how to fieldwork

Found this in my field notes from July and thought I’d share, in the hope it will resonate with some of you.

I was sitting on the toilet earlier, thinking about the experience of being wrong in research, which is of course common, but we don’t talk about it. We go into the field with ideas about what we’ll find, and they’re never spot-on because we haven’t actually done the work yet, and yet we believe that there still has to be something to our original intuition (because it was logical! and we’re smart! or something), and so the fact that there maybe isn’t grates. 

In any case, the situation: I’m in Berlin talking to people and finding that actually, Germans aren’t any better at thinking about terrorism than Americans are, and my entire dissertation could just be a sign taped to my forehead reading “EVERYONE IS RACIST” and it’d be about as accurate as anything else I could come up with. When I write fiction, I trust the characters to show me where the story’s going to go. I find this liberating—terrifying sometimes, sure, but incredibly exciting, like going on an adventure while seated in your living room. Why can’t I do this here as well? I fundamentally believe science is about telling stories, and while the “characters” are real people here, why can’t I simply let them share their narratives? Why don’t I trust that?

I think, maybe, it’s because I was taught to think about research selfishly, as something that I do for me and the advancement of my career, not the betterment of anyone else. I was taught to produce “good” work not because doing so fulfills some larger purpose, but because it will get me published in a top journal (maybe) or help me get a job (hahahaha). And so I’ve forgotten the story, and that it’s not mine. I have been afforded the ultimate privilege of telling it. Ultimately, that has nothing to do with me. 

To find meaning in this work, then, I have to believe that what I’m doing is important to some other community or will have a broader impact. But we are also taught that this will not be the case—that maybe three people in our research area will read our article, if we’re lucky. For most of us, that’ll be true. Then what on Earth is the point? Why do we bother? (To get a job. To have a career. To achieve some constructed end goal.) 

But to be happy with what I’m doing, I have to figure out how to make it matter for someone other than me. That’s how to tell the story.

From the East Side Gallery in Berlin. There was a lot of construction while I was there, but luckily this mural, one of my favorites, wasn’t covered.
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