The challenges of doing fieldwork: when your academic skills are not enough

This article was first published on the Antropologen Beroepsvereniging website.

By Janne Heederik

It is August 2015 and I have just arrived in San Diego, United States, to start my first fieldwork experience, consisting of 6 months of research among undocumented immigrants. In the months leading up to my fieldwork, I had prepared myself for this journey as much I could. I had contacted several organisations in San Diego, I made sure to stay up-to-date with all the local and national news concerning immigration, and I had pinpointed some neighbourhoods  that were of interest for my research. Even though I had been preparing this adventure for almost a year, the moment I arrived the only thing I felt was unprepared. My careful academic preparation did not seem all that helpful anymore and the following three months of my fieldwork were really rough. Now, two and a half years later, I am about to embark on my next fieldwork experience. This time I am moving to Manchester for ten months to conduct research on issues of welfare provision, poverty, neoliberal governance, and citizenship.  With the previous experience in mind, I put more effort into mentally preparing myself. However, I noticed that there is still very little written on the struggles of fieldwork and that the focus still lies on preparation in terms of your theoretical framework, research agenda, and methodology. Therefore, I decided to reflect on my research project in the U.S. and discuss different ways in which anthropologists can feel more confident in the field.

During my first months in San Diego,  I felt very overwhelmed, lonely, and under-prepared despite my preparation. This is when I first realised that the personal challenges of fieldwork are usually not well-documented, and are therefore often underestimated by newly trained anthropologists who embark on their first fieldwork journey. There is a strong tendency to romanticise fieldwork, to depict the challenges faced as interesting adventures, and the success as dependent on ‘delving’ into the field. Being there 24/7 and bringing your field site into your home: never really taking a break.  As Pollard (2009) reported in her study on field work experiences, students feel “they should not talk about how difficult they had found fieldwork because other people would perceive them as weak”. This is a dangerous starting point for fieldwork, which is already a research project that relies heavily on your independence and autonomy.  It can easily put self-blame to the fore as an explanation for any challenges anthropologists might face. Moreover, in reality, not all challenges are productive, and when not discussed they can provide a serious hinder for your own mental health and the success of your overall research project.

Through fieldwork, you incorporate everything you have learnt behind your desk and put it into practice. It allows you to “step beyond the known and enter into the world of participants, to see the world from their perspective” (Corbin and Strauss 2008). Apart from learning about the ‘other’, through fieldwork anthropologists also inform their knowledge, understanding, and insight into certain phenomena they wish to study. While this certainly requires careful preparation, the importance of preparing yourself and not just your project for fieldwork should not be underestimated. Fieldwork has its own way of unfolding itself. Because it is so heavily dependent on both the context and the people you encounter, it is virtually impossible to create a research plan and timeline that you will be able to stick to. Yet, preparation is necessary, so how to go about it?

The most general tip I can give is to expect the unexpected. While it is useful to have a rough outline of what your fieldwork period will look like, it is even more important to keep in mind that you will most likely not stick to this plan. Mentally preparing yourself for a research period during which you feel like you have little control over what is happening and when, helps you deal with these more chaotic moments. Furthermore, in combination with a rough outline of your research, you will still be able to find structure in it.

A second step to take is to become familiar with some of the feelings and challenges other people face. As Amy Pollard (2009) has written for Anthropology Matters, many students experience feelings of anxiety, frustration, loneliness and isolation, stress, powerlessness, and guilt. While certainly not every anthropologist will experience all these feelings, or will experience them to the same extent, most of them are very common, at least at some point during your fieldwork. Simply preparing yourself that you might encounter these feelings and that they are thus normal, can already help in working through them while in the field. When I arrived in San Diego, it suddenly really sunk in that I did not really know anyone there. I also realised that when you do not succeed in establishing contact with people, your weeks are suddenly very empty and quite lonely. A research project becomes something very personal, it is your idea, your thoughts, and your understanding that you are working with. It is you, not just as a researcher but also as a person, who is the ‘tools of practice’, and a perceived failure to do proper fieldwork is easily conflated with a personal failure: I knew that other people had done similar research in similar areas and had succeeded, so why did I fail? I felt ashamed that I could not make it work and I felt like I had no control over my research project anymore. I could approach as many people and organisations as possible, but I could not change their decision to say ‘no’. However, these feelings and experiences are very common, which is why it is important to recognise and discuss them. Only when I started opening up to fellow anthropologists in the field, did I realise I really was not the only one struggling and this in turn helped me to find new energy to continue my research project and power through.

