Doing fieldwork with kids: Part I

Recently I started a new research project looking at the social impacts of three Sistema-inspired orchestral music education programmes operating in low decile schools in the Wellington region, where I live. El Sistema is a Venezuelan music and social development initiative that began in 1975 and is today one of the world’s largest and most famous orchestral music education programmes. Sistema-inspired programmes operate in over 60 countries and there are at least six here in New Zealand, including Auckland-based Sistema Aotearoa. My new project involves working with kids: those involved in the orchestral programmes, and my own. In this post I reflect on what it’s like to do fieldwork with my kids in tow, and in the next I’ll discuss how I plan to work with the children in these programmes.

It took me a good couple of years after finishing my PhD to start a new major research project. There were a few reasons for this. Two weeks after submitting my PhD I started working as a lecturer on a series of short-term contracts which meant constantly developing and teaching new courses. I needed to publish from my dissertation so I could secure a permanent academic position – something that is extraordinarily difficult as an adjunct, as many blogs, news articles and #quitlit posts on social media have pointed out. I had my daughter in 2012. And I needed some space to think about what I wanted to work on for the foreseeable future. In 2013 I was employed on a 3-year, part-time contract, meaning I could access university research funding not available to those on short-term contracts. This, combined with the fact that you need to be research-active with a track record of obtaining funding in order to compete for academic jobs, meant it was a good time to develop a new research project.

When I started my PhD I had not yet met my husband and children were not on my horizon, so everything and anything seemed possible. Now I had two other people to think about in deciding where, how, and what I wanted to research – in that order. I wanted to do ethnographic fieldwork in Wellington and continue my interest in development and social justice. Basing my new project in Wellington was also a practical decision: I could take my daughter with me, I wouldn’t need to be away from home for extended periods of time, and I could get started without the security of funding or a permanent job. Coming up with a feasible project was more difficult, but a serendipitous sequence of events led me to Sistema Aotearoa and eventually the charitable organisations that run Sistema-inspired orchestral music programmes in Hutt Valley and Porirua.

I was pregnant with my second child by the time I established relationships with the organisations, developed a research proposal and obtained funding, and received ethics approval to begin the research. Ethnographic fieldwork was relatively straightforward to begin with as I could take my music-loving daughter and composer/conductor/musician husband along to interviews and performances. Things became a bit tricker after our son was born last year.

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Part of my field-and-carework kit

For a start, my fieldwork kit expanded significantly from a pen, notebook, iPad and camera to include nappy bag, frontpack, and buggy as well as preschooler snacks and activities. I didn’t always have my daughter with me but my son was now a permanent attachment, meaning I relied heavily on family and research assistants for help. He still breastfeeds frequently at night and at the moment my fieldwork doesn’t extend to evening rehearsals as it is just too difficult to get away after the dinner-bath-bed routine. I do go to some evening and weekend performances, usually with one or both kids in tow, and my husband or mother-in-law (also a musician).

Combining fieldwork with carework is not easy. I no longer write notes in the field while my kids are with me, instead relying on my memory, what Simon Ottenberg terms ‘headnotes’ (in the 1990 book Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology edited by Roger Sanjek), and my GoPro camera. I miss things when I’m breastfeeding or changing nappies or leaving the room with a screaming baby or taking a preschooler who’s had enough somewhere else to play. (I have a keen recollection of my then 3-year-old daughter standing up during the middle of a concert and loudly announcing, “That’s enough, everyone wants to go home now.”) My kids miss me when I pay attention to the person I’m interviewing or spend an afternoon at music lessons without them. I often don’t get time to write up my fieldnotes in Evernote at the end of the day, and I definitely don’t have the same amount of time or headspace available to just think.

Despite the difficulties, there are a lot of things I enjoy about combining fieldwork with carework. I like my children being able to see and participate in what I do and love watching their interest in music grow. I get a different perspective when sitting on the floor with my son. My daughter often makes interesting observations about things that I hadn’t noticed, and I value being able to discuss the musical aspects of performances with my husband and mother-in-law. I also appreciate the connections I can make with the children I’m working with, who invariably ask “whose mother are you?” upon meeting me, and also with their parents.

