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


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

Coming home, and burning out

For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to write about burnout. Rather, I was trying to write something that would reflect my thoughts and feelings on returning from fieldwork, and ‘burnout’ was a nice catch-all phrase for describing my reaction to the sudden change in environment, as well as the cumulative stress of previous weeks. It’s a somewhat self-defeating task though, because burnout tends to eat away at certain qualities – concentration, determination, self-confidence – that are required to produce an item for publication. With every failed draft, my sense of frustration and disillusionment increased.

Another stumbling block was the desperate need I felt to say something funny about it. To be self-deprecating and amusing about it, rather than admitting how deeply insecure I felt about coming back to the academic fold, after two years of feeling that my emotional centre was there where my fieldwork was. Despite the regular periods of being in university over that period (only half of that time was actually spent in the field), it was so easy to slip into the belief that I belonged in the Caucasus. I had succumbed to a stereotype affecting many westerners who approach the region through the double orientalism of a Russian studies background: I was a veritable prisoner there.

Facing up to coming home

The idea that my fieldwork was coming to an end created a profound sense of panic and confusion. I went so far as to apply for a job in Georgia, and prepared to justify the sudden change of plans to my research funders if I was offered the chance to stay. The thing that was eating up at me the most was the feeling that if I went away for a whole year, I would lose so many friendships, so many relationships I had painstakingly cultivated during my fieldwork. And what if I lost my instinct for detecting those pockets of personal agency, those tremors of resistance that I had worked so hard to learn to recognise? Worst of all, what if I began to adapt to the comforts of home, eventually reneging on my plans to return for a longer period as soon as possible?

In short, it felt like I would be abandoning everything I had worked for and cared about – which says a lot about how low down my list of priorities my actual dissertation had sunk, not to mention the cavalier attitude I have towards my support circle in Ireland and beyond. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to get the job, I thought about back-up plans: I could move to the region anyway, rent a flat in Tbilisi with a friend, write in bookshops and cafés, bitch about other expats, forego the advantages of being based at a research university, fully funded and in close proximity to a supervisor with whom – this somehow makes it worse – I genuinely enjoy working. If it couldn’t be arranged in the next few weeks, it could certainly become a reality after Christmas.

Roots of burnout

So far, what I’m describing does not correspond to the sensation of burnout. That comes later, when I was back home and feeling tremendously isolated. Without warning, all the adrenaline and enthusiasm that had kept me going through the end of a long, fatiguing summer seemed to evaporate. Unlike previous homecomings, I didn’t have an extended return trip to Armenia or Azerbaijan to look forward to. I found it impossible to explain to friends – who seem to barely notice my research absences half the time anyway – how my inner landscape had altered so dramatically in just a few weeks. How I now felt caught between feelings of guilt (how could I abandon an entire region, just like that?) and of having been abandoned myself, by some benevolent genie who had steered me through the worst days of my fieldwork and created meaning in a sea of change.

For two years, my job was about talking to people, listening to them, analysing and synthesising what they said. Now, it’s not about talking to people anymore, or at best, it’s about talking to very different people. People who make me want to run screaming from the room (ah, the fantasies I’ve had of upturning conference tables and running out of there, never to sound my name in the ivory halls again). And it’s not about analysis either – it’s about polishing it up and packaging it in an authoritative format, and putting it out into the world as a means of self-promotion. I look at the career race I’m supposed to be entering right about now, and I feel, not daunted or challenged by it, so much as sick and disgusted. I’m torn between wanting to seek out other, more exciting opportunities, and the desire not to become another statistic about women leaving academia.

Mostly though, I’m just worried about my loss of focus. After all, whatever I decide about the future, I still have to defend a thesis in less than a year from now. And whether or not I want to advance my career in this field, the work I’ve done merits publication, so that others can learn something from my findings (as well as my mistakes). And this is where the real problem of burnout hits: the feeling of total exhaustion, the involuntary withdrawal from social contact – including, ironically, my friends in the field; the sense that my work is still mostly speculation and conjecture, or that my writing fails to capture the realities on the ground; the feeling that I’m no good, that my thesis isn’t any good, and that – for a myriad of reasons – it’s not even worth trying to make it any better.

