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Remote fieldwork: tech considerations

Man who, by remote control, operates cable cars which carry materials to construction work at Shasta Dam. Shasta County, California. Russel Lee, 1941. fsa 8c23336 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c23336

My colleague here at the American Folklife Center, Michelle Stefano, offered an opening post for this series on remote fieldwork by reflecting on the relationships sitting at the core of ethnographic documentation. In many ways her post explored the “why” behind conducting remote fieldwork, even when it might feel challenging or discordant in comparison to face-to-face scenarios often associated with robust cultural documentation. In this post, I want to take up some of the questions and issues around “how” to do remote fieldwork, specifically with regard to technology and the challenges (and opportunities) it might afford!

Working remotely using technology has meant a lot of different things historically, as this Farm Security Administration photo illustrates. Tech can help us do things we otherwise couldn’t, but can also be complicated and a challenge. It’s important to note up front that there are no easy answers or simple solutions to the burning central question of the moment for remote fieldwork: “what’s the best option for…?” In this regard, the post will not provide particular recommendations for gear or other tech items to use. I will offer ways to think through and identify options for using technology to support your remote fieldwork projects.

 

 

To start, here are three tenets undergirding my approach:

  • Use your personal/professional networks for feedback and ideas: The American Folklore Society (AFS) and the Oral History Association (OHA) have been hosting webinars exploring methods and technologies, and there are many impromptu groups sharing ideas and recommendations across social media and other web platforms.
  • Trust your instincts: You know best what you are comfortable using in terms of technology, how far you’d be willing to go in experimenting or paying for something, or how important a particular remote interview would be for your project.
  • View tech as part of the moment, not a replacement for “face to face” fieldwork: the prevalence of digital communication technologies in daily life—mostly screen-based and flowing through computers, tablets, or cell phones—is a fact. The ‘ubiquitous technology’ (citation) of now is something that impacts fieldwork, whether we like or not, and in our current moment is both a challenge and an opportunity.

In lieu of specific recommendations of technology to use (or not), I’d like to think about technology and remote fieldwork in terms of availability, confidence, and patience.

Availability

When it comes to technology and remote fieldwork, thinking about “availability” means considering many facets of the concept of “access.” In the most immediate sense, think about what you have readily available right now in terms of communicating with potential participants in remote fieldwork, and in terms of creating durable documentation of that communication (i.e. recordings). For the communication aspect, consider devices–such as computer, cell phone, or tablet—as well as connectivity: your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and the bandwidth available to you, the dependability of your WIFI connection versus the benefits of using an Ethernet cable to hook into your router, or the strength of your cellular network connection if you’ll be using a mobile device rather than a computer to conduct interviews or other fieldwork activity. You’ll also want to consider communication access for those who’ll participate in remote fieldwork with you. Do they have reliable and ready access to the same kind of digital communications you do? That is, if you initiate an interview via platform X, will they be able to participate easily?

Two women in an office, one sitting on a desk while talking on the phone while the other is behind a desk.

Telephones have been elements of fieldwork for quite a while, especially as tools for remote coordination of logistics. Elena Bradunas (on the phone) and Greta Swenson in the office of the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project collection (AFC 1981/004). Call number: AFC 1981/004: CH1.

With regards to creating durable documentation or recordings during remote fieldwork, “availability” of technology takes shape as hardware and software. Does the app or platform you plan to use have a recording option? If not, or if the resultant recording is not in a format you can (or want) to use, is there another software option? Can your computer or mobile device handle recording? Will you be using a landline telephone on your end, allowing you to connect an external recording device in order to document an interview? I’ll limit discussion to computer-based or cellular communications in this post, but note that landline phones are still a viable option and there are adapters from the analog age that enable fieldworkers to connect digital audio recorders to old-school wired telephones.

Of course, there are more questions (see the next section!) in large part because there are so many options for software and platforms out there at the moment. And it could be that hardware is an important element available to you that can help with remote fieldwork. Maybe you have a digital audio recorder that can connect to your computer or mobile device that allows you document outside of the mechanism through which you are communicating with participants. Such an option may also enable you to connect an external microphone, potentially enhancing audio quality for one side of an interview. But it might be the case that the microphone available to you on a computer or mobile device is just fine for your purposes—so available doesn’t just refer to what you have in front of you, but what meets your needs. This observation rings true for many fieldwork projects, but resonates especially so now given the constraints connected to stay-at-home orders and social distancing.

Confidence

As noted above, there can be an avalanche of questions and complexities solely connected to the software aspect of conducting remote fieldwork. And this is where confidence comes into play: what is your comfort level when it comes to navigating details underlying the overarching concept of “technology”? Doing remote fieldwork can take many forms, including recording interviews over the phone (cellular or landlines). But, if you plan to use web-based communication platforms you will necessarily deal with VoIP technology. That acronym may mean something to you right away, but chances are just as good that it doesn’t. And it’s only one (admittedly complex) component underlying remote fieldwork! The acronym itself stands for “Voice over Internet Protocol,” and refers to a set of technologies that effectively enable people to communicate in real time through large scale networks such as the internet. Do you need to know all this in order to successfully do remote fieldwork? Probably not, but being aware of your own confidence when it comes to navigating complex technological things is important as you design and run a remote fieldwork project. As with many other situations in fieldwork, it’s important to know what you know and be confident that you can learn what you don’t know as you become aware of needs.

