Posted in Fieldnotes

Away from the ivory tower


‘You will only know about your research once you’re in the field.’ ‘We can only know very little before we’ve actually been there.’ ‘You can never be really prepared for your fieldwork.’ ‘Be prepared to be surprised.’

These were words of wisdom that I’ve heard from experienced anthropologists in my department whom I look up to a lot. Sounds daunting for a novice researcher like me, but here lies the beauty and strength of ethnography. Doing ethnography means being flexible and adaptive to situations on the ground. As anthropologist Anna Tsing from the University of California Santa Cruz summed up when we had lunch in Amsterdam: ‘Open your mind and pay attention.’

I feel lucky and privileged to have the funding and opportunity to perform ethnography for a year, with two months of preparatory trips beforehand and another round of update visits to my research location (thanks NWO!). After months away from the ‘ivory tower’ of Wageningen and deep in rural Indonesia, I am by now pretty sure that ethnography is the best way to do my research. It allows me to capture things that I found relevant along the way. It also allows me to reflect and revise earlier thoughts that have shaped my initial research proposal.

 It is very important to organise the information that I’ve gathered from my research from time to time and contemplate on it.

However, ethnography doesn’t mean that anything goes. The flexibility that comes with doing ethnography means the researcher needs to put in extra effort to organise and contemplate on her findings. Monique Nuijten, my professor at the Sociology of Development and Change group, once told me that it is very important to organise the information that I’ve gathered from my research from time to time and contemplate on it. Otherwise, I will get a whole lot of information with nothing that I can write about, because I have no structure. I definitely do not want that to happen in my research.

Ethnography is slow because it is a continuous process of engaging, with our research subject as well as with our own thought process. Engagement takes time to develop. Rapid assessment or preliminary survey can be helpful in ethnography, but the research doesn’t stop there. Findings are garnered through the researchers’ sensitivity. In other words, ethnography is as much an art as it is research.

As seen in Resource Online

Posted in Fieldnotes

Is this fieldwork?


One of the uncomfortable thing about doing fieldwork is the constant feeling of being unsure of myself and my fieldwork. For your information, I am doing fieldwork on a weekly basis*. I am based with my family in the capital of Southeast Aceh, Kutacane, because it is more convenient for my family’s daily life. It provides the proximity to the central market and my son’s daycare (or PAUD) as well as the availability of decent brick house for rent. Not that I am saying houses here are not decent, but the number of houses for rent is very limited, I could count with two hands. Most people here live in wooden houses and those are more rarely being rented out. As I am living with my family, it is a reasonable choice to rent our own house instead of staying with a host family as we need some privacy and we don’t want to depend on a host.

I am doing a “mobile” and multi-sited ethnography, in which I stay in villages that I have chosen as my case studies every weekdays. In this two-plus months initial – and I must say, deep introductory – stage, I stay in one village for a week or two (well, now I am also considering to stay longer) and I come home every weekend. Less frequently so, I also hang out and travel with the national park officers and the conservation NGO, or go six hours away to renew my research permit and sometimes attend meetings at the headquarter of the national park (but not often).

You can imagine how sometimes all of my “moving around” makes me feel like I am all over the place, although I have to say that I’ve quite enjoyed it, actually. Also, I have mentioned that I am at home in Kutacane (almost) every weekend with my family, which brings me the constant switch-on and switch-off of the fieldwork mode, and the constant perpetuation and reminder of how it’s getting difficult to leave my three year-old. I mean, he’s fine but it’s getting difficult for me. Putting that aside, some questions arises on daily basis as I have this nagging “image” or perhaps “fantasy” around fieldwork due to my tendency to absorb the “rumors” and “myths” on fieldwork that makes me wonder whether what I am doing is fieldwork enough because I don’t know if I am immersive enough.

Is this fieldwork? Is this how fieldwork is supposed to be? Is my fieldwork good enough, am I doing enough? Am I wasting my time? How can I organize my fieldwork and my “data” better? Is it fine to blog during fieldwork (er, on weekends?) – not necessarily about my research, or is it a distraction? (hah! what am I doing right now?). I think what worries me the most is when I am feeling overwhelmed with the richness and complexity of the story and I am not sure whether I’ve document and organize it properly … and honestly some nights I was too tired to write my fieldnotes every single day, some nights I’ve only written one sentence, some moments will linger on my mind (fingers crossed) … I confess my self-discipline in journaling is my biggest problem … and whether it is okay to take some time away and braindump and rethink – shouldn’t I be fieldworking?

It is completely healthy to acknowledge these constant state of fieldwork-doubt, but it is also essential to be honest about the occasional feeling of being good enough. The “wow-I-can’t-believe-I’m-so-lucky” fieldwork happenstance, the shocking truth-bombs that were just casually being laid bare before me, and the genuine – yes, genuine, I think this is what I am feeling grateful about the most – relationship that are blossoming with my foster parents and brother.

