Practical and affective dimensions of foreign language fieldwork

This is the third in a series of reflections on language and research. It can be read on its own, or you can start with the introduction here.

The advantages of having a second language in fieldwork are huge, but are often considered too obvious to talk about. What I’m interested in are the gray areas: the shades of difficulty encountered, but seldom talked about, by fieldworkers who are non-native speakers. A reflexive approach to language moves beyond the question of fluency, and enters the domain of positions and power relations in multilingual research sites.

Undeniable benefits

It goes without saying that language helps to get the research done. Just under half my interviews were conducted in Russian, including several with key informants. Participant observation was roughly balanced between Russian and English. Yet sometimes I wonder if knowing Russian was entirely necessary. It would have been possible to arrange an interpreter for the interviews, and one was almost always present at dialogue meetings (as not all participants spoke both Russian and English). Certainly, I could have produced a thesis based on those interactions alone. So, while it’s easy to say that language = access, the benefits in this case are a little more nuanced. Continue reading

Speaking Russian (as a researcher) in the South Caucasus

This is part two in a series of posts on language and research. It can be read on its own, but you are welcome to visit the introduction and part one for further context.

One of the reasons I began writing this series was to get beyond the idea that language is a neutral research tool. I could hardly find a better example for this argument than the Caucasus. This area was famous for its linguistic diversity even in antiquity, with Russian becoming widely spoken as a result of imperial expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The region inspired a number of Russia’s greatest literary figures (as Alexander Nazaryan writes: “For Russian writers of the nineteenth century, being banished to the Caucasus was usually a sign that one was on the path to glory”). It was also the subject of numerous travelogues by western Europeans, including the Italian writer and diplomat Luigi Villari. Fire and Sword in the Caucasus, published in London in 1906, gives a sense of the orientalising gaze commonly turned on the region:

“…on the borders there are provinces as different from Russia proper and from each other as any in the dominions of England. Of all these border-lands, none exceeds in interest that region known as the Caucasus. Its giant mountains, its magnificent scenery, its rich and varied vegetation, its extraordinary collection of different races, speaking countless languages, and representing almost every branch of the human family, its strange history and the beautiful monuments of its art, make of it a wonderland of romance, exercising a fascination on all who visit it.”

In the early 20th century, a series of bloody battles ensured that the Caucasus would remain a part of the Soviet Union. Borders were drawn and redrawn, and a hierarchy of nationalities was established. The Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (1922-1936) was replaced by the Socialist Soviet Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, precursors to the independent states where I carried out my fieldwork. Although not as heterogeneous as the North Caucasus, the South Caucasus is still home to several minority languages. (A comprehensive overview would require a much lengthier blog post – I recommend this one on Languages of the World.) Russian was used as a lingua franca by many mixed communities, from rural border areas to cosmopolitan urban environments. Although Russian was never officially dominant, Russian speakers enjoyed significant cultural and political capital up until the emergence of nationalist movements in the 1980s.


Ethnolinguistic groups in the Caucasus region. By I, Pmx, CC BY 2.5,

For a researcher, there are obvious advantages to using Russian in the South Caucasus. Russian enables conversations with a cross-section of the population, gives access to more events, opens up alternative media platforms, and widens the pool of potential interviewees while cutting out the need for a translator. The main challenge is having to navigate language politics. The status of Russian is rises and falls with national independence movements and regional (dis)integration projects (consider the outcry that ensued when a Russian TV host suggested Armenia needed to do more to protect the Russian language). Russian is the language of imperialism, but it is also the main post-Soviet lingua franca; the common language of diplomacy and dissent. Of course, it has a competitor. English, the language of transition and development, seeks to create an NGO sector out of the sphere of civil society. Some younger activists seek to distance themselves from Russian, choosing to speak English even if they are less fluent in it. Either way, I find myself quoting Adrienne Rich: “this is the oppressor’s language/yet I need it to talk to you.”