Doing fieldwork with children in tow is not new; a number of anthropologists and geographers have offered useful insights into how one’s children can shape the research process. Kelly Dombroski’s excellent blog post on carework in fieldwork discusses some recent publications on this topic (including her own). However I have not yet come across much work that reflects on fieldwork at home with children. Even this “Family in the Field” survey of anthropologists undertaking fieldwork with their children assumes that ‘the field’ is somewhere away from home.

Do you do ethnographic fieldwork with your kids at locations close to your home? Do you know of people who have written about this? I would love to hear of your experiences!

Version 3
At a concert with my 5 month old (note the buggy doubling as a tripod)

 

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Negotiating comparison in ethnographic fieldwork

Anthropology, a discipline dedicated to understanding the full range of human experience from as many perspectives as possible, has always been comparative. This comparative aspect was one of the things that initially captured my imagination as a student. I became interested in understanding how issues that affect humans everywhere – such as poverty, inequality and development – appear in different contexts. I believe that to better debate such issues, we need to understand people’s practices as well as context-specific structures of history, environment, society, and culture. Careful comparative analysis can add to knowledge about development and social change by informing debates and contributing to more effective policies and strategies.

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Using Evernote for ethnographic fieldnotes

A while ago I wrote about the fieldnote template I used in MS Word for my PhD research. Now that I’m starting some new projects it’s the perfect time to try Evernote for ethnographic fieldnotes.

I have used Evernote for a while (mainly for storing annotations and web clippings) but I have to admit it wasn’t the first thing that sprang to my mind when I thought of switching away from MS Word for fieldnotes. I asked ethnographic researchers on Twitter to share what they used to take electronic fieldnotes, and Kelly Dombroski was the first to suggest I take a look at the possibilities Evernote provides for writing and organising fieldnotes. A quick Google search led me to a couple of useful blog posts by reseachers who use Evernote this way, including one by David Keyes on Evernote as Field Notebook where he talks about how he came to use Evernote for fieldwork and data analysis. Over on the Wenner-Gren Blog, Danielle Carr discusses how she became a “reluctant convert” to Evernote and outlines some advantages and disadvantages of using it. Taking a slightly different approach, Tim Sensing uses Evernote for a student ethnography assignment, something also suggested on a web page I found for the course Web 2.0 Foundations: A Networked Research Course describing how to take fieldnotes and write them up in Evernote.

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Rethinking Responsibility

The programme is now out for this weekend’s conference, Competing Responsibilities: The politics and ethics of responsibility in contemporary life. I’m excited to hear keynote speakers Nikolas Rose and Cris Shore, of course, but I am also looking forward to hearing how other presenters are rethinking responsibility and responsibilization as theoretical and analytical concepts. SavageMinds.org recently featured an interview with conference organisers Catherine Trundle and Susanna Trnka which nicely introduces the conference theme.

I was inspired by the conference theme and have developed the paper below (based on my PhD research) to focus on how grassroots organisations become responsibilized in the absence of effective state interventions in urban poor areas.

TITLE:
Responsibilizing grassroots organisations in “forgotten places” in Howrah, West Bengal, India.

ABSTRACT:
In 1991 the Government of India implemented widespread economic liberalisation policies which, as well as contributing to India’s recent economic rise to global significance, had important and uneven effects on various social groups within India. Despite official reports of declining poverty in India, neoliberal ideas and policies have not improved the lives of those living in poverty – many of whom are Muslim – in bastis in Howrah, West Bengal. This paper argues that Howrah’s bastis are “forgotten places,” historically and politically constructed enclaves that are neglected, but nevertheless deeply inhabited, by the state. In these bastis, services that are the responsibility of the state – such as access to education – are not adequately provided for, leaving a gap that NGOs and grassroots organisations try to fill. This paper provides an ethnographic account of what happens in such “forgotten places” by describing the efforts of Howrah Pilot Project, an organisation that seeks to address this gap by running a grassroots-level, nonformal school in one of Howrah’s bastis. Processes of ‘active forgetting’ serve to responsibilize such organisations, but their practices need to be augmented by a responsive state in order to achieve meaningful, long-term, beneficial change.

