There’s fieldwork and there’s fieldwork

As someone who is currently supervising PhD students undertaking fieldwork in various locations around the world, the health and safety of my students is a fundamental concern. This was especially brought home a week ago when an 8.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated coastal villages in the western Solomon Islands, including the village on Ranongga Island where one of our PhD students is working. Fortunately she was in a boat at sea when the earthquake hit and was OK; the same cannot be said for Ranongga Island however. Communications with the area are difficult but it appears that several people died, many were injured, and the village and everything in it (including her fieldnotes and equipment) may have been destroyed.

Now tsunamis are not predictable and cannot be included in fieldtrip contingency plans; however other things can and should be. Sensible advice on health and safety precautions should be part of fieldwork training and preparations; at SOAS we are currently developing plans to work in collaboration with colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on producing briefing materials on health and safety for fieldworkers.
This raises interesting questions about the nature of linguistic fieldwork. Unfortunately, it seems to me that there is some recent and solid evidence that ‘fieldwork’ as an activity within language documentation and description is in the minds of some people at least, defined as “nine months spent in a mud hut in a remote location, ideally without power and running water, accompanied by pain and suffering”. We can characterise this as the “Crocodile Dundee Fieldwork Model”, after the character created by Australian comedian Paul Hogan (I’ll call it CDFM for short). The late Terry Crowley in his recently published posthumous book Field Linguistics: A Beginner’s Guide (OUP 2007) wrote about the issue of fieldwork ‘without leaving home’ (by which he means elicitation with a single speaker in the comfort of one’s office) arguing that (p15) “fieldwork should ideally be conducted within the community where the language is used in order to ensure access to a sufficiently rich and varied set of data”.
I have no disagreement with this, rather with the apparent corollary that you have to “go off to the field”, ie. to a remote location for an extended period of time, in order to do ‘real fieldwork’. To me, equally legitimate is a project with, say, a diaspora community in London where the language is in regular use, especially when the original location is inaccessible for political or other reasons.
A further corollary of the CDFM is the ‘pain and suffering’ bit. Crowley goes on to say (p16):

[a] more pure-minded fieldworker might also want to argue in any case that fieldwork at home in the comfort of your living room involves insufficient levels of self-deprivation. There is part of me which says that for your grammar to be truly worth, you must have suffered at least one bout of malaria – or some other impressive-sounding tropical ailment – in its writing, or you should have had at least one toenail ripped off by your hiking boots, or you should have developed a nasty boil on an unmentionable part of your body. I, of course, have suffered all of these misfortunes in the field, and many more. And, by golly, if I had to go through this, then I feel that everybody else should have to suffer to a similar extent!

it’s hard to know whether Terry was being completely serious when he wrote this, but unfortunately there ARE people in linguistics today who do seem to take this view seriously, despite the fact that already ten years ago Joanne Passaro questioned the legitimacy of the CDFM (Passaro 1997:147):

even if we can no longer romanticize exotic ‘natives’, we can nonetheless continue to romanticize the ‘young’ ethnographer and his/her ethnographic project. But what of the epistemology that this view privileges? What claims to authority are made and legitimated by jeopardizing the physical or social well-being of the ethnographer and/or her informant? Is ‘better’ knowledge that which is produced/secured at great risk? Such an evaluative stance, persistent if rarely articulated, is a holdover from the colonial mentality that once delighted in harrowing ethnographic accounts of physical landscapes and of native reticence, when wresting ‘secrets’ from the remote ‘natives’ was the raison d’être of the endeavor?

