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Fieldwork is haunting me, thanks to WhatsApp

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 3 November 2015

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo: Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo:
Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is it that fieldwork finishes? Thanks to social media, the separation between being in the fieldsite and being in the library is becoming ever more blurred. This is true for anthropologists in general, not just those who study social media, because in many societies platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have become an important channel of interaction during fieldwork.

In a way, I have carried my fieldsite in Brazil with me back to London. I mostly keep contact through regular exchange of messages with friends from the field. But there is one case that draws me back to the position of fieldworker.

It took me a long time and a lot of effort to be trusted in the village so that people were happy to show me the content that circulates through direct or group messages on WhatsApp. I was particularly happy when one adult woman, who appeared to understood the purpose our research project and resolved to help the research by forwarding the messages she received via WhatsApp to me.

These messages allowed me a glimpse into what this part of Brazilian society – the people now called “the new middle class” – is privately talking about. However, the subjects of the videos exchanged are often distressing. In short, there is a lot of amateur sex and violence (also the subject of this previous post); things that are often not fun to see and that can also carry legal consequences. For instance: the recording of students violently bullying someone is a proof of a crime. This is the kind of material that can land on my phone.

While I could easily tell this informant to stop sending me this content, as a researcher, I feel it would be a pity to close this channel because I am now – thanks to informants like her – in touch with this very private social world. However the constant communication from the fieldsite does pose challenges when it comes to writing-up.

Yesterday I was considering buying a second mobile, so I can leave this one at home and only check the new content every now and then. This way I would be able to distance myself and have more control over this flow of distracting (and occasionally) disturbing content. A new phone would also assure I would retain the many textual conversations and exchanges I had with informants during field work.

But this is just an idea and I am sharing this story here also hoping to hear what others think I should do about this situation. In case you do have something to say, please use the comment area below this blog post.

Many thanks!

4 Responses to “Fieldwork is haunting me, thanks to WhatsApp”

  • 1
    patgarciam wrote on 3 November 2015:

    You can always silence the whatsapp group/person and only check its messages whenever you feel like.

    Interesting fieldwork.


  • 2
    Maria B. Ulvesæter wrote on 2 December 2015:

    I can only say that I had a very similar problem and I ended up purchasing a new phone w/ a new number in addition to my “field-phone”. While I did give my new number to some of my informants to keep in touch I did not enter in any of the groups I was part of. For me it has been a bit of a relief really, as it has helped with separating myself from a fieldwork that is supposed to be “done”. However I can always still go back to my old phone and check out the groups if I wish to, which is also comforting.

  • 3
    Juliano Andrade Spyer wrote on 4 December 2015:

    hi maria and thanks for the comment.

    i have done exactly the same; im now using two phones, and the field site phone stays at home.

    but i also asked this one informant to not send me the content as it was often disturbing. i have enought archived and can, if necessary, contact her again and ask for new videos.

    it was not easy and in a way, this informant sounded a bit hurt by my request as this is a content she sends to people she likes and feels close too.

    yes, it is interesting to think of pornography and violence as tokens of friendship; but they are. they indicate a level of trust and the sharing of certain view of the world.

    all the best!

  • 4
    Binu Dorjee wrote on 5 November 2016:

    I had similar experience after coming from my field with data on death rituals, as my facebook wall used to be filed with even more exciting photographs and associated information. Actually I started my field work for takeing anthropometric measurement pertaining nutritional status in the mean time attention my was drawn by death rituals and memory making. I have completed a manuscript on death ritual and memory making among the Limboos of Sikkim. Yet the manuscript still lying on the table.