Conundrums of theoretical fieldwork and the realities of fieldwork

Essay, 2018

17 Pages


‘You people from your school are brave to just get onto a bus and go live with people you don’t know in a place that you don’t know. Borderline crazy I think.’ – Thandiwe (Informant)

In this narrative, I argue anthropological theory and experienced fieldwork do not necessarily mirror each other, though theory is indeed necessary to equip one for the field. Indeed it is of paramount importance that student be equipped with the tools that are necessary for embarking into the field. However, from my own experience as a researcher, one may express that the experienced realities of fieldwork differ from learnt theories. Six months of fieldwork in Qondwa village in the year 2013 presented various accomplishments as well as quandaries. In Qondwa I studied the meanings of childhood as I argued that there is no universal meaning of childhood.

In the year 2012, as part of an Anthropology module at honours level, I studied Bernard (1996) who discusses anthropological research methods, methodologies and ethics. Here I was provided tools that I was to apply into the field as a researcher. Diligently learning these methods was an undemanding task. However, applying this knowledge in the field was trying. Many a times I was faced with situations that demanded me to deviate from what I coin as ‘Bernard’s book of fieldwork ’. The following account of my entry into the field, data collection methods and ethical considerations, exhibit the impasses between the ‘Bernard’s book of fieldwork’ and the practical realities of fieldwork.

One may also argue that this account of the field is too detailed and vivid. This chapter is written in thick description manner of ethnographic writing. I adopt this style to display the importance of the body as a tool in research, its ability to gain data or its reason for data retention.

1.1 Entry into the field

Entry into the field was relatively undemanding. My initial supervisor Elaine Salo, (may her beautiful soul rest in eternal peace,) had previously introduced me to a number of my key informants on a preliminary visit to Qondwa village in March 2012. She had embarked on an outreach programme launched by the Centre for the Study of Aids (CSA) at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. This undertaking tackled Gender Based Violence (GBV) issues in 13 villages in Mpumalanga, of which Qondwa was one. Prior research carried out by the CSA on public knowledge about GBV highlighted how rural communities were generally uninformed about GBV and human rights. Following which, CSA outreach team held focus group discussions to raise awareness about GBV in the villages. The project was implemented in a village at a Crisis Centre in Mpumalanga. With volunteers from the 13 villages were trained to hold focus groups in the various villages. These volunteers together with the CSA team carried out focus group discussions which were guided by a questionnaire formulated by the CSA.

It was at this crisis centre where I began my technique of snowballing informants. My initial point of entry was when Elaine Salo introduced me to one of the volunteers who resided in Qondwa village, whom I give the pseudonym Mama (Mother) Lucillah. In the siSwati speaking region of Qondwa, any woman who is a mother is addressed as Mama. This term is the respectful local term for mother, as explained by the Director at the Crisis Centre. Mama Lucillah later became my host mother while I was carrying out fieldwork.

I took part in this outreach programme for a week by compiling reports on the focus group discussions. In that week I formed rapport with three GBV volunteers whom Mama Lucillah introduced me to and whom I named Mama Linda, Mama Saki and Mama B. They later participated in my research as informants. These women introduced me to girls that they knew in the village whom I named Thandiwe, Buhle, and Menenhle. These girls later became the main informants for my research and they introduced me to several more informants.

1.2 Embarking On an Ethnographic Journey – A Thick Description.

This chapter of methodology has been executed in a thick description style of writing. I emphasise the relevance of ‘the body’ when in the field. A thick descriptive narrative of the ethnographic journey extracts the relevance of this observation of the body as a tool.

After having been introduced to volunteers from Qondwa village during the GBV outreach programme, I returned to the University of Pretoria where I had to wait for funding to carry out my six months of fieldwork from the month of March 2013 to August 2013. After a fortnight since my initial visit, I boarded a bus destined for Mozambique via Mpumalanga at Pretoria’s station. I nervously sent a text message to my host mother on her cellular phone to inform her of my expected time of arrival.

As the bus headed swiftly along the roads, I debated as to whether this fieldwork would be a success or not. One of my major concerns was whether I would be able to obtain information regarding childhood sexuality in a village where the topic of sexuality was a cultural taboo. ‘ Bernard’s book of fieldwork’ states that before entering the field, one must have a coherently structured questionnaire in one’s possession (Bernard 1996: 251-260). I decided against this particular research method for I reasoned that I needed to spend time in Qondwa in order to understand how people spoke about sexuality and the colloquial terms they used to refer to sex and sexuality. As a result, I designed questionnaires having built on these observations that I sought out.

I had managed to shelve the dilemma of the questionnaires after grappling with it for several minutes however one shelved worry made room for another. I pondered on the disadvantages of the language barrier. The fact that I am a Shona speaking Zimbabwean meant that I would have to rely on a translator in instances where my informants and I were unable to communicate in English. Hiring a siSwati speaking individual from Qondwa village as my translator would be an advantage in that communication would take place where otherwise impossible, however misinterpretations and mistranslations were a risk that would impact the quality of my data.

Progressing from the language barrier distress, I proceeded to wonder about my safety in the field, or the lack thereof. The possibility of getting mugged, physically abused, sexually abused, were possibilities as in any space that one occupies. Bernard (1996:341) focuses on the responsibility of the researcher to ensure the safety of the participants, but not the safety of the researcher himself/herself. This is because one has to deal with the dangerous situations as they present themselves. I quickly realised that I was driving myself into frenzy. I was toying with these worries that most fieldwork researchers most probably toy with at one or another point during their field work. One of my anthropology lecturers also pointed out that being an attractive woman would also place me in a position where men would approach me proposing romantic or sexual relations, which worried me. However, in order to make sure that I did not literally jump out of the window of the bus to return to Pretoria, I had to silence my wandering mind. Little did I know at the time that all these worries would materialise in the field, proving that I was not unnecessarily fretting. Throughout the chapters, I outline how I used dilemmas I encountered to my advantage in terms of data gathering.

