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On Remote Fieldwork and “Shifting Gears”

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Professor Nicole King discussing a consent form with Lonnie Combs in his shop on W. Baltimore St., Baltimore, with students Dawn Baskin and DeAndre Bright. 2019. Photo by William Shewbridge.

I find inspiration in anthropologist Ulf Hannerz’s characterization of ethnography as ‘the art of the possible’ and take from it the idea of doing the best with what you got. During this time when physical distancing is not only mandatory, but also compassionate, the ways in which we have tended to proceed in setting up and facilitating our fieldwork have been dealt a serious blow. The steps we take to develop relationships with field partners while hanging out, talking, and observing in the field have been disrupted. And opportunities to learn more, interview, and document perspectives, expressions, and stories have become less than ideal.

From my couch I recently attended a final class presentation of an undergraduate course in ethnography through an online videoconferencing platform. The course set out in late January to work with food justice organizations in Baltimore and produce a podcast by its end. Students were planning to document related places and conduct in-depth, semi-structured interviews with staff, community leaders, and activists…then, come mid-March, they had to “shift gears,” as the course’s professor aptly put it.[1] And with great agility, the students did just that: they turned the ethnographic lens inward to their own families, homes, and neighborhoods to document the various roles food was playing in and near their lives – from its scarcity in stores, and transforming backyards into gardens, to learning traditional recipes from elders, and eating with distant relatives on religious holidays via Skype.

However, for some who have been planning to begin – as well as continue – fieldwork during these months (and beyond), the prospect of shifting gears can be daunting and disappointing, compounded by an unnerving uncertainty of how the pandemic will unfold. In general, this shift entails a move from the physical world of once-unmasked faces, gestures, handshakes, and hugs to one of telephone and/or web-based video communication. With this can come a loss of “intimacy” and “vivid details,” as my friend Nicole King[2] recently shared, where the benefits of being together – the human connection at the heart of ethnographic engagements – are diminished. Nicole is in the stages of a research project where building rapport with potential interlocutors remains ongoing, with some relationships starting from scratch, and although her methodological path centers on interviews, she recognizes all else that is lost by not being there. She explains:

One of the first steps in the process is to find a place the interview participant/s feel comfortable. Sometimes this is their home or office, etc. This process helps me understand the person I am interviewing in new ways. I prefer to interview in the field and many people feel most comfortable in their own spaces… and being invited in is a privilege and a window into the person’s life in an intimate way. I am able to ask questions about the place where we are doing the interview. I often ask people to define and describe where we are. As we know, how a neighborhood or space is defined is important and culturally significant. While we do have a contrived background online that may tell us something, it is not the same.

As we strive to create the conditions, founded on trust, where our field partners can guide us into their bodies of knowledge in their words and on their terms, what are the mechanics of shifting gears? Or, in the spirit of the art of the possible, how can one carry out ethnographic research while remaining physically distant?

Dining together: relatives joining a special meal via videoconference on a laptop propped up on a suitcase. 2020. Photo by Fikir Ejigineh.

In addition to a wealth of scholarship on ethnographies conducted in virtual worlds, where the use of digital/online technologies for participant observation and interviewing is most appropriate, there are some interesting qualitative studies of physical-world, sociocultural phenomena that were undertaken from a distance due to the impossibility of being there. In her article on ‘following Russian street demonstrations via social media,’ such as through live-streaming platforms and on Twitter, the anthropologist Patty Gray toys with notions of physical presence and questions if being away from her field, but interpreting activities from afar, is “cheating.” She asks:

Can this be considered a legitimate form of participant observation, “real” fieldwork? Or is it cheating because the “being there” part is missing? But in another way, what I am asking is whether this virtual presence allows me to “be there”—if not physically, then perhaps temporally (“being then”)—in such a way that I actually can investigate this phenomenon anthropologically.

Gray admits that there is no true substitute for physical participation out in the field, but emphasizes that “humans are creative tool-users” and “[w]hen they want to connect with other humans, it does not necessarily matter if their interlocutors are present in the flesh, if they are looking at each other across a Skype screen;” she argues that they will connect and find “copresence” using whatever means they have.

This was certainly the case for the anthropologist, Jonathan Skinner, who was conducting a ‘traditional’ ethnography on the island of Montserrat when, in 1995, its volcano erupted and he, along with many of its residents, were evacuated, scattering to places all over. Back in Scotland, he was able to continue his research through a Montserratian email-based newsgroup that emerged in the months that followed to share information and stay connected. This turn of events had Skinner rethinking “field as site” as “field as flow,” arguing that when such unforeseen disruptions occur, ethnographic practice should follow “these navigators of a new space.” As such, he calls for an open mindedness to the “new and unexpected avenues of the same field of research,” including “cyberspace avenues of social life.”

These examples draw on longer lines of interrogation into traditional anthropological notions of ‘the field’ as fixed, bounded, and always located ‘elsewhere,’ bringing to light not only the hierarchical privileging of certain ‘fields’ over others in the history of ethnographic practice and scholarship, but the need for more flexible and fluid understandings of the ties between fieldwork and location, especially with respect to participant observation.

As I alluded to earlier, I have been talking with friends who are currently facing these challenges, learning what concerns are popping up for them as most pressing. One concern, for instance, relates to the ethical process of gaining informed consent, which for many was typically handled in person. Both parties would look over a (physical) consent, or release, form that the person to be interviewed would sign after a discussion of its points, addressing any questions that arise. Sometimes, these discussions lean more towards negotiation, where an agreement between fieldworker and field partner is hopefully reached, such as with respect to anonymity and/or the future uses of the recorded event. Other times, it is likely that the interview – and, thereby, consent process – will smoothly unfold due to a longer-term building of rapport and trust that has already been underway. In any case, however, this process – at whatever step – will also need to move online, or to the telephone, signaling the need for more discussion in the lead-up to those that will be recorded.

