Sustaining a long-term relationship with one’s ethnographic field site is not easy. Revisiting Leiden after over a decade, I find that the communication revolution and globalisation have not necessarily made it simpler. Yet, there is meaning to the return.
For the ethnographer, an ongoing relationship with her field can be bitter-sweet and difficult to sustain in the long term. Rarely does the anthropologist continue to reside in places she has done her fieldwork in. In 1999 and 2000, I spent many months researching single parents and the retracting welfare state, mostly in Leiden and its vicinity.
Ethnographic research in Leiden
In so many ways this was seen as ‘new’. It was an ethnography of Europe as against the traditional field-sites of anthropology; it was undertaken by persons from such a latter location and was hence reverse anthropology (in a limited sense); it could not assume a community to be embedded in. ‘Participant observation’ – cast as the core of the ethnographic method – was not necessarily in the midst of my main interlocutors. It was a challenge to turn interview appointments, marked in the culture, into ongoing interactions.
It was also a time when few of my interlocutors were on email and/or had mobile phones. International phone calls were expensive. So after departing, I kept contact through annual Christmas cards and an occasional letter, in keeping with the culture of the field. In the course of time, with life elsewhere engulfing me and Christmas/New Year cards disappearing from my ritual map, this too waned. Disadvantageous exchange rates and the costs of inter-continental travel and stay meant that maintaining real-time, face-to-face interaction was difficult. However, the hope remained of revisiting the field and renewing interactions with my interlocutors.
So after many years, I have returned for a longer stay to continue my research in Leiden. I decided to contact a subset of my earlier interlocutors – single mothers. This was easier said than done, despite the apparent inability of anybody to disappear in today’s world. As I am discovering, the communication revolution does not necessarily bring you back into contact with people and interactions you have lost in real time. My earlier snowball sampling technique, I hoped, would mean that if I was able to contact a few I would reach many more.
However, letters sent to old postal addresses in Dutch and in English received no response, though only a couple was returned; one kind person rang to tell me that she, not my interlocutor, had been living at that address for the last decade. Landline phones were no longer operational or the subscriber had changed or the answering service did not seem to work. The few email addresses I had were no longer functional as internet servers had closed down! Messages sent through another’s Facebook profile (since I will not get on to Facebook even for the larger interests of research!), not surprisingly, received no response.
I learned much from all this. A group of people, not easily found though appearing to have become the most immobile of Leidenaars when we met in 1999, had become very mobile. Many had spoken of the desire to move to a different apartment/house, but had not held much hope of doing so. Others said they liked where they lived, but also seemed to have moved. Moving homes was a general pattern in Holland, I was told. Many more people in the Netherlands had got mobile phones and it was explained that if “my” single parents had now a mobile, keeping a landline number was an unnecessary expense for some of them. Did it mean that they were still not connected to the internet? I could not know.
Finding bits of my lost field
It has not been all closed doors, however. Continuing contact with one friend has led me to a few of my interlocutors with whom she is in touch. At least three others have kept their landline numbers, one even though she has moved! Some had had mobile numbers in 2001 that they retained. What has been a true balm for the soul – personal and professional – was that after all these years they remember me, are happy to meet me and are happy again to be ‘informants’ and tell me of their lives. They have invited me into their homes or we have met in a café, shared photographs, spoken of their lives and my research, and of trying to meet again during my stay.
As an ethnographer, I had entered their lives earlier - lives which were difficult and joyous, which they saw themselves as making, in a time when single parents were declared as 'gewoon', as normal, but where social, cultural, economic and bureaucratic organizations did not necessarily operate as if they were. It was a time when the possibilities from the state were being restricted; drastically so since then. Perhaps this is why most of my interlocutors with whom I have been able to reconnect are from among the ‘better-off’.
Reflecting on my fieldwork, I had written that the ‘listening ear’ that I provided and my externality and temporary stay in their everyday lives had helped them open up to me variously, with confidential tales, happy, sad, funny, difficult. The personal and professional had come together in a manner that ethnography demands. And this time, though I could meet only a few and not some with whom I had had many intense interactions, this is reaffirmed. The pleasure and trepidation with which we have met and with which they speak suggest that ethnographic fieldwork still has meaning and relevance in today’s world and scholarship. In finding bits of my lost field, I am finding bits of myself and reaffirming the best in the discipline.