This also brings me to the third step, which is to find a support system in which you feel comfortable discussing these feelings in case you experience them yourself. Doing ethnographic fieldwork is hard to compare to anything else, and at times it can feel like no-one understands what you are going through.  When anthropologists actively avoid discussing feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation associated with their fieldwork, there is a potential to not only do harm to yourself, but also to the next generation of aspiring anthropologists. To avoid fieldwork challenges feeling like personal failures, it is absolute key to have people close to you with whom you feel comfortable discussing the emotional labour of fieldwork. This helps us to understand that these feelings are normal and shared, and helps anthropologists to see that they are not wholly personally responsible for ‘failure’ in the field. Furthermore, on a more personal level, it can help us put these experiences in perspective, because when we are prepared for periods of struggle, they feel less overwhelming and it becomes easier to focus on overall positive experience of fieldwork.

On a more practical level, it is important to give yourself some time to adjust and find you way in the field. Fieldwork is not only unpredictable, it also – generally speaking – takes place in a place that is new to you, which can leave you feeling quite vulnerable. Allowing yourself the time to adjust and at the same time preparing yourself for some unexpected turns during your project, will help you to feel more comfortable and confident. For example, your choice of stay can make all the difference. During my first fieldwork experience, I had arranged a place to stay in advance. While this seemed like a great option at the time, giving me the security of not wandering around in the first few weeks, it turned out that the place was quite different than advertised. The neighbourhood turned out to be too dangerous for me to live in, which was confirmed by the bullet holes in the streets walls, and my ‘furnished’ room only had a bed in it. In hindsight, I should have arranged temporary housing in an area that was not necessarily at ‘the heart’ of my field site, but that I knew was safe. Then, once you are in or near your field site, it is much easier to judge what places you actually feel comfortable living in, and what places you would rather avoid. In these situations, it is especially important to keep in mind that what is deemed ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ is different for every person, and your own judgement should always come first.

A final step that can help, is to have a personal journal alongside your fieldwork notes. Really prepare yourself to write without any reservation and without any judgements. It can really help to simply ‘write it off’, even when these are feelings you might not really want to admit to (for example: I really hate that informant; or: I miss home so much more than I thought I would). Furthermore, apart from documenting your personal struggles, it can also be great to capture more positive moments with emails, photographs, videos, journal entries, etc., to show you that also on a personal level fieldwork is an enriching experience.

It is with these tips in mind that I will start my fieldwork in Manchester, giving me the confidence that despite possible challenges along the way, I can look forward to yet another enriching fieldwork experience. Because most importantly, there is nothing quite like fieldwork. It is such a unique experience that, with both the positives and the negatives, feels like a whole new world is opening up to you.

Tips and Tricks for Ethnographic Fieldwork

As our PhDs launch their fieldwork this month (or soon), I’ve compiled some practical lessons for ethnographers I’ve learned during my own PhD research (2013-2015). These are basic “tips and tricks” that I wished someone had told how important they were since the beginning of my fieldwork. Hope it can be useful for some young researchers around there!

Observations and note-taking
  • Make a lot of pictures whenever you can. Use your phone for that if you can’t or don’t want to carry a camera with you. This is one of my greatest regrets regarding my research. I was afraid to bother people, so didn’t even ask to make them.
  • Take notes on things you see happening, feelings or impressions you have, questions to be asked later, on the spot or as soon as possible. Again: use your phone if necessary (have a note-taking app exclusively for that). Vivid descriptions of key events will give life to your thesis.
  • When I use a notebook, I like to use the left page for things I see and hear, and the right page for my analysis and impressions of the things on the left page, on that same line. The right page always remains a bit more empty, but as the fieldwork develops, I like to go back, read stuff again and write more in these empty spaces.
  • Social media or WhatsApp: these can also be an important source of material, so make sure to save them as they appear to you, and not later. Make print-screens or backups of WhatsApp conversations. Make print-screens of Facebook posts and comments.