1.3 Sticking Out Like a Sore Thumb

After sitting for six hours on a sultry bus, I arrived at Malelane shopping complex in Mpumalanga. As I disembarked, I swiftly looked around in an attempt to spot the taxi rank my host mother had described. I needed to locate a taxi that would head down to Qondwa village from Malelane Shopping complex. A wave of panic rushed through my body as I only spotted Checkers grocery store to my left, Pick n Pay grocery store ahead, two shoe shops to my left, and Kentucky Fried Chicken food outlet. I wondered if I had disembarked a stop too early, however I gathered that if I had stayed on the bus I would have found myself crossing the Mozambican border. The bus driver had announced that Malelane was the final stop in South Africa. Nevertheless, I assertively clutched my two suitcases and briskly made my way to one of the shoe shops where I enquired directions to the taxi rank. My eyes are a book of emotions meaning when I feel uneasy in a foreign space I wear my sunglasses in order to conceal all emotions that appear when in unfamiliar territory. Most think that this gesture is a fashion statement; on the contrary, those sunglasses are a material representation of feigned confidence.

I arrived at Jet Mart clothing shop where I approached a petite woman elegantly dressed in a blue Nigerian iro. An iro is a cloth wrapper that matches with a headscarf, usually worn at |Nigerian weddings. As I enquired where I would board a taxi that heads to Qondwa, she swept me with her eyes from top to bottom and dismissively pointed towards the direction of the taxis. I could not gather why her attitude towards me was unpleasant however I had more pressing issues on my mind. I needed to spot the taxis headed to Qondwa. I also had to silently pray that my phone battery did not die before I reached my destination in case I had to communicate with Mama Lucillah. I approached a group of people that were gathered outside the Jet Mart store, marvelling at a dance group display a performance. I decided against approaching the group for I did not feel safe approaching a throng of people while carrying my suitcases for I thought that this increased my chances of getting robbed.

I walked briskly with my head held high to the taxi stand where there were approximately a hundred taxis for different destinations. I asked the taxi driver in my nearest proximity to direct me to the taxis that headed to Qondwa village. He abruptly responded, ‘ You won’t find it here ’ as he walked away. I gathered that the negative responses I received from both the taxi driver and the woman dressed in the iro, was because I had addressed them in the English language. The language barrier dilemma was quickly materialising here. During my preliminary visit to Qondwa, Mama Lucillah explained that speaking in English in the villages comes across as not being proud to be an ‘African’ by being unable to speak an ‘African language’. There are numerous languages in the continent of Africa, and realised that the particular language referred to here was siSwati, the dominant language in Qondwa shrugged at this possibility for my inability to speak siSwati was not going to magically transform but would take a process of learning.

I proceeded to approach a taxi driver who appeared to be in an exultant disposition after engaging in an animated conversation on the phone. While engaging in casual conversation with me, he escorted me to the taxi that I was meant to board and instructed the driver to drop me off at Qondwa village. I thanked him as I hauled my luggage into the taxi as the driver geared the taxi up for a forty five minute journey on the dust road to Qondwa village. My window could not shut, thereby consenting the dust from the dust road to rise into the taxi resulting in my constant sneezing which attracted much attention. Not only was my braided hair sticking to my forehead and my clothes sticking to my skin due to the humid weather, I had a congested nose and blocked ears due to the excessive sneezing. I so desperately wished to reach my host’s abode and recuperate from an interesting but exhaustive and uncomfortable journey.

Several eyes were fixed on me and I figured it was because I still wore my sunglasses in the taxi. I stuck out like a sore thumb thereby drawing much attention. My dark sunglasses, earphones plugged into my bright pink Samsung touch phone, and my flamboyantly coloured scarf wrapped around my head to avoid my braids from matting on my forehead, all screamed ‘sophistication’. In my haste to disembark the bus and arrive at the taxi rank, I forgot to ‘dress down’ for I am aware that as a researcher, your body determines where, how, and why a researcher accesses to information. Oozing sophistication could possibly communicate that I could afford luxurious materials therefore people would draw close to me for what they could gain financially, or one who is a snob looking down on the rest of those who live in underprivileged conditions.

The approach that I adopted was to go into the field and live as the people lived. Off came the scarf, earphones, and shades. Worthy of note how the body can pass off several messages, for I had specific reasons why I had all those items on my body. The scarf kept my braids away from my face in the searing heat that made the braids stick to my sweaty forehead; music relaxes my nervous disposition – hence the earphones and I have already explained how the shades conceal my eyes which are the window to my emotions. I did not intend to make any fashion statement; however I was well aware of how my disposition would appear as a fashion statement, which powerfully displays how the body is a tool in the field


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Conundrums of theoretical fieldwork and the realities of fieldwork
University of Pretoria
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
This is a narrative on the realities of fieldwork compared to the learnt theories of fieldwork by Bernard (1994). I discuss the personal challenges that I faced during my time in the field which may be similar challenges faced by anthropology scholars in the field.
fieldwork theory experienced
Quote paper
Master's of Social Science Nyasha Grace Piloto (Author), 2018, Conundrums of theoretical fieldwork and the realities of fieldwork, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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