What is fieldwork?

What do we label under doing ethnographic fieldwork? I’m posing this question because sometimes I have the feeling that what I am doing doesn’t fall under the register of fieldwork.

Maybe I have this feeling because I didn’t’ arrive at my so-called field with a fixed idea of what and who I would be studying. Of course, I had many ideas and possible different directions I could go to, but it was an explicit choice to come to Sarajevo with a very open attitude. On top of that I chose not to work through an organization to gain access to people. There are many different reasons for this, but a specific one is that it often seems to me that people do fieldwork with a very select few via an organization and then start generalizing tremendously. In a sense I wanted to get in touch with a diverse crowd, and specifically those that don’t engage with different kinds of organizations.

Often I’m engaging with someone without explicitly thinking that it is part of my fieldwork. But soon I realize that what they are saying, and how they are behaving, could be useful for my research. This leads me to a feeling that almost every interaction is part of my ‘field’. This can range from conversations with family members, relaxing in cafe’s with friends, strolling through the city and thinking about the sensual experiences, …

Last night I was talking with a friend about what it is that I exactly do. I spontaneously grabbed my little notebook from the back pocket of my jeans, and went on to explain that I always have it with me. By this gesture I tried to say that for me anthropological fieldwork is an all encompassing act that is difficult to boil down to a well defined strategy.  Of course I said that there is the idea of participant observation, but that in reality this often is very messy. I also noted that for now I haven’t been doing many formal interviews because it seems not the appropriate time. For now it revolves mostly around informal talks and the multitude of experiences that run through me.

I’ve wondered if it would have been easier to work via an organization. Maybe it would have eased my acces to certain people, and it probably would have confined my research area. But then again, this is not what I was aiming for when I came here. I wanted to try and look at everyday life, the small seemingly basal things that people do, and the way they interact, that seems to escape a lot of social research. Not to say that this is not possible to research when you take an institutional approach, but there seems to be something lacking there.

One of the biggest issues for now has been to get in touch with specific people. Not that I have a lack of engagement in general. No, it’s more that it’s too widespread – or better, it seems too widespread for now – to have much coherence. Of course I’m not saying that I’m per se trying to impose structure, but it’s more an issues for me of having a certain overview.

Maybe this will only emerge later on when I have more time to sit and analyze more thoroughly what I’ve been doing. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to return to Sarajevo in January, and maybe latter on also. Because there is so much that I feel is lacking now, and I hope this will slowly get filled as time progresses.




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