The emotional isolation of PhD research

A short digression: before embarking on the M Phil that led into my PhD studies, I was a fulltime volunteer in a grassroots organisation that worked with ‘at risk’ youth in one of Russia’s provincial cities. I had an A4 sheet, a handout from a staff training day, pinned to the inside of my wardrobe door, listing the symptoms of burnout next to a five point scale. I would check this piece of paper every few days just to be sure I wasn’t skating on too-thin ice. One of the many things I learned from volunteering is that when you work in team that is under constant stress, everyone depends on everybody else not to go to pieces. The circumstances create an additional pressure to look after yourself both mentally and physically – and reward you for doing so.

When you’re doing an unstructured doctoral degree, there is no such pressure, at least not from your work environment. You don’t have to show up in the same place and at the same time every day, and do roughly the same job. All that matters is that you show up when it counts. Which is why, I think, so many of us end up fudging our way through the PhD for weeks on end, spending half our time with Netflix and biscuits, and somehow pulling it together for the sake of that important interview or presentation or deadline or whatever it might be. We don’t attend to our personal needs, because we don’t value the contribution we make to society on a daily basis. We end up going through the motions, performing well, but inwardly feeling like parasites.

As an ethnographer, there’s another element to this as well: you don’t always feel entitled to your own emotional response. Much of what happened in Armenia and Azerbaijan this August affected me personally, but my main response was to see what other people were saying, how other people were reacting. In this instance, that meant having twenty different people tell me what they were feeling – a unique opportunity, as I must be one of few people to have visited both countries that month, but also an exhausting one. How do you maintain an academic detachment at the same time that people are sharing fear or anger or loss or sadness with you? Equally, how do you avoid the sense that you are living on “borrowed” emotions?

The recovery

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve begun to feel a slow emotional release taking place. There are times when all that propels me into work mode is an implacable anger, and other times when I find myself dissolving into tears over something that really isn’t all that sad. Last weekend, I finally got around to tackling some of the gaps in my field notes, things I just hadn’t had time to write up in detail. Some of those conversations are still so vivid, they might as well have happened two hours, and not two months, ago. That sense of alertness that is characteristic of fieldwork is something I sorely miss these days. I’m trying to counteract it with mindfulness practice, but it’s hard when my senses are so deadened – when it’s easier to elicit a response to how I imagine the Caspian Sea looks right now, than to whatever landscape is actually in front of me.

There’s no happy ending to this story, only to say, I suppose, that lots of people do go through this and, like a broken heart, it does get better. Unfortunately, like a broken heart, it also seems to get worse every time. It’s 8 years since my first trip to the former Soviet Union, and I’ve seen a lot of people – volunteers, students, interns, researchers, NGO workers – come and go and display the same sort of emotional upheaval in the end. Reverse culture shock is the subject of countless blog posts and articles. And there’s even a small academic literature that acknowledges the emotional attachment between researchers and the field, and hints at the difficulties of bring it all home (see here and here), which is surprisingly comforting to know. If real professors are ready to acknowledge this feeling then perhaps it’s not so extreme after all.

Some practical advice

It can take a long time to feel fully settled, even when you’re trying to stay positive. One of the things that helped me to feel more grounded (excuse the pun) was kicking my coffee habit. Because while three or four cups a day might help when you’re rushing around in the field, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good when you’re sitting still for 8 hours a day, staring at a blank screen in front of you.

Beyond making simple lifestyle changes like exercising or meditating more, it’s a good idea to test yourself for burnout, be aware of the symptoms and know the ones that are bothering you most. Those feelings of irritability towards the other people in your office, that sense that you’re in the wrong place and you’re not sure how it happened – those might just be transitory emotions rather than a reflection of any ‘true’ reality.

Be kind to yourself. Whenever you find that you’re getting angry with yourself for not dealing with this fast, ask whether this is how you would talk to a friend who was having the same problem. Take a look at the principles for nonviolent living outlined by Miki Kashtan – how many of these are part of your daily habits?

