paz left without water service for months, the vegetation was also dead, the birds were gone, and the dry bottom of the reservoir revealed something that surprised me: the reservoir for the city’s drinking water was built over a former bofedal (Figure 1b).

Figure 1. Aiuan Kkota reservoir in July (a), and December (b), 2016. The reservoir dried out as a consequence of the El Niño 2016. Photo credits: Gabriel Zeballos

That was not the only body of water that dried out that year. The second largest lake in Bolivia, Lake Poopo, also disappeared. I visited the lake from the coastal town of Huari on June 2017. Despite some recuperation of the water levels in the previous months, I could observe the abandoned boats (Figure 2a). The soil was strikingly salty and the bottom was dry as far as the eyes could reach. It reminded me of the pictures I had seen from the Aral Sea. In August 2019, I went back to Huari. I was on a fieldtrip to the Bolivian Southern Altiplano. I took a short detour from my way. I needed to go back to the same place where I saw the abandoned boats in 2017. This time there were no boats, but also, almost no water. My powerful camera was able to capture some water bodies far on the horizon (Figure 2b). Flocks of flamingos were present. To see wildlife always warms the heart, although I knew that the economic activities of the anglers were never going to recover to levels of the past. The former anglers probably had migrated to other regions already by that time. They are climate refugees.

Figure 2. Lake Poopo in June 2017 (a) and August 2019 (b). The second largest lake in Bolivia dried out several times in the past five years. Photo credits: Gabriel Zeballos

Two thousand nineteen was also a hard year for my hometown, La Paz. In January, a landslide wiped out an entire segment of the Llojeta neighborhood, a sector built a couple of decades ago over a former waste landfill. Even 11 months later, when I took a picture from a cable car, the area still looked destroyed and under risk of collapse. An image from the History tool from Google Earth can give a better idea of how Llojeta appeared before the landslide (Figure 3a). It is not news that Google Earth has this useful application to view several older images of scenes, but to be able to capture a picture from the terrain gave me a better idea of the scale and magnitude of the event (Figure 3b).

Figure 3. Llojeta neighborhood in early January 2019, before the landslide (a), and December 2019 (b). The red outline shows the sector destroyed by the massive landslide. Photo credits: a) Google Earth, b) Gabriel Zeballos.

Later that year, the Amazon Rainforest from Bolivia and Brazil suffered one of the worst wildfires in recent history. I happened to visit one of the most impacted sites a few months before the beginning of the wildfires. The site of the picture is called the Serranía de Chochis. Besides its natural beauty and biological richness, this region belongs to one of the UNESCO’s World Historical Heritage sites: The Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos. The image on the left (Figure 4a) is the one I took with my cellphone camera in early January 2019. The image on the right belongs to an online newspaper ( (Figure 4b). That is what was left in late September 2019.

Figure 4. Serranía de Chochis in January (a) and September (b), 2019. The wildfires destroyed over 6 million hectares only in Bolivia. Credits: a) Gabriel Zeballos, b) Gabriel Zeballos based on a picture printed in Periódico Opinión.

In the early nineteenth century, the French explorer Alcides D’Orbigny commented about his travels through South America4:

“If the Earth disappeared, leaving only Bolivia, all the products and climates of the world would still exist. Bolivia is the planet’s microcosm. Due to its height, its climate, and its infinite variety of geographical nuances, Bolivia becomes the synthesis of the world.”

For almost two centuries, D’Orbigny’s descriptions and travel logs were the single piece that portrayed Bolivia’s natural and cultural richness5. Today, his images comprise a new puzzle that is excruciating to fill. A puzzle where Bolivia is still a microcosm of the Earth. Only that this time, Bolivia is becoming the synthesis of the environmental degradation and global climate change that affects the world at large. Can we, as a global society, be an active part of the restoration of our common house?  Without really knowing the answer, it inspires me to look at the next image. It is a rendering from a picture of the day in which the rainfall extinguished the wildfires in the Eastern Bolivian Forest. The firefighters’ joy says it all (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Bolivian firefighters and volunteers celebrate under the rainfall in September 2019. Drawing: Gabriel Zeballos based on a picture published on Pagina Siete


Post Scriptum

I finished writing this text in June 2020. However, until the publication of this post, I did not get response from the mentioned newspapers in order to get the copyrights of the referred pictures (Figures 4 and 5). That is why I sketched the images instead. Interestingly, by drawing the gray landscape and then the people’s joy, I unexpectedly felt an abstract closeness to my homeland albeit the abstract and real distance. Un-immersive work is not any simpler than an in-situ study but it is just different. Thus, combining both it is possible to add new dimensions of understanding to one’s research.

