One of the fun things about preparing for my prelim exams was the opportunity to dig through old notes and I found a few “gems.” What follows is some advice on doing international fieldwork I drafted after spending ten weeks in Ecuador conducting research for my masters thesis, which is a case study of a community radio association headquartered in Quito, Ecuador. I ofter it here in case it might be of use to readers. In particular, I’d like to give a shoutout to my friend and colleague Jackson Foote who will soon be embarking on fieldwork in Chile.
Be a better version of yourself.
Learn how people greet each other, social norms, etc.
Be prepared to make a total fool of yourself (often…).
Expect a rough adjustment period in the new place (setting, country, social situation, etc.). Stay in touch with people at home so you don’t go too crazy. Remind yourself often that it was your choice to be there and undertake the project and that things will probably get better!
Be honest about who you are—your values and worldview—but think about how what you say and how you present yourself will be perceived with in the cultural context of the country you’re in and the people you are with. (Talking about the Bush administration, views on abortion, difficulties of getting visas to visit the United States, etc.)
Be a good listener (not just when think you’re “on” as a researcher because in a sense you always are when in the field). Also, remember that you’re being judged holistically, not just on how you act in an interview or when presenting your research pitch, etc. How you act in social situations is probably more important than when you’re searching for sources at a library, etc.
Don’t complain about things that are part of the everyday reality of life in that country. If you need to vent, which is totally normal, do so to people back home.
Remember that (like it or not) you are a cultural representative of the university, the city, state, and the United States as a whole. You may (depending on where you are and in what context you get to know people) the first or one of the few people from the United States that people have met or gotten to know. This is a big responsibility! Still, but true to yourself and your beliefs (in agreement with the U.S. government or not), but be diplomatic in expressing your personal opinions and your comments about U.S. foreign policy, etc.
(The visa thing was the hardest type of conversation for me to deal with. When people would say that I’m welcome to visit them, stay in their home, etc. I wanted to say the same thing but realistically it is really hard for many people from developing countries to visit the U.S.)
Look for ways to connect with people based on your personal and professional life experience. However, always make clear that your primary role in the setting is that of a researcher. For example, I would always introduce myself first as a student and that I was in Ecuador doing research for my master’s thesis, but then would follow that up by saying I had experience working in community radio in the United States.
Look for ways (however small) to give back to the community (broadly defined) that you are in. For example, I gave a power point presentation on community radio in the United States to the staff of ALER. It helps facilitate cultural exchange and is also a great way for people to learn about who you are, why you’re interested in their work, etc.
Always keep in mind that you are “guest in the private spaces of the world” (Lofland & Lofland, 1984) and act accordingly (be thankful, gracious, and smile a lot…).
Think of your time in the field now as one part of developing lifelong professional and personal relationships. Think of ways you can maintain the relationships once you’re back from the field, but be realistic about the constraints on your time and resources (things like keeping in touch on a personal level with people, exchanging sources with other grad students, share your results or a summary of them to research participants, etc.)
When people ask you want you think or how you feel about being there, be honest but general so as to do your best not to give an impression about what your research conclusions will end up being (this was hard…).
Remember that you may be the first person someone has ever told his or her story to and that a lot responsibility comes with that. This may only happen rarely depending on the background of interviewees, but you should approach each interview from this perspective.
You won’t get answers to questions you don’t ask.
Actively work to foster equitable spaces in your research (try to interview equal numbers of women as men, don’t just talk to the managers or people with higher social status, in mixed gender interviews work to create equal space to speak, etc.) This is a continual process and it’s hard, but by thinking about this we start to work on it.
Remember that you’ll never get the full picture of what’s going on in the setting (due to language, cultural differences, length of time in the field, etc.) Be careful about drawing conclusions (the whole point of research right…)
Life is very complex. You’ll never totally understand but at some point you have to stop the fieldwork and go back home.
Perfect grades don’t matter (or only matter when you’re trying to get letters of invitation to go back…), life experience does and matters A LOT.
Stay in touch with your advisor and other professors regularly (whatever you agree on in advance.) Get advice, because you’ll need it!
Keep in mind that in a given day you getting about half as much done as you could at home (due to navigating unfamiliar surroundings, using a second language, etc.)
Try to eat healthy and get exercise (something I didn’t do and it had an impact after only 2 ½ months).
Do fun things too!
Think ahead to future projects. Do you want to come back for additional research or study? Make the connections now when people you might want to work with can meet you in person!
Prioritize sharing your experiences with people back home (posting photos to Facebook, writing popular press articles, preparing a dish you learned to make abroad, etc.)
In the end you’re leaving now, but who ever knows about the future—expect to return at some point and treat the relationships you’ve developed as such.