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Personal relationships in the field

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Extended fieldwork gives you the opportunity to develop new relationships with people you would never otherwise have met. Because of the intercultural setting involved in fieldwork and your relative isolation from your other established social networks, these relationships can have a profound effect on how you experience fieldwork and how you feel about yourself.

There are many different types of relationships that can have this kind of impact, for example, friendships with people at a similar age and life stage, the relationships you develop with consultants and their families, or romantic attachments. Just like your friendships, family, and romantic attachments at home, things may not always run smoothly in these relationships but at the same time, they can also be profoundly meaningful and rewarding.

A significant proportion of people who do fieldwork have found their life partners while in the field or become very close to the elderly consultants with whom they work. Although some fieldwork manuals suggest that it is ‘unprofessional’ to get involved with people while on fieldwork, it is important to be able to acknowledge these legitimate relationships and to take care of yourself and others within them.

Questions you need to know the answers to:

  • How am I feeling about the relationships that are developing around me?
  • How am I feeling about myself in these relationships?
  • Do I need support or advice about how things are going? Who is an appropriate person to turn to for advice?
  • How will these relationships be effected by my return from the field? Is there anything I need to deal with before my return?

During my first experiences of fieldwork in British Columbia, Canada, I was shocked by the racism that members of the host community experience and overwhelmed and confused by my feelings in response. I regularly felt like a spectacle at community gatherings: not only was I the only blond in the room and taller than practically everyone else, but I was also regularly choked up with tears triggered by a speech or some drumming or singing that everyone else seemed to take quite calmly. I had a very lonely time on fieldwork because I felt quite awkward and struggled to get past this in order to form effective social relationships within the community.

-- Tonya Stebbins

Working in the same areas for over 12 years I have seen a number of the people who helped me in my work pass away. There was one old man, who used to tell a story of the Buddha. In one of his past lives the Buddha was a very wise man called Mahosatha. He used to say that nobody knew where Mahosatha went in his later life, but since he was born in Mithila, he might have gone to Australia! So we called each other Mahosatha. He used to tell me when I arrived in the village that he had dreamed two or three nights before that I would come. As he was dying, he told his daughter that he would like to telephone me, but he had no phone, and he had never used one and so he couldn’t. I have his words on tape, but it’s not the same as being there with him.

One of the saddest deaths was of a young woman whose mother was a great help to my work. She was about 22 I think, and had been sick for years, but she had improved and so I was hoping when I went back to the village to find her in the pink of health. The day I arrived in the village I was told that she had died the day before. There would be a ceremony on the 7th day after she died, and if I could attend it would be a great merit for her, I was told. So of course I changed my plans so I could be there. A year or two earlier, her mother had asked for a silk hat from Thailand as a gift, so I got one, but not being a fashion person it was too big. Still she loved it and I took a photo of her wearing it. This was the picture they used at her funeral.

-- Stephen Morey