And remember, chances are that you are still making progress without really being aware of it. In the past month I’ve done some important things, like publishing an article and making the final edits to a forthcoming book chapter. Try to hold onto the little victories. Someday, they will add up to an overall feeling of achievement.

Living Well, or Just Surviving?

Sometimes, you just can’t fight it anymore. For the fourth time this week, I’ve tried to write a focused blog post about a topic that concerns me very much, and ended up with a homily on research methodology instead. I suppose it stems from my inability to deal with the following problem: despite having realised quite early on in the PhD that the distinction between desk research and fieldwork is largely artificial, I continue to experience all the cognitive symptoms of stress whenever circumstances conspire to blur the line between the two. Sometimes, I even feel that the integrity of my research is being compromised by my Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation (not that I have a murderous alter ego lurking in me at all times, more that there is a huge contrast between the introverted analyst and the extroverted fieldworker).

Of course, there is also a difference between being at home, working from my nice little desk with a view over Nassau Street and a map of the Caucasus neatly pinned to the drawing board, and being in Azerbaijan or Armenia and gathering deeply sensitive data by taking a walk in the park with a friend. However, that’s a simplification of how research works in the digital age. At home, I can still spend several hours a week urgently trawling through my Facebook feed for updates from the Caucasus, sometimes feeling an umbilical cord-like attachment to the place I’m supposed to have left behind. In the field, I can spend days on end wrapped up in theory, trying to put together robust chapter outlines or plan conference papers. In the past week I’ve felt more ‘at home’ than ‘away’, as I struggled with a large volume of desk-work. But while part of me welcomed the isolation after an equal excess of social interaction (the second half of April was exhausting), part of me felt guilty for deliberately constructing a kind of temporary barrier between myself and the field.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Certain methods textbooks have given me the impression that the ‘right’ way to do social research is to (a) go to the field, (b) collect data, (c) come home and analyse it, preferably with the assistance of some complicated statistical software. But what if ‘home’ isn’t the Ivory Tower, what if ‘home’ is my kitchen table in Yerevan or a hotel room in Tbilisi, and the act of recording data is virtually inseparable from the act of analysis? What if, rather than wanting to analyse the complete set of data when it’s finished, I want to analyse as I go, and allow the emerging themes to guide the remainder of the fieldwork, perhaps taking me quite far from my original starting point? What if, when I’m working on the idea for a chapter, I’m as influenced by something that’s trending on Twitter right now as I am by an interview I recorded six months ago?

It’s probably not the end of the world if that’s the approach I’ve taken – in fact, many people would say it’s inevitable and some would even say it’s appropriate – but it does leave me with questions about how to ensure ‘methodological rigour’ and, in particular, how to explain my methodology to an examining committee 18 months from now without using the phrase “I just made it up as I went along”. Sure, I can describe my methods – how I conducted interviews and observation – but how do I describe the methodology, the sinews of analysis holding the muscle of data to the skeleton of theory? As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m really not a trained sociologist  – and a lot of the ‘How To Do Social Research’ books are surprising lacking on information in this department.

An exception to this, which I discovered just before embarking on the latest round of fieldwork, is a relatively short and very readable book called (surprise, surprise) How To Do Your Case Study. At one point, the author introduces something he calls the “constant comparative method”, which – if I understand rightly – involves cycling back and forth continuously between different sets of data (e.g. transcripts and field notes) and trying to establish connections between the parts in order to make sense of the whole. When I read that section, I had one of those revelatory, light-bursting-through-clouds moments: “but that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do!” So, if I can set aside the quibbling fear that my methodology just isn’t good enough, and learn instead to articulate what I’ve been doing with confidence and precision, then there is a chance I will walk into the viva with one less knot in my stomach.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, but at least it gives me hope. I would even go so far as to venture that my harum-scarum analysis has so far helped to make better sense of what I’m observing in the field – a bit like focusing a microscope. There’s no point in pouring all your energy into a lengthy description of a fuzzy-looking cross-section of a plant cell, only to realise at the end that you could have got a much better view if you’d twiddled the knobs a bit. Ultimately, this is a question of reflexivity – if a reflexive attitude to the data isn’t built into your research design, then how does it help at the end of your fieldwork to consider how your identity and relationship to the participants affected the way you collected and interpreted the data?