It is my responsibility and it is the most important thing that I am not only “extracting” data from my surrogate parents and brother who are my interlocutors (informants?) and “gate-openers” to the rest of the community. I have to genuinely care about them like they’re my own parents, knowing their families like my own families, reciprocate their trust, and form a life-long relationship that goes beyond fieldwork. What a commitment, and to be honest I don’t find it very easy (but also not impossible), which is why I’ve limited myself and only have three foster families and one foster brother (and I am nervous that one of them is probably withering away). Sometimes, I am so reluctant to get myself into the whole day-to-day familial bonding (and anxieties) because honestly I don’t even get along perfectly well with my “real” family (like my “dynamics” with my parents and siblings). But, when my new foster families trust me that I am and will be there when they needed me, these are the milestones that I treasure the most from my fieldwork. These foundational relationships are my strength and later on hopefully (but I am not too ambitious) the whole village will also be very familiar with me – the weirdo student that keeps trying to do what they are doing and hang out with them for whatever reason and asking basic questions and talking nonsense – as part of their community.

Sometimes, I wonder whether people will think that I am not efficient with my fieldwork or whether or not I am getting my priorities right. But why do these imaginary people even care? I believe every fieldwork is different. I am sure nobody is thinking about how my day-to-day minutae details of fieldwork have to be conducted. I shouldn’t be looking at my own experience through other fieldworks’ “rosy-tinted glasses”. I mean, I shouldn’t compare what I am going through with the imagination of what other “awesome” fieldworkers were going through. I don’t even know for sure what was going on with them back then and how many of the stories are curated versions of their fieldwork the way people these days curated images of their life in their instagram feed. I have to forget about other researchers right now and bring the question back at myself, “what do I think is best for my research?

Which is why, for now, I am bidding farewell to Malinowski or Geertz or Margaret Mead or Jane Fajans, or you-name-it. Goodbye the coming-of-age “badge of honor” of fieldwork that feels like a distant and elusive enigma like heaven and hell in the afterlife. Welcome day-to-day personal questions, awkward minute-by-minute indecisiveness, unsure feelings and uncertainty. Welcome some merciful self-appreciation to keep me being proportional and fair with myself and keep me going.

Welcome fieldwork-acceptance, I have some work to be done.


*as suggested and done by other “mom-PhD-doing-fieldwork”, thanks Monique Nuijten (WUR) and Tania Li (University of Toronto). Also thanks to Annet Pauwelussen (Leiden University) for sharing the mom-PhD fieldwork feelings.

Posted in Academia

Don’t Panic


Don’t panic when things don’t seem to fit. It might be your contribution to science! – Self-talk

Today as I finished my proposal I’m freaking out and shedding tears – woman, the joy was very brief, shit, okay back to – … tears because I am looking at my two different set of papers, one is my proposal and one is my reality notes from preliminary fieldwork, in which both seem to be world apart and not relating to each other at all (underlined, bold, highlighted, italicized: at all).

What the hell am I going to do with this piece of concepts that I’ve just written, what the hell am I going to do in my long fieldwork. Why was I painstakingly writing theoretical concepts if it didn’t seem to resonate with reality or it might be tentative or it might still be very vague or it might not be directing and narrowing my focus in any way during fieldwork. Maybe I’m still confused about what the hell is a proposition and why do I have to think about proposition at all, and the proposition might collapse in the field and right now I can’t be relaxed about that very inevitable thing going to happen.

But, as I am writing this, I ask myself, why am I worried, why? … This is why I’m worried: this proposal doesn’t fit and I will be left with nothing (conceptual lens) to comprehend what’s going on during fieldwork. In other words I might be lost and return to a blank page without a clue of how to make sense of what happened during fieldwork. And also just the horror of having to cramp up a new write up on the theorization in two weeks (because that’s just how I did it). I have done it twice so why am I wasting energy. That was what I thought ….

Then just while writing this post status I see a silver lining. I am writing the conceptual framework to learn new things – well at least it’s new for me. It’s not about applying that conceptualization to reality. No. It’s about understanding that the concepts – as they are presented right now in the academic literature – is still very full of holes and unclear and contradictory etc. My job is to try to understand how and why the academic understand it that way – and differently, where’s the difference and why, etc, and then use my preliminary understanding as a tentative shadow that still needs to be furnished more and more through dialogue-ing it with fieldwork.

And in the field, when I am trying to comprehend stuffs, as people do stuffs or say stuffs, this universalized concepts in my mind are being refurnished and refurnished again and constantly to make it contextual and incorporating the lively mind and action of the people that I will be interacting with on fieldwork. Hence the people’s knowledge would gain a little bit more of a level-playing field in relation to the dominant academic way of thinking. It would enrich our understanding and trim the paralyzing conceptualisation and perhaps poke the power relations that keep the misunderstanding and misrepresentation persist over time.

So, I really do need to understand the abstract spirit of concepts, to let it enter my intuition and hence provide a lens that will make me notice stuffs that might not immediately seem to relate, also to have a dialogue to say why it doesn’t relate, what’s missing. So, anyway this is the reason why I had to write and learn that damn theoretical concepts, keep learning and might be rewriting it all over again from scratch or whatever. Destructing, constructing, it’s never a waste of energy, and I thought the process would be like laying one brick over another, but no, it’s not.

This piece of mind is also tentative though. Now, drinks. Thanks mom for loving me unconditionally.