So what is the evidence that the CDFM is alive and well in linguistics? (Passaro is an anthropologist so her work is typically ignored by linguists, despite being on the essential reading list of several courses on fieldwork in anthropology, as a quick check with Google will show). Well, another of my students recently applied for a fieldwork grant to spend eight months working on a Pacific Island and included in his plans a mid-project one month break including a flight to Sydney, Australia, to consult with other Oceanic language researchers, deposit archival data at PARADISEC, and meet up with his family who would come out to Sydney from Europe (he has a 6 month-old baby who it would be unwise to take to the particular field site). In putting his project proposal together we believed this would be a valuable thing to do, not only to enable him to be academically ‘recharged’ but also for his (mental and physical) health and safety. The grants panel who considered the application judged the break to be ‘unjustified’ and removed it from the grant, saving exactly 4% of the funds applied for and putting a young researcher, to my mind, potentially at risk. Our solution: apply elsewhere for the relatively small sum that will make his break possible.
Back home at SOAS we are grappling with a bureaucratic variant of the CDFM, this time in relation to a research project based in Iran. Students at SOAS are classified as being ‘on fieldwork’ (and consequently pay lower fees) if they are away for a minimum of one term (ie. 10 weeks). Because of the current political situation involving Iran and Britain, researchers can only spend a maximum of one month in Iran (if they can get in at all) so fieldwork must be conducted as a series of short bursts, spaced a couple of months apart. Since this doesn’t correspond to ‘a term’ the SOAS bureaucrats have real trouble classifying the student as being ‘on fieldwork’ or not. The agency which funds the fieldwork has also taken some persuading that a non-CDFM style of fieldwork is legitimate in this particular case.
So there’s fieldwork and there’s fieldwork.
Crowley, Terry 2007 Field Linguistics: A Beginner’s Guide. Edited and prepared for publication by Nick Thieberger. Oxford University Press.
Passaro, Joanne 1997 ‘”You can’t take the subway to the field!” ‘Village’ epistemologies in the global village’ in Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (eds.) Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, 147-162. University of California Press.

1 thought on “There’s fieldwork and there’s fieldwork”

  1. Breaking News
    I got an email from the Solomons this morning with an update on the situation on Ranongga when our student returned there just after the earthquake had hit:
    “we were amazed to see that one reef had completely disappeared and that another had emerged from the sea. It seems that the whole island of Ranongga was lifted up by the earthquake, revealing submerged reefs and providing Obobulu with a flat sandy beach where before there was only a steep pebble bank. We found the whole village camped on the school field at the top of the village, about 40 metres above sea level. Most people have stayed there, building more permanent shelters and avoiding going down to the lower village. Many people’s houses were destroyed by the earthquake, but people prefer to stay on higher ground because they saw the sea ‘go away’ when the earthquake lifted up the reef, and they are afraid that it will come rushing back (the original tsunami did not reach Ranongga). Earth tremors continue, sometimes quite strong, and we continue to hear rumours of further waves coming – none of these reports has yet been realised”
    It seems that the situation for people there is very difficult:
    “Obobulu faces a lot of challenges in the coming months. The earthquake did a lot of damage, and many houses will have to be knocked down and rebuilt, or major repairs carried out. But rebuilding is the last thing on most people’s minds; fresh water and food are a more immediate problem. Many gardens have been destroyed by landslides; in most others, potato mounds have been levelled and uprooted by the tremors. Sweet potatoes are the staple diet, and the vast majority of the crop is now rotting in the ground. The river is muddy and full of debris. We have finished the only rainwater tank and are now boiling our water. Similar camps in Gizo have been hit by diarrhoea and dysentery …People will be dependent on aid for months – until they can plant new gardens and until those gardens start producing. To rebuild will also cost money, which the community will struggle to raise, their main income being from marketing their garden produce. Apart from people’s living accommodation and cooking houses (which can be largely built from bush materials), major community rebuilding projects will include the church (central to community life), the kindergarten (a key part of my work in promoting vernacular language literacy – and indeed literacy of any kind – and just beginning to show good results when the disaster occurred) and the piped water system (which pipes water to several locations around the village from a source on the mountain – otherwise all water has to be carried from the river)”
    If you are able to help please contact your local aid agencies such as Oxfam and Red Cross.

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