Gabriel Zeballos, Ph. D. Candidate

Department of Geography,

The Ohio State University



  1. Kendra McSweeney: Un-immersive-fieldwork
  2. Max Woodworth: Re-visiting the Field Through Old Fieldwork Photos
  4. Dí­az Arguedas J. Alcide d’Orbigny: Estudios sobre la geologí­a de Bolivia. El naturalista francés Alcide d’Orbigny en la visión de los bolivianos. 2002:195-209.
  5. Aguirre RDA. Alcide d’Orbigny en la vision de los bolivianos. Bulletin de l’Institut francais d’etudes andines. 2003 (32 (3)):467-477.

The Jottings in the Margins of Fieldwork Diary—What Do They Tell Us?

Jotting 1: “Waiting! Waiting…still waiting. Am waiting…patience, fieldwork means patience with a capital ‘P’!

Comic illustration by artist Madhushree Basu

Sitting on a red plastic chair on the verandah of Periamma’s house facing the street in Sriperumbadur town, Kancheepuram District, Tamil Nadu, India. Field dairy, 7/30/2013. (Comic illustration of author’s notes by artist Madhushree Basu for author’s forthcoming book)

Jotting 2: “In bus route no. 549, going home after an interview. It’s so hot and sweaty. The driver is still drinking his tea.  A young man is sitting across me. A smartly dressed young woman joins him in a few minutes. I think they are from Nagaland, lot of people from northeastern states in this town. Five school boys get into the bus, maybe 13-14 years of age. They start teasing the young Naga couple. They are laughing at them, saying something in Tamil, asking for their tickets. How annoying!  I want to scream at those kids. I can’t stop myself. “Leave them alone” I finally tell them in Tamil. They laugh at me. They know from my accent that I am not a ‘native’ Tamil speaker. Suddenly I become subject of their derision, they start laughing at me.  The bus is starting, the boys are getting off. The Naga couple look different, a bit vulnerable in this crowd, easy targets for the bigots. It starts so young.”

Sriperumbadur bus stand, Field diary, 10/8/2013


These are jottings from the margins of my field diary that did not make it to the pages of my PhD dissertation manuscript. We often do not pay much attention to these and cast them as asides in the corners of our diaries. Reading through the margins of my field diary, I came across many such short hurriedly scribbled notes that I wondered why I had written those in the first place? Were they in any way reflecting the process or phase of my field research at that moment? What is the link, if any, between those jottings and my research? As Cindi Katz had noted, these bits in the margins keeps a researcher “afloat” in the field – “I secreted my crankiness, recorded my amusements and amazements, and kept myself afloat…it was private, reflective, and therapeutic” (2013:1). Katz used to keep a comic book journal while doing her fieldwork in rural Sudan.

I have chosen the above two ‘jottings’ randomly to illustrate the nature of these observations. Reflecting upon them, I think there is a methodological link. The writings on the margins often tend to capture situations at a very gut level. Take for instance, the first jotting, where I have written about waiting. This was a phase of my fieldwork when I was meeting young migrant women who worked in factories outside the city of Chennai in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. My anxiety levels were high, I was searching for co-researchers. The women worked in three shifts, traveled long distances, had only one day off per week – their daily rhythms were very different from mine. I was trying to negotiate many practicalities of doing the fieldwork, including time, interests, gate-keepers, places to meet and my own childcare responsibilities. The only thing I could do at that moment was to wait – often by the phone, at a tea stall or a bus stop or a market place or someone’s house – keeping my chin up was not always easy. It was all part of the research process.