This sounds like I’m moving towards an argument in favour of strong objectivity, but I don’t really mean to weigh in on that debate right now. For me, the more immediate challenge is making sense of the research environment – understanding the complex codes of communication in a climate of conflict and surveillance, becoming more aware of my unconscious habits of interaction with others, learning to absorb some complex forms of data while constructing a comprehensive filtering system for that which can be identified as false or misleading, developing the maturity to engage with what feels challenging or uncomfortable rather than setting it aside for ‘later’. I’m not bothered about whether or not my analysis is correct – what matters is whether or not my methodology is still workable. In other words, am I doing things just so I can say I stuck to the research design, or am I doing things in a way that will actually further my own (and eventually other people’s) understanding of the subject?

I didn’t intend for this to become a review of How To Do Your Case Study, but in finishing up I want to add one final thing about the book. Most of it is filled with very concrete advice and tools for mapping your own case study, but one of the chapters turns to epistemology and discusses the concept of phronesis – often translated as practical wisdom – as opposed to the more abstract theory. I haven’t nearly enough time to go into what this means (by which I mean, I still hardly know myself), so I’ll quote from the entry on Aristotle’s Ethics in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

“What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole. In order to apply that general understanding to particular cases, we must acquire, through proper upbringing and habits, the ability to see, on each occasion, which course of action is best supported by reasons. Therefore practical wisdom, as he [Aristotle] conceives it, cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules. We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion.”

This is an important reminder that the field of ethics extends beyond basic principles such as ‘informed consent’ or ‘plausible deniability’ (though these are important too) – it takes us into the vague and unchartered territory of ‘living well’, and acting in accordance with the situation rather than the rules. But how far removed is this from the reality of the typical postgraduate student?

Based on conversations with fellow and former PhD candidates, I can vouch for the fact that an awful lot of us get stressed when we feel ourselves deviate from the strictures governing academic life. Most of us seem to have this absurdly simple idea of what research is supposed to look like or how we are supposed to perform. Then, when it turns out that the reality of doing research is in no way like our preconceived notions, we panic. And our views are so deeply internalised (How? Why?) that we rarely ever manage to dig ourselves out of this hole. Instead, we just wait for ‘normality’ to eventually reassert itself. Aristotle’s ethics have the benefit of turning that fake-it-’til-you-make-it logic on its head – if we can only learn to accept that our natural response is sometimes the best one, we’ll be a lot better off than if we’re constantly striving to meet our idealised image of the ‘right’ research performance.

Why my field notes are shrinking (or “Таксист, прощай!”)

I’ve only just arrived in Armenia, but I’ve already been busy creating problems for myself. The major dilemma I’ve wrestled with so far was whether or not to include in my field diary the conversation I had with my taxi driver as we drove from Zvartnots airport to Yerevan city centre three days ago. This taxi driver was a friendly man of middle age, with distinguished grey hair and a broad smile, who imparted absolutely nothing new to my understanding of gender and conflict, but did exchange a string of pleasantries with me about the spring weather, the ripening of apricots, his daughter’s education at the American University of Armenia and her subsequent whirlwind marriage, and how much his grandsons (aged five and seven) enjoyed the freak snow storm that took place one day last week.

Objectively speaking, I know that if I put that conversation in my field diary, I will only take it out again when I return to do the analysis. So why do I still feel the urge to describe it in detail? It’s partly because I am itching to do something tangible. I forgot how frustrating fieldwork can be, just hanging around the house and waiting for people to reply to your calls/texts/emails, or at least for it to stop raining outside. By now I know how this works – I spend a few days on tenterhooks, squirming with the fear that everyone has forgotten me, or worse, is wondering how they can politely ignore my superfluous research queries – and then suddenly, my inbox is over-flowing with kind responses, and I’m scheduling back-to-back meetings for a couple of days…before it all returns to zero point, and the agonising wait begins again.

