REACHING OUT to unknown people may be hard in ordinary circumstances. As we wade into an entirely new area of research—which typically, to prove interesting, must be removed from our social comfort zone—it can be daunting.
In practice, though, it’s really just a matter of finding where to start. Just like a conversation may naturally flow from the right introduction, fieldwork can quickly take on a dynamic of its own. And figuring out the starting point for the relationships you need to establish is not as hard as it sounds.
Of course, every round of fieldwork is unique, meaning you should discuss the practicalities of starting off on a case-by-case basis with people enjoying relevant experience. General principles, however, do apply.
A golden rule is to never lie—never pretend to be someone or something you are not. That may help in the early stages, but soon enough you’ll be busted and the word will get around. Good fieldwork ultimately will rest on trusted relationships, and nothing will do more harm to them than a foundational lie. When uncovered, it will bring into question everything else about you—your real identity, the nature of your intentions, the integrity of your organization, the sincerity of your friendship, and so on.
That said, when you present yourself to an individual removed from your usual circles, your more formal markers of status and purpose likely won’t make much sense. Research in itself is fuzzy, if not suspicious, in the minds of most people: why would he/she be genuinely interested in us? What is the hidden agenda? What good could come of discussing intimate issues with a stranger? Invoking the name of a research center may, at least, provide some reassurances as to the institutional reality behind your presence, but that won’t in itself dispel any of these questions. Titles like “researcher”, “fellow” or “analyst” won’t lift the haze but rather add to it, as will the jargon you may use to explain your topic to an informed audience. Academic concepts, NGO catch-words and other acronyms may impress people due to their esoteric authority, but they’re unlikely to contribute to a balanced, open dialogue.
Introducing yourself is about framing the interaction effectively. What is its raison d’etre? Or, in other words, why are we talking to each other? Basically you must explain who you are, why you are there, what you are interested in, and why that is understandable and legitimate. As soon as the interaction makes sense, all kinds of opportunities open up.
Here’s an apparent paradox: your starting point in presenting yourself should always be your interlocutor, not yourself. You must find a way of framing things that fits into his / her world, rather than trying to get him / her to understand and accept yours. Don’t spend time explaining why your research is critically important to their lives (sadly, it isn’t); why the sacrosanct pursuit of knowledge is justification enough (not quite); or why you’re definitely not a spy (now, who’s going to believe that?). Say in simple, relatable words, why you’re sincerely interested in your topic: because of the issue’s intrinsic relevance; because of your life-story, that brought you to this juncture; or merely because you’re being paid to do this study—a motivation many will already have assumed is at the heart of your endeavor.
People we meet generally engage with us for what we might see as the wrong reasons. Often they hope they’ll get something out of it: entertainment, better connections, maybe some form of compensation or – why not? – a job or a visa. Some are awed by the researcher’s status and just don’t know how to say no. Many schedule an appointment only because you came with the right introduction. Or they are already in the business of answering questions, as politicians, spokespeople or pundits. Not infrequently, they are selling a narrative they have a stake in, which they expect you to buy and amplify, rather than deconstruct.
A surprising number of relationships thus start off on a misunderstanding—but that need not matter. On the contrary: ambiguity facilitates human interactions by allowing the parties to project something personal and meaningful into them. A researcher may say, “I got a position with a small organization that wants to understand problems from a local perspective, and convince donors to spend more wisely.” That statement may well be interpreted as follows: “aha, that must be a cushy job with the foreigners, but fair enough.” That initial perception may work just as well as a starting point for grounding the relationship’s raison d’etre; from there, you can build trust, prove your use, demonstrate your knowledge, establish your credibility, etc.
During or after your introduction, your interlocutors may already be keen to interject. Let them do so: they’ll be giving you hints as to where your relationship is going, and what initial perceptions are already gelling within them. They may be curious, indifferent, skeptical, or even openly hostile – none of which do more than tell you where the challenge of connecting may lie. Be prepared, also: you should be ready to answer all foreseeable, basic queries, so it is up to you to anticipate and “rehearse” the most obvious lines of an incipient conversation.
Once you get past the opening exchange, you can get into what you are interested in more specifically. Again, continue to seek an angle that makes things understandable and acceptable for your interlocutor. If you’re digging into, say, militant behavior, don’t throw in concepts like “radicalization,” which would reflect your biases. You may want to talk, rather, about disenfranchised youth, which virtually everyone will relate to. Sometimes it’s easier to use a very broad angle, working your way down from the economic environment or big political trends all the way to their very concrete manifestations in the neighborhood.
Remember that there can be several beginnings to a conversation. Even if your initial entry-point turns out to be a dead-end, you’ll get second and third chances. Don’t belabor an argument that’s going nowhere; try a completely different angle, and yet another, until you you’ve reached the place where you wanted to go (or somewhere you didn’t know you wanted to go). A conversation will feel right when something clicks with your interlocutor. That is what you must be looking for – because that connection means that you are both sincerely engaged in the interaction. Obviously, the very same people can behave completely differently on the same subject depending on how you approach it.
As you work your way into a conversation, don’t necessarily rush into what you believe is important. Finding ways of building the relationship is more important still. That can take you off on a tangent, in which case let yourself go. Most of what is truly interesting in an encounter is also, by nature, unexpected, so do not resist when people spontaneously try to take you into an area they believe is meaningful.
In fact, it is important to reinforce people in what they say, to encourage them to go on–to the point of either repeating what you found most relevant and pertinent, or commenting on it to indicate that you are taking that idea fully on board. A critical skill to acquire consists of sharing sound analysis based on what you just heard, which highlights both your interlocutor’s insightfulness and your ability to listen, understand, empathize and display value-added of your own.
Although it is essential to follow your interlocutor where he / she wants to go, you can’t allow them to just walk you round in circles. Out of sheer respect for everyone’s time, the conversation must be lively, informative, meaningful, rhythmic almost, and that is your responsibility by default. So you also want to be active, and steer the conversation implicitly or explicitly when you feel it is going adrift. Always try to preemptively chart a course, in your head: is this going in the right direction? Have I been here before? Where should I go next when I get stuck here? What’s the most natural direction as we move on? In the practical terms of a conversation, this means readying yourself with strategic questions and comments.
Finally, when things get going, enjoy! The pleasure you take at meeting different people, at hearing more about their lives, at seeing things from their perspective will show: once the interaction becomes natural and enjoyable to you, most likely it will be so for the person across from you.
In that sense, you should come to see “fieldwork” as something almost seamlessly part of the rest of your life. For example, a meeting with a donor supporting your fieldwork is also fieldwork. The point of the interaction, on the face of it, may be to sign a contract and get acquainted, but there’s more to it than that: getting to understand their perspective, establishing your credibility, building the basis for a relationship you want to develop and enrich, and even analyzing the dynamic between a grant-maker and recipient. Fieldwork is less work than way of life.
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Illustration credit: Alice finds a tiny door in the curtain / licensed by CC.