Challenges of research – going it alone

As a geographer who has always conducted empirical data collection – that is gone into the world and talked to people, looked at what they are doing, taken photographs and recorded interviews – I am experienced in fieldwork. I have visited remote forest protest camps in Australia, interviewed Indigenous activists in rural Queensland, survived flooded tents in Wales, slept in squats in Yorkshire and a freezing van in Scotland, to name just a few of the salubrious places I find my myself on fieldwork. Often the places I want and need to visit are remote, or I want to do more participatory research so I stay a while, normally three or four nights. I always work alone – for lack of funding to take an assistant or failure to convince a friend or partner of the joys of self-funding a visit to these places.

To others, even colleagues, such trips look like fun jaunts away from the office and an excuse for an expenses-paid holiday. It is expected that such fieldwork is a perk, and in many ways it is. I have loved many of my trips. But there is a whole otherside to fieldwork which it is uncool to admit to. That is that most of my trips are shaped by a mixture of fear and loneliness, interrupted by the odd high from a successful day or excellent interview. There is always a fear that I will not find where I am going or when I get there they will not help in my research – that it will have been a wasted trip often half way around the world. The loneliness comes from weeks, if not months, of travelling – writing up notes in places far from the beaten tourist track where without enough novels to hand you begin to talk to yourself. I go on fieldwork by choice of course, and the fear and loneliness change (but are always present) in each place.

I wonder what it must be like to do fieldwork in a team, and realise that often the biggest challenge on fieldwork is to maintain your sanity and health. It is the lack of time away from constantly thinking about research that really takes its toll – on top of the often rustic accommodation and variable food. I wonder how this fear and loneliness effect and shape the fieldwork itself. Whether it clouds my ability to think critically or observe when, for example, I am trying to overcome vertigo on a steep mountain track. Does it provide colour and vibrancy to my work, or prevent inquisitive exploration? Does working alone force me to throw myself into community life or does the fear of doing things on my own mean I take fewer risks when seeking out places?

(Bembibre, Castilla y Leon, Spain, 13th June 2010)

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