My first real experience of qualitative fieldwork was for my undergraduate dissertation; while the content analysis of the newspapers went fine, I felt that the interview I conducted was fairly terrible. Although I had my questions answered I remember how uncomfortable I felt and how clunky it all sounded. In fairness, I had only done physical geography methods on my course but this experience made me retreat from human interaction in my MSc dissertation where I opted to hang out in a cemetery archive, which had the dual merits of being air-conditioned (it was a hot summer) and the dead people didn’t speak back.
Since those early days I’ve got a lot more confident with interviewing people and this is now my preferred technique. I think what made it easier was the realisation that this was just a conversation, albeit one where you had certain things you wanted to find out; in addition, people tend to respond pretty well to interest being shown in them/their company/their ideas so in general you actually have a receptive participant. Although since people choose whether to be interviewed by you there is clearly significant self-selection with some perhaps very interesting people opting out. I really enjoy speaking with people and listening to their perspectives and experiences but developing that sense of rapport isn’t always so straightforward.
Sometimes I’m amazed at the way things come out my mouth with the phrasing just making it sound like I don’t really have a clue; other times its effortless and the conversation just flows. Sometimes it takes a while for both the interviewee and I to warm up; other times they talk for 15 minutes from the first question (at times covering other questions on my list, sometimes just rambling but breathing in unexpected places a la Thatcher, which makes it hard to anticipate how to interrupt their flow). From my experience, rapport is generally strengthened by being prepared both in terms of knowledge (although willing to expose the areas that you are less familiar with) and questions (as its easy to disappear down a tangent particularly with the verbose respondents). Furthermore, just demonstrating your general enthusiasm and particular interest in them and what they have to say is a great foundation for encouraging people to speak from their own experience and share stories with you.
In South Africa, the direct interviewee-interviewer is disrupted as I don’t speak Afrikaans so this adds to the challenge of developing rapport as how can you do it when you don’t speak the language? However, after my rather naive experiences last time of speaking through the farm managers when I needed to speak to some of the workers, this time I’m working with an excellent, experienced and independent Afrikaans translator and research facilitator. She has a lovely presence and is passionate about ethical and sustainable trade so is a great colleague to have but in the focus groups we’ve run with farmworkers, I feel even more of an outsider and as if I’m observing the process.
In an effort to overcome this and embed myself, at least initially, I’ve learnt a few sentences so that I can introduce myself:
Haai, my naam is Agatha en ek kom van die UK. Ek is ‘n navorser en ek is geinteresseerd in Fairtrade en wijn. Ek is jammer maar ek praat nie Afrikaans, maar my kollega doen!
Everyone seems very pleased that I’ve made the effort and congratulates me on my pronunciation and the fact that they can understand what I’m saying! I think it disrupts the power balance a little as it makes me feel a little exposed (particularly when I forget certain words) while also demonstrating my interest in hearing what the farmworkers have to say in their own language. It’s interesting as sometimes I can follow conversations (there is a close enough similarity to German in a number of words) but the dynamic of asking questions also feels odd, as I feel almost as if I’m intruding in someone else’s project! They could run perfectly fine without my presence, which also feels odd as I’m used to doing research by myself. The focus groups have definitely worked well and its been useful in giving me insights into how to run them and how to encourage participation. They have also highlighted the power relations inherent to any research process and, for me, encouraged me to consider ways to try and disrupt these.
The other thing I’ve been reflecting on in relation to fieldwork has been clothing – what should I wear? I carefully packed a smart-ish skirt and a selection of smarter tops, which I mainly haven’t worn. I have mostly done interviews in shorts, sandals and one of my smarter looking vest tops as firstly its been far too hot and, secondly, I just feel more comfortable. People mostly seem to dress more casually and so I felt that it was better that I don’t appear too different in terms of how I dress, plus if I’m feeling more comfortable and relaxed that will reflect in my interviewing style and, hopefully, a better chance of developing rapport. Plus, when speaking with the farmworkers they have mostly been in their work-wear of blue overalls monogrammed with the company logo, heavy footwear and monogrammed caps. I am already clearly an outsider but by wearing my normal clothes I hoped to avoid too formal an atmosphere, which could arguably put off people from speaking particularly if they weren’t used to being in a focus group or being interviewed.
Before I arrived I had a sort of expectation of how I should dress and act in a ‘professional’ manner and, while this is sometimes part of my persona, I think in general research goes more smoothly when you are more relaxed as this is more conducive to allowing enthusiasm and interest to shine through; for me anyway. There are obviously a whole host of other factors that have and are shaping my fieldwork experiences in this particular context including, amongst others, gender, race, age and nationality but for some reason clothing and trying to develop rapport in a foreign language have been at the top of my mind.
About today’s blogger – Agatha Herman
Agatha is a human geographer with interests in geographies of ethics and justice. In particular her research explores the role and impacts of socio-economic and environmental ethics in production systems and spaces. She currently holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in which she is investigating the capacity of Fairtrade to promote resilient and ethical development within and beyond its producer communities. Building on her PhD research, this focuses on the Fairtrade wine sector and will involve fieldwork in South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Tunisia and Germany.
Agatha will also be returning as a Visiting Scholar at the Ruralia Institute, University of Helsinki in 2015 to develop her current research project ‘Negotiating Resilient Production’. In this she explores the interactions between social, economic and environmental imperatives within farmers’ decision-making in a multi-sited study across Finland and the UK.
In addition, Agatha has interests in social transitions, particularly exploring the experiences of those leaving the military and the spatial and social impacts that this has on individuals. This develops ideas around identity, care, social responsibility and spaces/relations of power.
Agatha has a PhD in Human Geography from the University of Exeter as well as an MSc in Society and Space and BSc (Hons) in Geography from the University of Bristol. Prior to joining the University of Reading in September 2013, she held a lectureship in Human Geography at Plymouth University. She has also conducted postdoctoral research on spaces of postsecular engagement in European cities at the University of Groningen (2010) and the impacts of the economic recession on charity shops at the University of the West of England (2011).