  • You should come up with your own system to distinguish interviews you want to record from those you don’t want to. The simplest way to do it is, of course, by recording formal interviews and not recording conversations day-to-day interactions with your informants. But only time will help you to bring this differentiation into practice. It is noteworthy that some interviewees will expect – and even wish – that you use a recorder, sometimes as a sign of professionalism and that you find what they have to say interesting.
  • For the types of interactions you’ve decided to record, try to stick to your “system”, as it will help the organisation of your data. Carry your recorder with you at all times, with extra batteries. If you can’t record, take notes on the spot. If you have never done this, make it a goal to get effective in it: to write fast without losing contact with your interviewee, and even develop codes for expressions or feelings so you won’t have to write too much while interviewing. If you’re not recording the interview, pull your notebook and first write down the interviewee’s name, location and start time. Write down the end time. If you couldn’t take notes, immediately after the interview write down its approximate duration. This is a stupid thing to say, I know, but you’ll be surprised but how many people are going to ask you to give the following statement: “the interviews ranged from X to Y minutes”.
  • Try to save free time after every interview – or try to take some time free after an important conversation – to compile your notes and write everything down (also for recorded interviews, writing down your impressions that the recording won’t show). The next day will be too late already, you won’t remember a lot of things. As a consequence, try to avoid scheduling too many interviews on the same day.
  • You can come up with a template for your interviews (or more important conversations), where the first page contains all the important information to be filled in separate fields. This way you’ll always remember to gather that information, and also to have the same information for every interview. You add a comments field to describe the conditions under which the interview took place. After that comes the transcript (which you will probably have after your fieldwork if you recorded the interview), where you can add your notes in-text. In the end, you should have at least two fields to “answer” for that interview: “reflections”, where you can add come pre-analysis right away, and ”things to do/questions to ask” for you next interviews with that person or someone else.
  • Of course, for more casual interviews, most of the above recommendations don’t apply. Either way, try to create a system to organise important information without the recorder. Having files for each contact may help, as you add interactions you have with them as your fieldwork advances, adding the date and relevant contextual for each entry. This will also allow you to easily see the way your relationship with particular individuals develops.
  • As you write down your notes, look for a way to organise the text, with tags (hashtags, colours, symbols, side notes with codes), to help you navigate them later.
  • What to take from a particular interview? This post might inspire you to come up with an answer appropriate to you, the most important thing there said being: “1) You really can’t miss jotting down basic facts that cannot be found elsewhere; 2) You want to capture your interlocutor’s specific viewpoint or “narrative”, preferably through good quotes that aptly convey it; 3) You should retain novel angles of analysis you hadn’t come across so far.”

Organising data

  • Choose a good app to compile all your data. This can be Atlas.ti already, but not necessary. Scrivener, Evernote, etc… If you are going to use normal folders and independent files, organise from the beginning different levels of folders/subfolders. Since we will use Atlas.ti for analysis, writing your notes directly there will save you a lot of time, so give it a try.
  • Try to write down your notes daily (or as frequent as possible), and be thorough. If you wait more than one day my guess is you will lose around 50% of important data.
  • If you are using notebooks instead of a computer to write down your notes, make time to type your handwritten notes into the computer. Do it systematically at a frequency you determine from the start and try to stick to it. The typing is also a nice (second) moment to reflect on your notes, so part of the iterative process. You’ll see how 500 words of annotation easily become 1000 on the computer screen.
  • Make sure you clearly differentiate types of information. Use colours, bold or italic, titles, whatever, but you want to clearly see at first glance the difference between quotes, first-hand observations, other people’s impressions, your impressions, your analysis, things to revisit or questions that need to be answered.
  • Have one folder called “Participants” or something of the like. There you will add one file for every relevant person you meet, and gather all the important information about them. Make sure to include some basic information that you will ask all of them (at the first meeting or later), which each one of you will decide on what’s important, but something such as: date and place you met, photo(s), age, profession, family composition, family background, housing condition, political identification, and also observations on how someone looks like, dress, etc. This info is often necessary for writing a good article/ book chapter.
  • A similar but maybe separate folder can be “Contacts”, which will contain people you meet (or hear about), but not necessarily that you interviewed or talked to properly. This can also be a spreadsheet, where each line is one individual, and columns are information you want to gather. Be it in folders or columns, try and separate contacts in categories, groups, anything that can help you sort them out easily. I like spreadsheets more because it gives you the possibility of “tagging” instead of separation.
  • You should make folders or files for the different subtopics of your research (which can be constantly developed). In this major categories, you can put everything you collect or write down for that certain subtopic. Later you can create more subdivisions. This is important to do from the beginning so you don’t have only journal-like notes, only separated by date, which will take you longer to go through later.
  • Excerpts can belong to more than one category or subtopic. Nothing should be chopped out from its context. Be careful not to determine categories too soon and close your eyes for important information that doesn’t fit in (not everything has to fit your “model”).
  • From grounded theory I’ve learned to start coding from the beginning all your data. For every observation or interview excerpt start distributing “codes”, or “labels”, key-words or short descriptions that might help you easily find that information later. Keep track of them (like a glossary), and as your fieldwork advances you will notice how certain codes will reappear systematically, even if they do not fit in your broader subtopics. Slowly you can start using this glossary to code more data (as in looking what you have already and checking if any applies to this new data). After some time you can try to make clusters of codes, as in to build “categories”. The rest of the process (as recommended in grounded theory) you can do later, after your fieldwork, but these first steps should be taken from the beginning.
Flávio Eiró
– Postdoctoral Researcher in the BROKERS Project