Thinking back on the second jotting, it reflects the general politics of  othering in urban places in India – towards migrant workers or people who look or dress differently (Reena, 2020). Sriperumbadur town, where I witnessed this incident, is burgeoning with migrant workers from eastern, north-eastern Indian states, and different districts of Tamil Nadu. Young women and men stay in rented rooms in the small towns or surrounding villages and work in the factories, beauty parlors and local restaurants.  The ‘encounter’ that I witnessed in the bus that day is part of the everyday othering process experienced by workers, especially young women who come for work in the urban centers or industrial towns. Their very visible presence in public places – streets, buses, market places, creates a sense of moral anxiety in the public psyche of a socially hierarchical patriarchal society like India.

Therefore ‘notes from the margins’ are not insignificant, they reflect the researcher’s sub-conscious observations and ‘feelings’ of a place or how she/he sees a place or people, which can help in situating the research.

One of the things that I also did during waiting or travelling (often over 100 kilometers a day, changing buses, trains and walking) was to take photographs, some of them randomly, some purposefully, capturing the mundane everyday human activities in different places. Since my research revolved around work and working lives, the field seemed vast to me, “geography [of work] was everywhere” (Cook, 2005:169). It didn’t begin or end at the factory gate, but extended to the tea stalls, verandas or roadsides where I observed people doing all sorts of work for livelihood. In a blog post later, I wrote a photo-essay based on these images connecting lives and places.[1]  As Karin Becker Ohrn had noted photo essays “illustrate relationships among diverse people, places, or events”. These images, jottings, random conversations helped me in situating the larger contexts in which the lives and labor of women are located—a key inquiry of my research.

Madhumita Dutta

Assistant Professor

Department of Geography, The Ohio State University



[1]  ‘The everyday’: A photo-essay from the ‘field’ (accessed 6/23/2020)

A Path to Fieldwork

From measuring stream discharge in rivers that try and sweep you away downstream, to collecting a year’s worth of data from weather stations at 4700 meters beneath towering glacier covered peaks, fieldwork in physical geography depends upon observations of the natural world.


Photo Credit: Emilio Mateo

Now three years into my doctoral studies at OSU, I have traveled to the Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes to conduct fieldwork four times. My Ph.D. research aims to understand the changes that are occurring on the surface of debris-covered glaciers (glaciers partially covered in a layer of rocky debris), and their impacts on downstream water quality and quantity in a tropical mountain environment. Debris-covered glaciers are typically situated in a unique position between the debris-free ice above and the meltwater streams below. Studying meltwater chemistry and discharge from debris-covered glaciers in relation to debris-free glaciers allows for a comparison between two water sources in a semi-arid climate. Without conducting fieldwork, obtaining these water samples and observations would be impossible.

Photo Credit: Emilio Mateo

Although my current fieldwork takes place in Peru, I was first exposed to the inner workings of fieldwork in my undergraduate coursework at University of Michigan. During a summer at Camp Davis, in northwest Wyoming, we learned valuable field techniques such as how to core trees and soil, measure river discharge, and assess fish populations, to understand the distribution and function of forests, rivers, and alpine ecosystems in the Rocky Mountains. Following this experience, I was hooked. I realized that I could ask questions of the natural world around me and go out to try and solve them.

Photo Credit: Emilio Mateo

After a few internships, two of which involved different varieties of fieldwork, I turned back to academia. During my Master’s degree at University of Denver, I developed a fieldwork-based project to quantify the river discharge below rock glaciers (glaciers entirely covered in rock) in southwest Colorado. This experience simultaneously drove my passion for fieldwork further, while also opening my eyes to the difficulties that fieldwork can bring.

Photo Credit: Emilio Mateo

While fieldwork may sound like a generally smooth process, it is not without its difficulties. In fieldwork that involves environmental data loggers, there are regularly complications with loss of connections, wires becoming snacks for various critters, and misplacement or theft of the loggers (see our mourning photo on the right). Fieldwork within my project is also physically demanding with long day-hikes or multi-day trips to remote field sites while carrying all of the necessary equipment to complete the work needed to be done.

Another difficulty with fieldwork is that regular trips (annual or sub-annual) to the field sites are typically necessary to observe changes and collect data from the logging devices that stop or re-write data after a year. This is especially relevant in 2020 with the ongoing shutdowns in response to COVID-19, which cut my first fieldwork trip of the year in half and will likely prevent me from returning to Peru for the foreseeable future.

