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

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)

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