Research Preparation

Fieldwork as a Discussion

In the past, anthropologists were notorious for representing the communities they studied as "subjects"-- human beings were depicted as things to be studied rather than people to be respected. Anthropologists able to deny their own subjectivity in the analyses they presented by objectifying human beings, and, consequently, disappearing personal biases into the construction of an ethnographic "other." Fortunately, the tide has turned, and contemporary anthropologists strive to be more reflexive, attempting to remain vigilant in identifying their own biases. In contemporary anthropology, we attempt to recognize the collaboration that takes place between an anthropologist and a community in order to produce a body of knowledge. This section provides some starting points to help new anthropologists navigate their research.

Remember: You are not alone in the preparation process. There are several classes wherein you and a cohort of your peers discuss fieldwork preparation in-depth, including the required courses Anthro 1600, Sophomore Tutorial, and Junior Tutorial. If you feel like you need help outside of these courses, there are always departmental advisors that would be willing to help or can point you in the right direction.

(Going back through event in Fall - Roadblocks - to get categories and pull questions)
Ivan question
maryssa - authority

(thinking about arch prep/impact - bring in some aspects here)
Responsibilities to community.
Dynamic and relationships -


Do I need to speak the language of the people I want to study? What is getting lost in translation?

With any conversation, it is important that discussants are speaking the same language both literally and in the sense that all member of the conversation should be on the same page.

As an undergraduate you are not technically required to be able to speak the local languages of your fieldwork. However, when considering language preparation, you should remember that things are often lost in translation. Speaking the language of the people you are working with helps not only in clarity of communication, but in more effectively and genuinely integrating yourself into a community.

How much history do I need to know about the community or place I want to study? 

History plays an important role in the way communities operate in the here and now. Before heading out into the field, it is critical to know not only what is going on in a community, but why people treat each other the way they do, or make a living the way they do, etc. Knowing the story behind the why the community is the way it is can go a long way toward helping you understand the likely more-complex-than-you-thought-it-was-going-to-be phenomenon you're investigating, and can serve the important purpose of helping connect you to the people you are talking to and living among everyday. 

What risks does my research pose to my interlocutors? What is the impact of my work on the local community?
(making work accessible - who are you writing for?)

Here, the risks we refer to are those faced by the communities in which we are working as anthropologists.

It is vital that we, as anthropologists, recognize that the work we produce will have an effect on those communities that we write about. It is not only in the publication of our work that we may have an effect our interlocutors, but in the way we choose to research in the communities we embed ourselves in. Depending on the questions you are trying to answer, people may be putting themselves at risk in the simple act of speaking to you. Asking the wrong question to the wrong person at the wrong time can have serious consequences for everyone involved,

Being aware of the nature of your inquiry-- whether you're looking to study power from the top down or the from the bottom, those who are vulnerable or those who are in power-- is absolutely critical in conducting safe, effective, and respectful fieldwork. 


Summer Field Research Tips


●      Meet or communicate with academic advisor and run research topic and plan by them.

●      Establish local connections with NGOs, state actors, Harvard representatives, citizens in the area you are travelling to.

●      Create a schedule and timeline of your research plans broken down into key weekly intervals (survey area, meet pre existing contacts, formal interviews, shadowing, etc.)

●      Build a set of questions you intend to ask (ask yourself what information do you hope to get from this question). Remember to keep them open ended.

●      Create a list of the different people you plan/hope to meet and talk with and their contact information. Use the list to think through the different types of people you may come across in your fieldsites and how they might be relevant to your study.

●      Test and learn to use the equipment you plan to take with you.


Harvard Requirements:

●      Make sure you have IRB approval from Harvard CUHS.

●      Complete pre-departure requirements (health clearance, travel registry, waivers, etc.). If traveling abroad, consult Global Support


In the field:

●      Keep things simple!

●      Trust your instinct and do not put yourself in unsafe spaces or events.

●      Be respectful: let people know who you are, tell them about your project, and let them know they do not have to participate in the study if they do not want to.

●      Be alert and go with the flow: grab opportunities and take up people’s offers to meet and show you places.

●      Send advisors brief updates once a month on your experiences.

●      Projects change, doors close, research question change, and new opportunities emerge: be sure to evaluate what you are doing at regular intervals. Take an hour or two to think about what kinds of information you are getting, what it is pointing you towards and how this affects your research question. Restructure your methodology if need be.

●      Asking for help is great fieldwork. You do not have to do it on your own.

●      Communicate with other colleagues in the field: no one understands what is going on with you better than them. This also acts as a different set of methodological field notes.

●      Not every occassion need be a “fieldwork” moment. Take a break when you need to. Remember to also have fun!


Field notes:

●      Write everyday: record the day’s events, both significant and insignificant conversations (take scratch notes during and expand at home afterwards), descriptions of the day and your thoughts.

●      Write everyday. All good theses start with good field notes.

●      Write everyday, seriously. Within 24 hours, you will start to forget details.

●      Use field notes to also think through research questions and approaches: what terms and issues repeatedly come up? who has a stake in these and why? what new questions and interests have emerged in your field research and why?

●      Take photos of the different spaces you visit and people you speak with and provide the with captions (names, dates, locations).

●      Back up your work.


Thinking ahead:

●      Develop an organization system for your photos, field notes, voice recordings, keep a log of voice recordings and a list of topics you touched upon in each (so you do not have to listen to everything post). Mark fieldnotes with repeat themes.

●      Keep a timeline of events . Write the date on field notes, write down a few keywords of occurings and conversations that day. Note the filenames or folders of photographs and interviews recorded that day.

●      Start a working document called chapters, write down ideas for chapters, make a note of interesting events, conversations, and quotes that might go into each. Update this every few weeks as you spend a greater time in the field.  

●      Experiment with writing fieldnotes, try out different styles, try to find a form of writing you like to write in.