As with availability, it’s crucial to consider confidence of those you invite to participate in a remote project. A colleague I spoke with recently noted that we all need to be aware of what we are asking of interviewees or participants when it comes to remote fieldwork. It’s one thing to build up trust and rapport to the point that someone is comfortable with you visiting their home and setting up for an interview in a kitchen or living room. It’s another thing to ask them to help with setting up, to participate in the technology actively by logging onto a video chat platform, adjust audio settings, or somehow create a “well lit” scene in their own home—and, effectively, this is what we do when inviting someone to participate in a remote interview. Be mindful of, and attentive to, their comfort with navigating technology involved in remote fieldwork, and help by sharing your own confidence whether it’s longstanding or newly discovered.

Patience

The final orienting concept for thinking about technology and remote framework hinges on compassion and pacing: be patient. Take the time to learn what you need to in order to get your project off on the right foot, and take the time to test things out! There is bound to be varying degrees of urgency around projects that were underway prior to the pandemic, or projects that emerge as you hear from other fieldworkers or even people who you’ve come to know through fieldwork—projects that need to happen now because the time is right. But taking the time to sort out what you need and what you have when it comes to the appropriate tech can help you shape a remote fieldwork project into something viable and rewarding. Being patient with yourself amidst all the possible options and complicated scenarios around tech in this time of disruption and challenge will allow you to develop the most effective and (ideally) simplest approach to cultural documentation.

Extending patience to those participating in your project will be key, as well. As I noted above, inviting someone to be part of your remote fieldwork project entails asking more of them than we may anticipate. We might be pushing people beyond their comfort zones with video calls or other forms of digital or network communication, especially when these interactions are framed more formally as “fieldwork” rather than a social call. Bringing patience and understanding into the mix is always a part of fieldwork, and certainly takes on a different weight as you negotiate schedules and the tech necessary to be part of an interview or other interaction. And, of course, there is often the need for patience during a real-time session as the seemingly inevitable interruptions—network glitches, noise, kids or animals bursting into a room on either side of the meeting—add unexpected texture to the moment. Again, nothing new in fieldwork, but these kinds of disruptions happen in a different register these days.

Some final thoughts on using the tech

So much of your own planning is dependent on what you are trying to document in your remote fieldwork, and for generally applicable ideas about organizing fieldwork projects turn to our publication, Folklife and Fieldwork: An Introduction to Cultural Documentation. Much of the advice in it is portable to remote situations even though it hadn’t been created (and revised) with such scenarios in mind. But here are some ideas on tech which resonate with the moment we find ourselves in now:

Recording VoIP interviews:

Hard drive space: make sure you have it when recording! And, to the best of your ability, have the recordings saved to a different drive than your computer uses to run everything

Do you need the video? Is it important for the interaction? If not, consider an audio-only interview as this approach decreases the amount of network bandwidth needed on either side of the interview.

Using online podcast production platforms for interviewing: be aware that they tend to record the audio as “iso”or isolated tracks (each participant on a different track); this is useful in podcast production, but might not be useful if you want to end up with a single audio file (because you’ll have to combine them).

Recording on your cell phone:

In-call recordings: There are many apps available across mobile operating systems (e.g. iOS or Android) that allow you to record calls directly onto the storage in your phone. Shopping around for the “best” app will entail searching, reading reviews, and asking colleagues. Also, make sure you have enough storage on your phone before starting the recording!

Recording to an external device: With creative cabling, you can run the sound out of your phone to an external recorder. While this won’t necessarily be “better” recording than an app will provide, it could provide a safety net of sorts (i.e. the computer in your phone won’t have to do so many things at once) and may allow you some more flexibility in terms of set-up.

An adapter cable connects a mobile phone to a digital audio recorder.

Creative cabling using items I already have allow me to record interviews via cell phone onto an external digital field recorder. Variations on this set up are possible! Photo by John Fenn, 2020.

Getting a “good” recording:

Consider all factors: There will be controllable factors (your mic, the room you are in) and uncontrollable ones (mic available to interviewee, the room they are in, the bandwidth of internet connection on either end). Be patient and accommodating all around!

Attend to notions of “quality”: There are several layers of this concept to think about in light of the options we have available to us in the current situation.

  • Audio quality (sonic elements): Remote interviews might very sound like they are recorded over a phone line or network, because they are! Recall that at the top of this post I noted that tech is part of the fabric of the moment, and will add texture to fieldwork documentation.
  • File quality (compressed v uncompressed): Standardized approaches to digital preservation rely on uncompressed files, and this is usually the preference for repositories such as the Library of Congress. But recording to uncompressed file formats may not always be possible in remote fieldwork situations, so be ready to assess your options.
  • Content quality (the value of having the cultural documentation): Consider the above layers of “quality” in conjunction with the constraints and opportunities that technology affords us in remote fieldwork. As with many issues discussed above, there is no simplified solution, but you might start with a form of this question: is it worth doing an interview now, or can it wait until a face-to-face interaction is possible? Ideally this question should push you to think through the objectives and outcomes of your project.

Deciding how to go about remote fieldwork involves multiple aspects of technology, and the ideas discussed in this post can help you sort out an approach that meets your project’s needs. Of course, the discussion above is partial—and ongoing—so please do share your own thoughts, experiments, and questions with us!

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