Expecting the unexpected in ethnographic fieldwork

Priscilla Medeiros

It was June 2014 and I had just arrived in New Brunswick, Canada, to start my doctoral research on access to and standards of care in the Maritime Provinces. The plan was to conduct nine months of ethnographic research among Women Living With HIV (WLWH) and in the offices of community-based organizations supporting people with HIV, hepatitis C, and other sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections. In the months leading up to entering the field, I had prepared for a successful fieldwork expedition; I had read several books on classical ethnographic methods at the recommendation of my supervisory committee, defended a carefully thought-out research proposal in front of department faculty members, obtained ethical clearance at multiple departmental levels, and spoken to as many researchers about the ‘fieldwork experience’ as I could. Yet, even though I had been preparing to enter the field for almost a year, the moment I arrived the only thing I felt was unprepared. My careful academic planning did not seem very helpful anymore and in the following nine months, I was faced with many unexpected challenges.  

During my first months in New Brunswick, I felt overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed despite all my preparation to stick with my study timeline. I quickly came to realize that the types of unexpected challenges I was experiencing in the field, particularly around recruitment and trust-building, are not well documented and are perhaps underestimated by newly trained anthropologists. The social sciences literature instead focuses on concerns related to interactions and relationships in the field, gaining access to reliable information, language and culture, recruitment and retention, ethics, and sample size. I was left with many questions as to how to respond to the challenges I was encountering in my field more specifically. Although I had conducted previous graduate work in the Maritime Provinces and obtained expressions of interest from a number of different participants before entering the field, the first few weeks and months of data collection did not result in significant success.  

I encountered two unexpected difficulties. The first involved the recruitment of WLWH, which posed a challenge since the women’s fears of disclosure, stigma, and discrimination were not easily addressed. These sensitive topics shaped my approach as an ethnographer. In particular, I worked to overcome these difficulties by increasing my presence in the community to improve my understanding of women’s experiences and health issues. Secondly, establishing trust with WLWH from the position of a researcher, even as a woman and with community support, was a recruitment challenge. Some WLWH were more reluctant to participate than others because of the shame and stigma associated with HIV. Community support from the organizations I was working with was vital to managing my experiences in the field, particularly as they vouched for my presence and entry within the community. They also advised me on how to discuss sensitive topics with WLWH, including health challenges and women’s experiences accessing care. For example, practices such as scheduling a follow-up interview with WLWH to share their specific experiences provided more time to get to know each other and helped me to better establish trust with the women. 

These field experiences unfolded in unexpected and unplanned ways, in spite of all I had learned behind my desk and practiced as a graduate student. At the time, I remember feeling alone, frustrated, stressed, unprepared, and deeply responsible for not knowing how to resolve the issues discussed above as a trainee researcher. Findings from Amy Pollard (2009, 16) support my feelings and experiences in the field: ‘Some students reported feeling they should not talk about how difficult they had found fieldwork because other people would perceive them as weak… I never felt able to say I was having a really hard time’. This quote perfectly captures the emotions I felt while in the field, despite all of the planning and reading I had done beforehand. 

Anthropological work has a tendency to focus on the isolated scholarly enterprise rather than on collaboration with other researchers and community members (Gottlieb 1995, 21–22). Yet increasingly, we have begun to recognize the importance of collaborative research, especially when it comes to learning new ways of doing things and exploring alternative methods. Some scholars suggest that, given the precarity of academia, the trope of tough, lone fieldwork continues to permeate anthropology because researchers do not want to be perceived as weak, but rather as committed scholars unafraid of the tiring and difficult business of doing fieldwork (Barley 2000, 14–16; Jessee, Collum, and Schulterbrandt Gragg 2015, 9; Stein et al. 2016, 165–166).  

I was fortunate to have a supervisor and supervisory committee who were open to candidly speaking about their own experiences and difficulties in the field collecting data. I felt comfortable and supported when turning to my supervisory committee to discuss how to respond and manage dilemmas, and did so often. Their best piece of advice was to never try to resolve difficulties in the field alone; instead, I should learn to adapt to unexpected circumstances as they arise with the help of mentors and other researchers who may have faced similar challenges while doing fieldwork in the same region or topic. A second general suggestion I can offer to other trainees on how to adapt to the unexpected or unavoidable issues in the field is to create a support system in which you would feel comfortable discussing any feelings of anxiety, depression, stress, or isolation that you might experience. I believe that sharing experiences of facing dilemmas in the field so that others might learn from them is important, as it better prepares trainee researchers for ethnographic work without overlooking the dynamics of data collection (Medeiros 2017, 40–42). 

Now, six and a half years later, I am about to start my next project. I am moving back to the Maritime Provinces to continue research on women’s health and HIV. With my prior experiences in mind and preparation for fieldwork underway, I now recognize that reading more about how to plan for fieldwork would not have better prepared me for the unexpected difficulties I encountered because the experiences and difficulties that all researchers face are unique to every fieldwork. Instead, regardless of the big or small difficulties anthropologists face in gathering their data, it is important that conversations concerning the silencing of these struggles take place in order to better prepare newly trained anthropologists for the realities of research. 

Acknowledgements 

I would like to thank my supervisors, Dr. D. Ann Herring and Dr. Wayne Warry for their guidance and support during this project.  

About the author 

Priscilla Medeiros is a postdoctoral fellow at the Women’s College Research Institute, Women’s College Hospital, Ontario, Canada. Her current research project analyzes the Canadian HIV Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Cohort Study data (www.chiwos.ca), with an emphasis on the care disparities of women living with HIV in Ontario. As a second phase of her fellowship, Dr. Medeiros will expand the reach of the Canadian HIV Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Cohort Study into the Maritime Provinces to explore the experiences and health priorities of women living with HIV in these regions. 

References 

Barley, Nigel. 2000. The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut. Illinois: Waveland Press.  
Gottlieb, Alma. 1995. ‘Beyond the Lonely Anthropologist: Collaboration in Research and Writing.’ American Anthropologist 97 (1): 21–26. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1995.97.1.02a00050.  
Jessee, Nathan, Kourtney Collum, and Richard Schulterbrandt Gragg. 2015. ‘Community-based Participatory Research: Challenging ‘Lone Ethnographer’ Anthropology in the Community and the Classroom.’ Practicing Anthropology 37 (4): 9–13. https://doi.org/10.17730/0888-4552-37.4.9.  
Medeiros, Priscilla. 2017. ‘A Guide for Graduate Students: Barriers to Conducting Qualitative Research among Vulnerable Groups.’ Continent Horizons 3 (1): 37–52. https://doi.org/10.25071/2292-6739.78.  
Pollard, Amy. 2009. ‘Field of Screams: Difficulty and Ethnographic Fieldwork.’ Anthropology Matters 11 (2): 1–24.  
Stein, Max, Ashley Daugherty, Isabella Rivera, Jessica Muzzo, and Christopher Lynn. 2016. ‘Thinking Outside Anthropology’s Box: Socializing Undergraduates through Collaborative Research, Teaching, and Service.’ Annals of Anthropological Practice 40 (2): 164–177. https://doi.org/10.1111/napa.12099