Nicole and I were talking about the fact that, more than ever, one has to think hard about worst-case scenarios – that is, to plan for the worst, which could relate to consent issues, but also Internet connectivity. It goes without saying that not everyone has access to, uses, or feels comfortable with the Internet and its videoconferencing platforms, the popular communication channel these days. And even when on Zoom, WebEx, Skype, or other platforms, cues may be missed, conversation flow may lag, and awkward interruptions may abound. Moreover, the fragility of Internet connections also comes into play: the freezing up of screens mid-sentence and the abrupt loss of meeting participants are commonplace. As such, it would be mightily helpful to have conversations with field partners about their technological preferences and needs, as well as to bring up the possibility that connections could be dropped. Together, contingency plans – e.g. please interrupt me if you cannot hear; and who is calling whom back if our connection is lost? – can be prepared, and any pre-interview worry may be mitigated, even just by a little, for both.

Indeed, in an almost counterintuitive sense, what is most needed for shifting gears is to start planning and penciling in the time to consciously foster more talking. Even though fieldwork engagements may experience a sharp decline in real interaction, this is the time to use what one has got, to leverage the crucial mode that remains – online/telephone conversations – to fill in the gaps. As Hannerz has said: “But then ethnography is an art of the possible, and it may be better to have some of it than none at all.”

Another friend, Jennie Williams, a PhD Candidate in ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington, is studying participation in community music making events in Southern Indiana by hanging out and playing at group sessions, interviewing musicians, and documenting oral histories of elders. She is smack in the middle of shifting to full-fledged Facebook and telephone communication, with occasional emails and texting, and these past weeks have found her not only calling her interlocutors (or friends) to make sure that they are healthy and well stocked, but to also maintain the relationships she has been developing for over a year. Jennie will soon be setting up formal interviews, and has taken the time to assess the most appropriate channels to use. She notes that Facebook has been beneficial in maintaining the “group setting,” for having conversations with more than one person at a time; yet, she warns that there are those who are not on Facebook and may “slip through the cracks.” As such, she is particularly mindful of taking the time to call those who are not online. Importantly, she reminds me that there are still people out there who love to talk on the phone (herself included), and thanks to their comfort, the ease with which they communicate is left largely unaffected.

Jennie Williams (left) with musician Becky Sprinkle (whose brother produces honey). 2019. Photo provided by Traditional Arts Indiana.

Making the conscious effort to talk more with field partners is of course kind, and can help strengthen relationships, expanding ‘field engagements’ for far longer than would have been planned. In addressing losses of intimacy, the ‘ethnographic interview’ – often set as a one-off event – may be enhanced to last over a series of conversations, which can be followed up on in person at a later date (fingers crossed). Patty Gray’s positive outlook on how we will always find ways to connect has me thinking about the types of activities that can be drawn upon during web-based video conversations, such as encouraging field partners to share photographs as a means of jogging memories, or to look at online maps to describe places and spaces long gone.

In addition, the ability to ensure ongoing consent – a tenet of ideal, ethical practice – is heightened through potential, regular check-ins and, perhaps, updates on how the fieldwork is going. With the ability to record both telephone and video conversations, such documents – including hardcopy transcriptions – can be sent to field partners for their approval, commentary, and clarification, as guided by usual practice, but also actively used as ways to extend conversations and deepen rapport.

For some, a one-off interview may suffice, and limited contact is preferred. Though, as Jennie once again reminds me, these conversations and relationships are two-way: “I get the phone calls, too! They want to know that I am doing OK during this time, as well.” Recently, she realized that she was out of the honey that the brother of one of her musician friends produces. Jennie mentioned it on a recent phone call, seeing how she could buy more, and lo and behold, a couple of days later, her friend drove up from Southern Indiana to Bloomington unannounced with two full jars from their local apiary.

It is safe to say that there is no one way to navigate fieldwork during this time, and these conversations should continue. There is a greater need for the sharing of knowledge and experiences in exploring what is possible and how we can proceed. In the spirit of togetherness, I turn now to my colleagues here, at the AFC, as part of further Folklife Today posts on the topic. To be continued!


  1. Professor Sarah Fouts, American Studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
  2. Professor and Chair, American Studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore County


Comments (2)

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful and wide-ranging blog, Michelle! All very interesting and it was great to see that the crew at UMBC made the StoryMap you linked to using the _open source_ application developed under the auspices of the Knight Foundation: terrific model to follow!

  2. Thank you Nancy Grace for sharing news of Michelle Stefano’s blog on remote fieldwork and shifting gears. Last week, seeing the semester coming to an end, I contacted a couple of my research communities in Jakarta, Indonesia. “I am ready to connect” I wrote on What’s App messages? What’s going on?” I was almost immediately invited to participate in an online seminar organized by the Islamic University of Jakarta (which has twice been my sponsor, via Fulbright and AMINEF). So just before reading this blog, I was on a 3.5 hour zoom seminar with 230 participants in the zoom room and 900 watching on YouTube. The platform connected scholars in Canada, the US, Indonesia, and Turkey and participants from all over the vast archipelago of Indonesia and throughout its diaspora. It was both distant but also very intimate — as I have found has been the case with my now-transitioned seminar and ensemble at William & Mary, both of which met synchronously and worked asynchronously for the second half of the semester. Indeed the Coronaverse has cancelled 8 weeks of summer research travel and some pretty exciting events that were to take place. But I am ready to adapt and today was my first step into synchronous, online interaction with the people I care about and collaborate with a half a world away. Making the most of “the art of the possible” here in Williamsburg, Virginia, I want to thank AFC and Michelle for this timely piece. It rings my bell today!

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