Given that the preferred option, becoming fluent in multiple local languages, cannot be made a reality overnight, the benefits of speaking Russian clearly outweigh the costs. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about who gets excluded from research that relies on Russian-speaking subjects. Based on superficial contact with people (asking for directions, ordering in cafés, etc.) it is possible to be fooled into thinking that more or less everyone around you speaks Russian. This is not actually the case. According to data from the 2013 Caucasus Barometer, 85% of Armenians, 70% of Georgians, and just 35% of Azerbaijanis claim to have intermediate or advanced knowledge of the Russian language. On a number of occasions in Azerbaijan I did meet people with whom I could not communicate in depth directly, resulting in improvised translation. This occurred mainly in rural areas, among the very young or elderly population, and affected more women than men (owing to labour migration patterns and the Soviet system of military conscription).

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Roads of Mjlet to Gudauri, 1868. Ivan Aivazovsky. See

Despite not knowing local languages, many people who first tasted khachapuri in Moscow and glimpsed the snow-capped mountains in Russian art feel at home in the Caucasus. I suspect this is a psychological reflex among former Area Studies students, for whom it is very hard not to seek out things which we can attribute to Soviet mentality (bad) or Soviet culture (good) or a generalised post-socialist condition (neither bad nor good). Using Russian to communicate gives you a sense of belonging and of distancing yourself from western imperialism (I cherish the occasions when I am mistaken for a Latvian). The famous regional hospitality means that you are rarely, if ever, made aware that you are doubly privileged to speak both English and Russian. When something doesn’t fit this mental framework, it’s tempting to ascribe it to Ottoman or Persian antecedents, romanticising the “local” and simplifying the complex.

Having grown up with the Irish language and representations of Ireland in English literature, the ironies of this situation are not lost on me. When your own language is more or less dead, you tend to take a lot more care around other people’s. Indeed, I don’t think any outsider would be keen to see the linguistic variation in the Caucasus lessened – after all, that’s what makes it unique (this is, of course, a dangerous word to use in a postcolonial context, though at least I didn’t say ‘charm’). It’s the first and last thing making it not Russia. But this is precisely why it takes a lot of careful reflection to sift through the biases arising from a post-Soviet nostalgia expressed in Russian syntax, and avoid letting Orientalism in the backdoor. In my next post, I’ll try to tease out what all this means in the context of fieldwork, and I’ll give some examples of multilingual encounters and communication mishaps.

Blame it on a simple twist of fate

This is part one in a (probably) four-part series on language and research. Read the introduction here, and come back soon for the next instalment!

After I was offered a place at university, I ticked a box next to the word ‘Russian’ on a form. This was back in 2005, and it was one of the lightest and most far-reaching decisions I ever made. The other choices were Italian and Polish. Both seemed interesting, but I thought learning the Cyrillic alphabet would be fun, and besides, my best friend encouraged me on the grounds that one day we could have a holiday in Russia. If you think I am exaggerating how clueless I was: the first time I heard of Red Square was when I opened our language textbook. I was extremely hazy on the ‘end’ of communism. I was firmly set on the idea of majoring in French, doing an Erasmus in Paris, and studying history and philosophy at the Sorbonne. It took about 18 months for me to change my mind, decide to move to Moscow, and set in train a ten year love affair with Russian and post-Soviet culture.

When I explain this to Russian-speakers, I usually laugh and call it fate (sud’ba). It’s not that I believe in destiny, though I am generally more superstitious in Russian (I don’t mind walking under ladders, but I get twitchy whenever there’s an empty wine bottle on the table). It feels more respectful, more reassuring, towards whomever I’m talking to, hundreds of miles from home, if I attach a deeper meaning to my presence there than ‘I ticked a random box on a form’. Among English-speakers, I tend to shrug and call it a coincidence, suggesting that I am as bewildered as they are by my life choices, but really just a normal person deep down. In both cases, I downplay the difficulties of learning the language, and point out some of the extraordinary privileges I had in terms of educational opportunities.

