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Demystifying Doctoral Research Fieldwork – “Expecting the Unexpected”

By CEID Blogger, on 12 February 2024

By Vanessa Ozawa

I feel so tired, physically and mentally, I am seriously tired. I dream of the day I finish all these stressful days… November 22, 2022, 18:20, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Field journal

Regardless of the level of planning and preparation, for doctoral scholars with limited resources, notably time and budget, the fieldwork realities can take an emotional toll. However, those struggles are rarely discussed in the increasingly competitive neoliberal academic space. In this blog piece, I reflect on my experiences as a doctoral scholar, to demystify doctoral fieldwork and call for more humane scholarly space, where researchers’ struggles and vulnerability are more empathically recognised as much as their research originality and innovations.

My research explores the educational experiences of Uzbekistani youth and the formation of their national identities. More precisely, it aims to understand how formal educational processes, including their experiences at school environments, shape their national identities through the intersectional lens, accounting for their ethnicity, gender and religion as key national markers. Given the complexity around formations of national identity and cultural diversity in Uzbekistani society, the research adopted an ethnographically informed qualitative approach, involving participant observation, oral history interviews, photo-elicitation and focus group discussions with Uzbekistani youth, mainly enrolled at public universities in Tashkent, aged from 18 to 20, who had just completed their compulsory school education and whose memories of schools were still relatively fresh. In my mind, my fieldwork plan was impeccable at that time, however, once I started my fieldwork, it did not take too long before my confidence was quickly disenchanted. Notwithstanding that, I had gained several prior fieldwork experiences in Uzbekistan both as a Masters student at UCL Institute of Education and then as a development practitioner associated with an international agency, which had enabled me to appreciate the unpredictable nature of fieldwork and its “messiness”. However, challenges I faced for my fieldwork as a doctoral student this time were beyond my expectations that I could have fathomed with my prior experiences.

The dichotomous understanding of researcher’s positionality as insider or outsider often disregards researchers’ complex identities and the messiness of the research setting. More importantly, the power dimensions in social relations in research contexts, and researcher’s positionalities need to be understood as situational, reciprocal, and fluid. For me, as an international researcher, conducting the study in a non-native setting triggered a myriad of methodological, conceptual, ethical and logistical difficulties and dilemmas. Whilst any researcher would inevitably experience difficulties unique to each context, foreign and local scholars face divergent advantages and disadvantages during fieldwork due to their different or similar cultural and social obligations, expectations and familiarity with the research context. Once I was exposed to the realities of the fieldwork, for the first time, I truly understood the meaning of a “research proposal”, which had made through the viva stage. As the fieldwork began, I realised that I was better prepared for methodological hurdles than for the practical difficulties. Throughout my four-month long fieldwork in Uzbekistan, I kept a daily digital journal, a personal space where I could candidly reveal my thoughts, reflections, and emotions. Among those, the most recurrent topics included the struggles to recruit an interpreter and participants and how to retain them. The repeated failure to even find a reliable interpreter and loss of initial few weeks in this process led to concerns about completing the fieldwork within the timeframe. The recruitment of participants was also delayed as I had to completely rely on gatekeepers and employ a snowball sampling method. Moreover, the selected participants often canceled meetings at the last minute or dropped out altogether after a couple meetings, a common struggle in an ethnographic study with youth, causing huge stress at times. This was coupled by the anxiety of exceeding my budget for fieldwork. As soon as I started working with my interpreter, who not only helped me navigate social and cultural complexities but also introduced me to some participants, I was finally able to regain my excitement and enthusiasm though my concerns, struggles and frustrations continued. What I learnt from this phase of ordeal was the importance of flexibility, patience, resilience and persistence when plans fail, and one has to adapt to the unpredicted situation in the field.

Whilst these were not the only hurdles I encountered during my fieldwork, and all researchers are likely to get tormented by similar issues, being a non-resident foreigner, female and basic speaker of the languages of the research context amplified my challenges. I also did not have the luxury to extend my stay beyond the four-month period due to limited finances which were all consumed in international flights, interpreter’s salary, accommodation, gifts for gatekeepers and bills for occasional restaurant and café with my participants. It was also the time when there was an influx of Russians in Uzbekistan to avoid Russian government’s “partial mobilization” policy to involve in the Ukrainian conflict. This meant that accommodation rents in Tashkent suddenly skyrocketed. My hostel unexpectedly decided to raise accommodation charges, which I had to dispute with the hostel manager. I almost had to sign a new lease for an apartment outside Tashkent through random people I had met on the day of crisis. Even though I agreed to a renegotiated price, I needed to borrow cash from my local acquittances since the hostel accepted payment only with local bank cards or cash which I did not have. Although these incidents might seem private logistical matters and not academic enough to be considered within the scholarly discussions, these were very much part of my fieldwork which were simply underrealised during the pre-fieldwork phase. After a few months in the field, I was simply exhausted, realising how underprepared I was for these practical eventualities and my “readiness” for the fieldwork was simply not good enough.

Now, that I have completed my fieldwork and am approaching the final stage of my doctoral journey, I sometimes get asked what my advice would be for those who are preparing for fieldwork. I always answer with the phrase – “expecting the unexpected”. Whilst the quote seems obvious, we often tend to forget it in the research planning processes as mostly, the focus is on scholarly debates on theories, methodologies, ethics and methods. For most doctoral students, the approved research proposal, for which we spend months and years, acts upon our mind like the ultimate guidebook for fieldwork until one faces the chaos of the fieldwork adventures. Nevertheless, although often not discussed enough, the bumpy realities of fieldwork are a path that no one can avoid; it is an integral part of research, which mentally and emotionally affects the researcher and research processes, exacerbating the adverse effects of already isolating doctoral journey. Although all scholarly work is usually built upon unspoken hardships of the scholars, there are rarely any spaces to reveal and share the personal stories of hurdles and struggles. What is expected of early career researchers is their display of flawless intellectual capacities and high-quality research approaches and findings, within the competitive neoliberal space of the higher education community. However, the realities of fieldwork, particularly in social sciences and education research, are never “neutral nor hygienic”, as it is embedded “within networks of power”, inevitably eliciting a range of “unexpected”, influencing and altering research processes.

Hence, academic space needs to be more open to humanistic debates where scholars, especially early career researchers, can safely share their personal experiences relating to their fieldwork without fear of being judged and labelled as “incompetent”. As education researchers, we should embrace the messiness of human interactions and our own vulnerabilities thus, the experiences of the fieldwork. Otherwise, how can we advocate and mobilise for a just society as a scholarly community?

Vanessa Ozawa (vanessa.ozawa@nu.edu.kz) is a doctoral scholar at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan.

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