Friday, 18 October 2013

week 6 follow-up and week 7 blogging question

The slides from Prof. Hartel's guest lecture on ethnographic methods are now available in the usual place on BB in PDF.

This week's blogging question is inspired by Prof. Hartel's discussion of the concept of the field in her guest lecture this week -- which really got me thinking, as you can tell by the length of this post. As she pointed out, fieldwork is not only a necessary stage in many kinds of social research, it's also a kind of ritual exercise of professional standards and intellectual virtues. This dual importance of fieldwork comes through in her quotation from the twentieth-century American sociologist Robert Park, who enjoined sociologists to "get the seat of your pants dirty in real research" (emphasis added) by getting out of the library and spending time in the actual spaces under study, from luxury hotel lounges to "the doorsteps of the flop-houses" (see this week's lecture slides for the full quotation). What interests me here is the dialectic between the library and the field, and especially the latter's association with the real. One can understand what Park is getting at: as researchers of all kinds, not just sociologists (but them, too), we need to expose ourselves to contexts where our assumptions may be challenged, and where materials, phenomena, and people can exert their own agency in the research process. The field is where our objects of study can push back in unexpected ways against our preconceptions, which, in the safe space of the library or office, can all too easily ossify into fact. Perhaps the ultimate example of fieldwork in this sense -- as both a process of discovery and demonstration of intellectual virtue -- is Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947 (there's a really good film about it that came out last year: In other words, the field -- broadly defined -- is the space where surprise can happen. Therefore, the act of venturing into those spaces signals an epistemic virtue on the researcher's part, like dirt under the fingernails after a full day's work.

The specific value of this characterization of fieldwork might be found in what the archaeologist Ian Hodder calls, in a brilliant phrase, "interpretation at the trowel's edge," in which the processes of data collection and interpretation are not carried out separately, with a temporal interval between them, but instead overlap in the same moments. (Hodder mentions this idea in several places, but summarizes it most accessibly in the introduction to his edited collection Religion at the Emergence of Civilization [Cambridge University Press, 2010], p. 12.) You can imagine how that would be an especially potent idea in archaeology, where data tend to get collected through an inevitably destructive process that physically intervenes in the literal fields where it works. Hodder's point is that some interpretations only become available at the trowel's edge, and that some insights are available only in the field, amid sunburns, mosquitos, and -- unless Indiana Jones and Lara Croft have misled me about archaeology -- secret societies, Nazis, and ancient booby traps. You know it's fieldwork if you come back from it dusty, sore, and a bit wiser about what you're studying.

What, then, is the fieldwork of information research? How does your own research complicate or reflect this notion of the field? How does information research call us to rethink this notion of the field beyond the more straightforward sociological and archaeological pictures of fieldwork, which may happen in actual fields with grass and mosquitos? How does the traditional notion of fieldwork change when the field is online or virtual? Also, for those working in areas that aren't particularly ethnographic, what is your area's equivalent to the field, or does it have one? For example, I'm a book historian and bibliographer, and much of my fieldwork actually happens in the library -- the field's supposed antithesis -- and takes the form of examining material objects to see what surprises they reveal. Your fieldwork might be similarly non-obvious, but might have the same functional role: a space where our objects of study retain their power to surprise, confound, and illuminate.

Stories of your own experiences of fieldwork (or its equivalents, broadly defined) are welcome too, and feel free to wear your dusty Indiana Jones fedora as you type. 

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