What I really want to convey to people, but find difficult to articulate, is how learning Russian opened a whole new world to me. It wasn’t entirely enchanting. The TVs in the language lab were tuned to a channel where Russian citizens came on air to try and make contact with relatives who had been missing since the 1990s. I would look at dog-eared photos of young men in military uniforms, and then switch over to Mexican soap operas. A month long intensive course in Petrozavodsk – at the time of certain events in Kondopoga – was hardly a ringing endorsement for Russian society. I only really went along because I’d developed a slavish dedication to grammar, and was worried I’d fall behind others in my class (who were far more enthusiastic than me about visiting the former USSR).

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Novii Arbat, Moscow, March 2008

I don’t remember the point at which I felt confident enough to have a real conversation in Russian. What I remember is the feeling I had when I rounded a corner in Petersburg and saw the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. And I remember my first time at the Bolshoi – there were six of us, and we couldn’t get seats together, but we’d all caught cold on the night train and could hear each other coughing from opposite sides of the theatre. We were ripped off by the touts, had only a partial view, and none of us knew the story of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, but it was wonderful. I went back there many times when I was living in Moscow, and queued up for student tickets, which were practically free – as was entry to various museums and galleries. Like many before me, I was seduced by the culture and spectacle of Moscow, and by the dizzying contrasts between days spent in languor at the obzh (as we called it), staring at snow falling in front of the streetlamps, and the nightclubs where we became momentary glitterati.

Hyperrealism was what made the spell untenable. I felt like I had stepped out of time, but real lives were going on all around me. I remember a 17 year old Chechen girl telling a teenage Muscovite about the seven years that she and her family had spent living in a tent. “That’s impossible,” he said to her. “In this life, nothing is impossible,” she replied. I remember a language teacher who became visibly distressed when questioned about Russian policy in the North Caucasus. “I know,” she said, “and yet every day on my way to work I pass a monument to those who died in the Tverskaya metro explosion.” I remember students at the dormitory causing, if not a riot, then certainly a ruckus, when corralled for a pre-election canvassing by Edinaya Rossiya. Somewhere among my many Russian souvenirs is a pamphlet I snatched off the ground at a street protest. It informed me that I had been observing/participating in the ‘Marsh Nesoglasnykh Prostitutok’ (March of the Dissenting Prostitutes).


Visit to the monastery at Suzdal, also in 2008



I developed a curiosity about the South Caucasus (more on that in my next post), hopped on a plane to Baku and headed for the hills near Shamakhi. When I returned to Russia, it was as a long-term volunteer in Perm. Both experiences brought me far closer to certain forms of poverty, violence and exclusion in the former Soviet Union. They were more formative than my time in Moscow, but they are much harder to talk about. They involve sensitive stories told to me by children and vulnerable adults, and neither they nor I (at the time) had any inclination that I would one day have the urge to write about them. However, volunteering foreshadowed my later research in important ways: it formed the basis for my confidence in simply going out into the field and listening, and created a lens through which I was able to filter many of my research findings.

The point I’m trying to make, in going into such depth about all of this, is that conducting research in a foreign language is not just about the nuts and bolts of interviewing, the joy of decoding memes, or the ability to listen in on conversations in public places. It’s about a state of mind, a process of cognitive development, and an emotional layering which revolves around the categories of passive and active resistance. It’s about my sense of self, and the urge to witness events and translate them back into English versus the desire to stay rooted in a single, monolingual reality. It’s about navigating language, culture and politics in places that start to feel like home, but never remain home for long. And it’s about the tension between the status of privileged outsider and the subjective position of language-learner, and, consequently, a matter of transnational feminist ethics. Those are the themes I plan to explore in my upcoming blog posts.

Languages and social research: a four-part reflection

I’m often asked about the role that language plays in my research. I’ve fielded these questions a lot over the years, but I still feel hesitant about offering a definitive response. It is very hard to get to the heart of what language is and what it does for us in any given context. The political and psychological aspects of language use are hard to explain, especially to people who may not have to navigate linguistic boundaries in their everyday lives. There is no easy answer, even to questions such as “why Russian?” and “was it difficult?”

