First-year Fieldwork Forum

In this week’s blog post, first-year geography PhD student Debolina Majumder recounts her own and fellow doctoral students’ contributions to the First-year Fieldwork Forum, which took place in the beginning of this term and was organised by the graduate-led fieldwork seminar series Methodologies in the ‘field’ with the support from the Infrastructural Geographies Research Group. (The full programme of the Forum may be found here.)

The First-year Fieldwork Forum, held on 8 May 2018, brought together six first year PhD students from the department who delivered brief presentations on some broader fieldwork conundrums they had come across during the research design process or anticipated encountering when stepping “out” into the field. It was a well-attended event with a strong showing from third-year PhD students and post-doctorates, as well MPhil students from the department of Architecture. The forum itself was split into two panels. The first panel grappled with deconstructing the role of two foundational concepts implicit in the idea of “fieldwork” – that of the “researcher” and the “field”. The second panel explored the practices and processes of conducting fieldwork in a variety of political and social situations by honing in on specific methodological and ethical concerns.

A short address from Sarah Radcliffe on the necessity of decolonizing research by investigating the forms and legacies of colonialism within the discipline opened the initial panel. By locating the colonial in their research and the alternative methodologies and research practices offered by a post-colonial perspective to geographical research, scholars were urged to consider their own placement within networks of knowledge production in academia. Taking steps towards the decolonization of research thus required scholars to both incorporate a diverse set of understandings about the world as well as acknowledge the limits to their knowledge on account of their positionality and presence within the field-site. Adam Searle followed this with a discussion of epistemological and ontological specificities and knowledge bubbles in the field of genetic technologies and cloning. A particular concern was the recovery of the unwritten and unpublished – in short, the informal spaces of knowledge production which contribute to the field of genetics. Matters of intellectual property and industry secrecy were raised, including the potential consequences which could arise from the misidentification of the researcher as an investigative journalist.

This was followed by Lucy Goodman’s breakdown of some of the tools available to researchers studying water management infrastructure, including econometric methods assessing the impact of dams on inequality and the outcome of dams located upstream and downstream as well as meteorological satellite data mapping the inequality of electricity distribution. Speaking of the hunt for the elusive “Y”, Lucy articulated the problems she had faced with comparability and finding a suitable control group for her analysis. Ed Bryan rounded off the first session with a frank discussion of the often unmentioned psychological and physical burdens research places upon the researcher. In many cases, the pressure of interacting with unfamiliar people and places during fieldwork leads to a fear of the inability to “perform” the role of a scholar and has an impact on the quality of the data gathered. Thus, not only is it crucial to move beyond the reflexive turn and instead situate knowledge within the mental state of the researcher during data collection, but to fill in the support gaps within the institutional structure of academia.

The second panel on methods and practice commenced with a brief presentation from Annemarie Eckes on data management and organization. After providing a number of tips on good research practice – for instance backing up data, structuring chapters and files, file naming conventions for physical samples, interviews, and personal data management plans – a number of currently available training resources at Cambridge were introduced to students. Issy Airas then presented on her study of populist politics in Sweden and Belgium, drawing links between her reflections and concerns about bridging the gaps in theory and practice raised earlier. The use of a contextual “thick description” was suggested as a means of circumventing these difficulties.

This was followed by Lander Bosch’s evaluation of the ethics of conducting walk-along interviews with children to study the impacts of the built-environment on obesity in London. Apart from encouraging the practice of taking along a second adult when conducting interviews with vulnerable sample populations of children, the presentation stressed the importance of seeking active consent from children. Finally, I concluded the second panel by examining issues encountered in research design and data access while planning my project on the operation of construction labour regimes in Jammu and Kashmir. In response to gaps in census data during the years of peak political instability, difficulties in observing the labour process in situ, and limited access to historical documents, a creative approach to identifying archival sources and the use of migratory labour networks was suggested.

Overall, the event provided a welcome opportunity to brainstorm ideas and engage in scholarly debate, and was effective in familiarizing scholars at different stages of the research process with one another and with the diversity of new research projects being conducted in the department.