Despite the difficulties that can be associated with fieldwork endeavors, the field, in my case the tropical Andes of Peru, can also be a tranquil experience. The field is always filled with continuous exploration of the surrounding landscape, taking in the spectacular vistas that come with it, and interacting with the people who reside in the region. Being in the field also allows me to reflect upon my research and ask further questions about the environment around me. With my fieldwork being driven by my passion for spending time out in nature and my continuous curiosity of how the natural world works, I eagerly await what my future fieldwork campaigns will bring down the road.


Emilio Mateo

PhD Candidate

Department of Geography

The Ohio State University

Respectful Engagement During Fieldwork

Shoveling snow on property of research participants. Photo Courtesy of PhD candidate, Deondre Smiles

As I approach the end of my doctoral journey, I’ve found ample time to reflect on some of the lessons that I’ve learned through my research and scholarship. I’m a firm believer that we never really stop learning even after our formal schooling is finished, and that it becomes much easier to face future learning opportunities with the knowledge of previous experiences. One example of such knowledge that will hopefully pay dividends in future research endeavors is learning how to build relationships with the people and communities that I’ve worked with during my dissertation fieldwork.

It is common sense of course that such relationships need to be built upon a foundation of ethics and trust. The history of our discipline, and of academia as a whole is littered with instances of unethical behavior with marginalized communities, especially Indigenous communities, communities of color, and LGBTQ communities. Speaking from my own experiences as an Indigenous researcher, this has left a legacy of distrust of academic structures that is not entirely undeserved. Understanding this history and positioning ourselves as being committed to ethical, non-extractive fieldwork is the bare minimum that we must do when out ‘in the field’.

Trust is built through communicating and listening. Trust—and allyship may not be automatically forthcoming—we need to earn it. This can be a distressing experience-we are training to be the ‘experts’ in our field, but we are entering spaces where we can not and should not be ‘experts’—that distinction is for the people in the communities who are living the very things we are studying. But, this distress is necessary–we must be willing to put ourselves in the vulnerable position of listening and being fully receptive to the needs and desires of the communities we work within. We must listen, not for the sake of simply listening, but actually hearing what communities have to say about our research—the possibilities for collaboration, the sensitivities communities may have—and be willing to shift our thinking or even the aims of our research to meet those needs. We always possess the risk of unintentionally doing great harm—but knowing that, and knowing how to avoid it means that we can focus on what we truly want to do—produce work that is beneficial to us and communities. In my experience with Indigenous communities, this has meant being sensitive to protected tribal knowledges, to acknowledging tribal ownership of data, and to accepting that there is an accountability that I have to tribal communities that will last beyond my dissertation. Relationships and lines of communication borne out of my work must endure—I cannot simply abandon them or disappear once my research is done. As an Indigenous academic, these are just some of the ways that I work to decolonize my field and the way that I engage with people. The parameters of what ethical research looks like may look different for other researchers in other contexts, but the framework remains the same—respect, listening, and active engagement.

Trust and respect can lead to extremely fulfilling relationships borne out of our research. Early on in my fieldwork, I began communicating with a independent historian who had extensively written about the history of an area that I was researching. A series of visits and conversations evolved into a unique partnership—she would share her research with me in exchange for my assistance with various tasks on her property. This was reciprocal exchange at the most basic level—I provided labor, she provided knowledge that I needed to conduct my research. I spent time pulling weeds and shoveling snow away from buildings on her property—the cost of knowledge was truly physical! But, because of this exchange and communication, the independent researcher also became a friend. Respect for anonymity precludes me from sharing even more stories of friendships and collaborations with tribal communities that has come from my research, but they are also dear and important to me, and have opened doors for future research that has the possibility of benefiting these communities.

I will undoubtedly conduct more fieldwork in my time as an academic. My hope is that the lessons that I’ve learned about respectful engagement in the field will serve me well going forward in my career. Taking the time to step back, listen, and place the needs of the communities that we do fieldwork with at the core of our research agendas ultimately is something that can lead to more sustained and ethical relationships. This, in my mind is truly what can make for engaged fieldwork with people and communities.


Deondre Smiles

Department of Geography,

The Ohio State University


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