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