During the early stages of fieldwork, I devised a strategy for coping with this anxiety, which basically consisted of writing really detailed notes about absolutely everything – chats with taxi drivers, tea with friends, conversations I overheard on the bus, people and things I saw in the street. Since then, I’ve done some more reading about ethnographic methods, and I have learned that this is fairly common practice for novice researchers, especially anthropologists. Often, the reason we do it is not to be methodologically rigorous (no one needs to know about four boys playing with a cat), but to escape the fear that we are failing as researchers by not producing a large quantity of data on a daily basis. My urge to write about the taxi driver is natural, because I know it will take the edge off as I wait for something more interesting to happen.

For the first few months of fieldwork, I loved taking notes like this, and found solace in my humdrum observations when research was otherwise going slowly. Last July though, I began to approach my nightly note-taking sessions with an uncharacteristically loathsome feeling. Initially, I thought that this was down to research fatigue after months of intensive data collection – as well as the mounting heat in Baku. Then I started to think that perhaps it was due to the sensitive, if not disturbing, nature of some of the things I was writing about. When I switched research contexts at the end of the summer (from Azerbaijan to Armenia), I experienced a brief respite, but after a few weeks found that my antipathy towards field notes was stronger than ever. I still relished absorbing the details of everyday life, but I had become almost allergic to writing about them.

It’s only recently that I came across an alternative explanation for what I was feeling, which is data saturation (one of the downsides of not having majored in sociology or anthropology is that I usually only learn about these things in retrospect). This is a stage in qualitative research projects where interviews and/or observations begin to repeat themselves, instead of yielding new information. At this point, you’re supposed to stop and write up your analysis. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached saturation point in terms of my core research questions, but I would say that I have probably come to my threshold for understanding  the research context, i.e. the Caucasus. I’ve established a broad framework of analysis which allows me to relate almost everything I experience back to something else that has already happened and been described in detail in previous field diary entries. I’m not culturally assimilated (and never will be), but at least my obsessive note-taking has come full circle.

On top of this comes the realisation that when it comes to analysing the data, a huge percentage of my earlier field notes will have to be cut altogether, leaving me with only that which is relevant to my research questions. The rest won’t have gone to waste: close, consistent observation was needed to contextualise the case study and to understand the society I’m living in (as much as possible). It also helped me to gain access to the people I needed. And it provided a good opportunity for reflecting on my own position. Strictly speaking though, these minor observations, which probably make up the bulk of my field notes, are just a kind of memory bank I use for storing the rest of the information – the really valuable stuff – that I’ve received through interviews and participant observation.

The logical conclusion to this is: be more judicious about note-taking. So why the lingering unease about the taxi-driver? Perhaps it’s sentimental: I’ve developed a spot soft for men like this in the Caucasus, who have lived through so many changes and shouldered the burden of post-Soviet masculinity and still remain good-humoured and open in their interactions. Yes, I know I am romanticising them, but they also serve a practical function: since my research focuses on women’s rights activists, taxi drivers – an almost exclusively male profession – are one of the few sources of contrasting perspectives, helping to bring me back down to earth (and safely home) on a regular basis. My favourite was one called Namiq, who used to greet me in the street whenever he saw me and invite me to join him and the other Baku taxi drivers for tea on the Boulevard when they finished the night shift.

Tomorrow I have a busy day lined up, and I’ll stop feeling so concerned about taxi drivers. And over the next few days, I’ll divert my attention into other necessary tasks. It’s a relief to know that I don’t have to take notes on everything that happens to me from dawn until dusk, and can work on developing the actual thesis instead. But it makes me a little bit sad, too. Sad to think of all the people who have been so kind and honest with me, and who are no longer going to make the cut. Sad that there is, after all, a hierarchy of research subjects, and I have to focus on the ‘experts’ from now on. And sad, too, that I must start to wean myself off all the little things, the tiny but glorious details that give me a deeper awareness of my surroundings and contribute to the perpetual ‘high’ of fieldwork.