Preparing for Dissertation Fieldwork…Take 2

In just a little over two weeks, I will be embarking on my second field assessment for my dissertation, which will consist of three months of travels to various cities in Pakistan.

In addition to a year or two added to your timeline for dissertation completion, fieldwork and original data collection – (involving various pieces like survey questionnaire, field interviews, recruiting respondents, snowball sampling, archival data collection from field offices) – naturally becomes a whole league on its own. Fieldwork overseas and in challenging contexts, provides an entirely different layer of challenges to several elements to your dissertation research both conceptually and in the design.

Necessary steps include completing multiple forms for approval by the University Institutional Review Board, University Travel Authorizations, especially in areas with US State department warnings, visas, funding research and a rigorous grant writing process, various risk assessments in challenging contexts, travel plans to field sites and local transportation planning, recruiting participants and respondents (either survey or interview questionnaire), collecting data, manipulating it, AND then analyzing the data, learning the data analysis software to be used in the field, (in my case Nvivo and a few others for the social network analysis (SNA)), and the list goes on. Some of this needs to be done on site and in the flow. Regardless, an intensive time-consuming process for preparation should be expected.

There are various sources I have been consulting in my preparation, including speaking with other academics that have completed fieldwork (especially in challenging areas). But one particular resource I have found especially useful prior to heading off on this second trip, is the book Field Research in Political Science: Practices and Principles, by Diana Kapiszewski, Lauren M MaClean, and Benjamin L. Read. It provides a great overview of field research completed in the political and social science disciplines and the gaps, alongside important things to consider for preparation, while you are in the field, and when you return for analyzing and writing.

Another great resource that I have consulted in the past, and one of my favorites is The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography, by Micheal Agar. This was one of my first books I have read on fieldwork that made me fall in love even more with conducting this type of research. I especially appreciate it’s emphasis on the investigator’s self-awareness, establishing an understanding of their own “researcher bias” in the field. Having a strong sense of self-awareness is crucial prior to your travels, and recognizing your biases is an important step to ensuring reliability and validity during the data collection and field-note taking.

I have learned now upon completing my pilot assessment, and as my second trip is approaching fast, that you are never fully prepared for these things. The Field Research book provides a survey of political science researchers and their experiences, and it alludes to the fact that so many arrive in their field sites feeling very unprepared.

On the other hand, when such a large amount of your time is invested in the logistics and administrative elements like simply recruiting respondents, the distance from your analysis grows and balancing the logistical piece as well as the analytical content and substance is quite difficult. But the journey overall must be approached in piecemeal. And the moments you spend listening to stories or jotting down observations in your environment are worth all the time spent on the brunt work, if you are passionate about fieldwork.

In my initial exploratory fieldwork, I travel-blogged the whole experience on Facebook and a little via Instagram through my photos. The few who followed my experience there seemed to value it. Some of my colleagues and friends who had very little familiarity about Pakistan, really appreciated that and even told me that this is a side of Pakistan that many people need to see. It is true that most people unfamiliar with places like Pakistan, have a very negative perception about the country from what they hear on mainstream media. So seeing a picture of a cool coffee shop in Islamabad where I had my very first field interview with a remarkable woman development practitioner, gave an impression of normalcy and understanding that they didn’t have about a world too often misunderstood.

Since I returned from my pilot assessment in February this year, there has been so much I wanted to write about that experience, so many unfinished drafts of various blog pieces, but with too many competing priorities, I couldn’t make the time, or it would just fall off the radar. Similarly, with nearly 15,000 photos taken as well, I still haven’t completed the albums I planned to create.

For this second field assessment, I have reflected on my goals, and although there were advantages of being very active on social media about my experiences, it was also time consuming and taxing. This time I prefer to be off the grid from social media, but rather write very short blog posts from time to time (possibly daily or every other day depending on if circumstances in the field allow it). Journaling has also been recommended, keeping a personal diary alongside your notes relevant to your research is very helpful. I think in this way, I will be able to share my insights in real time, but also possibly enjoy a more traditional and authentic fieldwork experience without the different types of pressures that have emerged from social networking sites and virtual realities. Having very few followers on my blog helps in that respect as well.

In a piece I wrote a few months after the pilot assessment (you can find here), I wrote about my active attention to “immersion” in Pakistan, particularly with the use of the “Balti,” despite my already existing familiarity of the country and other privileges of access. It was actually my first visit after 10 years, to Pakistan, when I completed my Masters Fieldwork experience, and so much had changed. Despite having connections and knowing the country well, there was so much I didn’t know. The best way to navigate certain challenging contexts in a safe and efficient way, is having as many connections as possible, and my personal and professional connections were quite helpful. I think it is important, even for field researchers in more privileged situations, and especially Americans, to make the appropriate choices of immersion, and be alert, conscious, and active about that. In many ways, I have looked at fieldwork as a character building exercise, as well as a research experience.

After completing my fieldwork, in a more substantive article, I plan to consolidate the travel blog and insights and share a more in-depth look at all the different challenges, specific to my primary case study of Pakistan. I did not make a stronger attempt to travel to Afghanistan for my studies, for many reasons, and that certainly would have a whole different set of challenges in just the process of getting there. But traveling to various places in Pakistan does also have a unique set of challenges.

In a few weeks, when my journey begins on the ground, I will share some insights on my “immersion” and the process of fieldwork and any other thoughts either daily or every other day, depending on the situation, through my blog here. It will serve as sort of apprenticeship as well, for my writing practice. The aim would be a 250-500 word count per blog post. But some days might have to be shorter if I travel to other cities. It is wise to keep these posts short and concise given the demanding nature of fieldwork, and it may not be as polished as they should be, due to time constraints. But if a bigger event happens that involves more fruitful insights, I might share a photo or two along with a little longer post.

Staying off such massive time killers like social media and social networking platforms while overseas will help focus on these fieldwork relevant blog posts, as well as focus on embarking in a more authentic fieldwork experience. I have found that being on Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram has indeed connected me to people overseas and it is a a great way to reconnect with those I met in my exploratory field work. But ultimately, I hope that blogging in this way will produce a more meaningful product.

Ultimately, this blogging experience will be, most importantly, for myself during the fieldwork process. The point is not to distract from the fieldwork but also stay disciplined and engaged with the goal of sharing insights, and through a paper or article in the future. Although, admittedly there are some apprehensions before going, I believe it should be fun for my experience overall, to contribute to what has become a very long personal and professional journey of my doctorate studies.

Please feel free to follow and join me here the next few months.

This upcoming fieldwork is being funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation, World Politics and Statecraft Fellowship. I am truly grateful and honored to have this opportunity with the support of the Smith Richardson Foundation, and my University and School: the Schar School of Policy and Government, at George Mason University.  

Thank you for reading!

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