Doing anthropological fieldwork ‘at home’

A month or so ago I posted some thoughts about what it’s really like to be an anthropologist. Not long after that I was asked to talk to a group of Y12 students (high school students in their penultimate year who had come to Victoria University to learn about future study options) about doing anthropological fieldwork. That talk did a much better job of capturing what for me is one of the most rewarding (and challenging) parts of being an anthropologist: doing fieldwork.

I studied Hip-Hop Culture in Aotearoa for my Masters degree in social anthropology, which involved doing fieldwork ‘at home.’ I had long been a fan of Aotearoa Hip-Hop (I used to co-host the Hip-Hop show on Massey University’s student radio station Radio Control) and became interested in understanding how and why Hip-Hop in New Zealand was different to Hip-Hop overseas, particularly the United States. My thesis was based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork (2000-2002) where I explored what Hip-Hop meant to those actively involved in producing and performing Hip-Hop in Aotearoa.

My fieldwork involved a lot of listening and observation. I went to events (b-boy and MC battles, graffiti showcases, gigs, Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summits), used a technique called participant-observation (sometimes known as ‘deep hanging out’ with a purpose) where I would participate in as well as observe what was going on, took fieldnotes and photos, interviewed members of the Hip-Hop community, and tried to immerse myself in all things Hip-Hop.

Lorena doing fieldwork at the 2001 Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summit
Lorena doing fieldwork at the 2001 Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summit in Auckland

People often smile when I tell them my fieldwork involved going to gigs or watching spraycans while people created graffiti art (making jokes like “I bet that was hard work”). However, this kind of fieldwork is not as easy as it sounds. Daniel Simons’ video The Monkey Business Illusion is a great example of how we often miss a lot of what happens around us:
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Anthropology workshops at Victoria University of Wellington

Earlier this year I participated in an online writing group for anthropologists run by Savage Minds. I didn’t achieve all of my writing goals but I did enjoy reading the series of interviews Savage Minds bloggers published with various anthropologists, including one with Kirin Narayan on ethnographic writing. I have long been a fan of Kirin’s work and when I saw that she is now in the School of Culture, History and Language at Australian National University (much closer to New Zealand than the United States) I decided to invite her here to speak about her research. She accepted! Next week she and Ken George will be giving seminars and running workshops/master classes on various aspects of their research at both Massey University in Palmerston North, and Victoria University of Wellington. Details of the Wellington events are below.

KirinNarayan KenGeorge

Announcing the Savage Minds Writing Group

Name: Lorena Gibson
Writing Projects: a film review, a book review, a book chapter, and a journal article.
Goals: To devote one day per week to specifically to writing, and to write for at least one Pomodoro (25 mins) on other days. And to get these writing projects finished!

turning your thesis into a book

This is a great post on how to turn your thesis into a book, and very timely for me as it is what I am doing right now. I haven’t taken all of Pat’s advice (I’m working on a full manuscript without a contract, for example) but her tips on rewriting are very useful. Her post has reminded me that I’m writing for a specific genre – ethnography, quite different from a thesis in social anthropology – which has particular conventions that I need to follow, and inspired me to completely rewrite my introduction and conclusion with a new audience in mind. Now, if only I could churn out 2,000 words a day …

patter

Lots of people want to turn their thesis into a book. This is not always possible – not all theses make good books. But it may also not be desirable. Some disciplines revere the scholarly monograph so writing one may be very good for the career. But others hold the peer reviewed journal article as the gold standard; in such cases, it may be better to get stuck into turning the thesis into a set of papers, rather than sweating over a manuscript. However, if you do want to do the book business, then you have to think about what the common advice – this book is not your thesis – actually means.

The first and most important difference relates to purpose.

The thesis is a text which is written to be examined and evaluated. As such, it follows a particular form, and the writing has to do particular kinds…

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