On the other hand, refusing to delve into the messy reality of multilingual fieldwork reinforces the sense of mystery around it. I often look askance at people attempting to do fieldwork abroad without a relevant language, but I’m also weary and wary of the linguistic hierarchies that pertain in research communities. The mere fact of speaking a certain language does not confer blanket expertise across a region, it does not give an all-access pass, and it certainly doesn’t mean that a researcher is beyond ethical reproach.

For me, languages are rooted in our auto-biographies, and they branch out into the different stories we choose to tell about ourselves. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, those who speak a second (or third) language often feel like they develop a second personality to go along with it. When I talk about Russian, I am inevitably conjuring up a narrative about who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m trying to go. When I’m talking in Russian, it changes the parameters of the story.


Journeys: Tbilisi to Baku, June 2013

Having tried and failed to squish all of that into a thousand words, I’ve decided I need to write a series of posts on the subject, with the following tentative structure:

  • Part 1: initial travels in Russian language/culture,
  • Part 2: the politics of language in the South Caucasus,
  • Part 3: practical and affective dimensions of multilingual fieldwork,
  • Part 4: research and language from a decolonial feminist perspective.

It might take a while to get around to all four of these, but I’ll link to each of the posts on this page once they go online.

In other news, I’m now making a home for myself at the University of Limerick, and I’ve finally activated the Twitter account I set up in 2014. Please follow @SineadBhreatnac (yep, I maxed out on characters before I reached the final h) to receive research updates, and maybe the occasional humorous insight into faking it as a post-doc.

Handle with caution: empathy as a research tool

The first (properly academic) thing I’ve written since finishing the PhD has been a contribution to book about violence in research, which allowed me to explore my interest in empathy and methodology. The chapter gives a detailed account of my fieldwork, but here I’ve decided to sketch some general propositions for anyone new to these ideas. In short: I’ve come to think of empathy as an important but dangerous item in the researcher’s toolkit. With it, we can do all kinds of things we couldn’t do otherwise, but wielded improperly, it is likely to cause harm both to us and those around us.

Defining empathy

Empathy is notoriously difficult to define. It’s common to distinguish between automatic empathy (or emotional contagion – where we ‘feel’ the fear, pain, anger, sorrow or joy of other people) and cognitive empathy, a distinct neurological process where we imagine how we would feel in another person’s situation. The Greater Good Science Centre has an Continue reading

Getting there: from PhD to post-doc state of mind

A friend who recently came through her viva confessed to me that she just felt really, really tired afterwards. I told her that was normal, and I warned her that it might take a while to shake off. And then I thought, why don’t I write something about this? The result is self-indulgent, to say the least, but I think it’s worth sharing for anyone who is feeling unsettled in the days, weeks, or months after their defence, especially if that person is unsure about whether they ‘belong’ in academia.

I was tired for most of last year. Writing made me more tired. Coming to terms with that Continue reading

Hope, empathy and ambivalence in the body politic

No one would deny that elections (and referenda, which have also been hugely divisive across Europe in the last year) are emotional spectacles. Love, hate, fear, shame, disgust, joy – all these play a role in determining not just how we vote, but how we arrive at our political identities. On top of this, we live in a time when emotions are being brought to the surface more and more. On the one hand, irrational, charismatic charlatans seek to twist the emotions of the frustrated masses to their own ends (and are given more and more of a platform by the media to do so), and on the other hand, a range of liberal and left-leaning voices – from pop psychologists to radical feminist and queer activists – are articulating the importance of kindness, self-care and emotional well-being in building flourishing societies and/or sustaining communities of resistance.

With all of these emotions swimming around, we end up in all kinds of messes, and it’s usually left to those who have the least time or energy available for it to tell us why we feel how we feel and how what we feel is connected to our position in the social hierarchy and why it might be best for us to stop feeling it.[1] Of course, the social hierarchy entails Continue reading