Farmlands, or agricultural landscapes, captures the interest of a number of researchers based at the Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University. On this blog we share information about research findings, activities, events and comments related to our work.

Our interest in farmlands has three roots: farming, landscape and society.
Farming as a practice, including farmers knowledge and labour investments
Landscape as society-nature relations, congealed history, and as space and place
Society as a short form for institutions, gender relations, political economy and scientific relevance

Most Welcome to FarmLandS!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Reflections on Human Geography Fieldwork

At a recent lunch seminar in our department, we, (Martina Caretta, Natasha Webster, and Brian Kuns) prepared a presentation about how we do fieldwork abroad in our department, with the intent of having a self-critical dialogue with colleagues. Ethnographically flavored fieldwork is an important tool in the Human Geography method tool kit, though it certainly is not as prevalent in Human Geography as in Anthropology, and it is even less reflected upon in Human Geography than it is in Anthropology. Fully a third of current and former PhD students in our department (going back 16 years) have done fieldwork outside Sweden. If you count those who have done extended fieldwork inside Sweden, one can only come to the conclusion that we are an empirical department, and indeed this is one of our strengths. But we have not been so good in recent years in reflecting on this experience. The three of us, then, sent out a questionnaire to current and former PhD students in our department who have done field work abroad asking them to reflect on our fieldwork experiences.  

The responses were interesting, to say the least, and we identified the following themes to focus on: (1) how much time we spend in the field and why; (2) what are the obstacles and challenges we meet while in the field and; (3) what issues or challenges end up coming home with us from the field. A brief summary of these points is given in the following bullets:

·         On average we spend half a year doing field work abroad with some spending a year and others spending about a month. The standard in Anthropology is of course one year in the field, which anthropologists say is needed to achieve the kind of ‘thick description’ of social relations they aspire to. Our research is not necessarily as inductive as Anthropology tends to be so we do not need to spend as much time in the field – at least that is what Human Geographers would cite as one reason why we do not (need to) spend a year in the field. At the same time, we tend to defer to Anthropology –as the fieldwork experts – in terms of our training in fieldwork methods and in terms of reflecting on fieldwork in general. 

·         It was all in the course of a “normal” fieldwork that PhD students in our department experienced various logistical difficulties, problems with housing, and, perhaps most important, difficulties adapting fieldwork plans to unexpected events. In other words, it is a regular experience that fieldwork plans do not survive first contact with reality. This could be weather related delays, problems getting access to interview subjects, etc… Problems with housing and logistics can be overcome, but it is more problematic to have concerns about the data one has gathered.  

·         Another very serious issue concerned how common it was that PhD students in our department either were witness to unpleasant events and/or were concerned about their own safety at one point or another. Fieldwork still tends to be seen as the Male solo adventure, and the culture in our department (and most likely not just here) is to remain silent about these issues.

The discussion was very interesting and we got a lot of interesting comments from colleagues. Among other things we do not in fact want to reify notions of the “brave, adventurous geographer” venturing far abroad. Important fieldwork happens here in Sweden and can entail some of the same problems and risks.
In any case we will be working further on these questions so we hope to report more about this in the near future.  

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