Body Management in the Field Box full of candybars. Picture by Denny Müller via Unsplash.

Body Management in the Field

We all want to do fieldwork well. But what do such “researcher mindsets” do to our bodies when conducting participatory observation? Anna Notsu and Jan Jansen address some of the most important, yet little discussed, fieldwork practices: bodily engagements when hanging out with informants.

Wanting to do well in the field in terms of data collection and ethical responsibility as researchers, anthropologists, especially those who conduct long-term fieldwork for the first time, tend to forget and ignore how bodies function in the field. They often are unaware of their bodily function or resort to its theorisation.

We argue that, regardless of prior preparations, the anthropologist’s body functions not merely as a professional instrument that performs qualitative research methods, but as a cultural entity that intervenes in their daily behaviour. Their intellectual mind usually ignores, rejects, or denies interventions by the body, resulting in detrimental effects for both research and the body. We know that the body-mind dichotomy is epistemologically outdated. Yet, it is this distinction that describes the physical alienation that novice fieldworkers may experience – because they cannot experience their own bodies solely as intellectual arguments, particularly while conducting fieldwork.

Each October the CADS Master’s students conduct preparatory fieldwork in Amsterdam as part of the Methodology-in-Practice (MiP) week. On the evening of 11 October 2023, the students, although exhausted, were eager to share with us what happened in their “field”. Their reflections mainly concerned the difficulties they encountered, namely, securing interviews, dealing with rejections, and keeping in mind codes of ethics. However, little was mentioned about their bodily functions.

Bodily safety

Our first-time fieldwork experiences were remarkably alike, despite different locations (Mali for Jan, Sicily for Anna) and periods (in the 1980s and the 2010s). Little did we know that our bodies were under immense stress due to the feeling of being “out of place”. From family politics to neighbourhood drama, from community-based tensions to societal conflicts, without our realising, we had joined myriads of existing social structures.

Such unexpected, unintentional, or unwanted “participation” influenced our research process. Both of us experienced severe and rapid weight loss, a yearning for comfort food, and sudden, extreme anger, to name a few. These were feelings that we didn’t recognise and accept from ourselves, knowing ourselves as healthy living, emotionally balanced, and liberal-minded youngsters.

It never occurred to either of us to prioritise the needs and wants of our bodies in such situations. We were naively committed to being good persons: polite, respectful, and accepting at all times. We completely overlooked how much hard work there was in “participation”. We failed to recognise and thus dismissed the signals urging us to seek bodily safety (health, comfort, privacy, etc.) – conditions in which it had prospered our life “before fieldwork”. Consequently, to our embarrassment, we acted uncontrollably angry and utterly listless, therefore rendering us unpredictable and hard to manage for our research participants.

(How to avoid a) culture shock

We all embody our cultural norms and values attained through everyday, living like eating and leisure patterns. Notwithstanding the degree of intellectual preparation, neglecting even such “banal” elements in the pursuit of conducting “good” research can lead to a culture shock and/or bodily disorientation that can endure and exacerbate.

At some point during a MiP workshop, one student confessed, “The whole thing was actually uncomfortable. I had lots of snacks afterward. I needed to chill.” This comment brought back memories of our intense comfort cravings: Jan blasting hard rock music through his headphones and Anna gorging on chocolate bars from Flying Tiger. As we both stayed at our interlocutors’ house, we similarly experienced living in a physically, linguistically, racially, ethnically, and gustatorily unfamiliar social organisation and kinship dynamics that we couldn’t have known before the research. Our bodies taught us that the only way to cope with such embodied fieldwork challenges was to reconnect with the old, familiar world.

To our fellow researchers

One of the greatest goods of fieldwork is the intimacy a researcher establishes with their research participants. However, the ambition to quickly achieve such intimacy can compromise the researcher’s personal well-being. It may lead to counter-productive results like anger, rejection, and so on, ultimately creating a culture shock that makes a person difficult for research participants to deal with.

We therefore recommend acknowledging the differences between yourself and your research participants, and that these differences will always exist. It is crucial to integrate these differences into your professional relationship with them. During the workshop, Jan even exclaimed, “Build barriers and adapt yourself the least possible.” That may sound exaggerated, but we stress that even such a “distanced” professional relationship will always be an intimate affair. Don’t worry about that! You will need it to avoid entering a culture shock scenario like we did.

Ethnographers commonly regard feelings of discomfort and awkwardness as “normal” and “inevitable”. We believe that this is a tricky attitude, as it sustains a myth of fieldwork as a rite of passage. It is the discourse of the winners, the logic of the survivors. We believe that every-body is deeply culturally constructed and that no-body can conduct fieldwork without diligently monitoring and battling experiences of safety and discomfort. If only we had been told what being an anthropologist might actually feel like in the field!

Our CADS Master’s students (and our Fieldwork NL teams) are finishing fieldwork. We hope that, while immersed in fieldwork, they have been able to maintain ownership of their bodies and accommodate their needs.


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