Tag Archives: fieldwork

How to be happy during fieldwork

I’m not sure where I get off writing a post like this. If the internet could create a Wordle of my emotions during fieldwork it would look something like this:


Still, I’ve learned some tricks so that the word “happy” at least makes an appearance in your own emotional Wordle. Here they are.

  • Help people when given the opportunity. You need other peoples’ help so much when doing fieldwork. As an outsider, you will encounter few opportunities to help others. You can’t give rides. You can’t give directions. Accept immediately the few opportunities you will have to help others so that you feel less like a pariah.
  • If at all financially feasible, don’t skip opportunities to be social because they seem too expensive.
  • Incur any cost (even if not financially feasible) to workout every single day. If your body is exactly like mine, you will feel happy during the workout and for the subsequent 3 hours. Why miss out on an opportunity to make yourself happy during almost 20% of your waking hours?
  • Go back to the same city. All trips are easier and happier than the first trip.
  • Have at least five go-to songs that will make you happy for those nights when you are very sad. (My current favorite.)
  • Use the first few days of the trip to do things that are easy to check off. Do the meetings that you know will go well. Boost your confidence in your own research abilities as early as possible.
  • Don’t blame yourself when you get cheated. It’s so tempting to think “if only I had…” after being cheated. But this line of thinking is unproductive. Within some parameter, acting differently would have changed nothing. If you were interacting with a cheating type, they were going to figure out a way to cheat you. Life is so much more enjoyable when you mentally factor in the costs of being cheated into some amorphous pre-travel budget, and then just accept it when it happens as a necessary cost of doing research in an interesting country.

Doing fieldwork as a woman

Hat tip to Texas in Africa for pointing me to a PS: Political Science and Politics 2006 issue (39.3, gated) that focused on doing field research in the Middle East. Jillian Schwedler had an excellent article on issues facing female researchers.  Some tips that are relevant for parts of West Africa:

  • To avoid the “Will you marry my cousin?” discussion: “[I]n taxis I am always on my way to see my husband of children.”  I disagree with this strategy.
  • Schwedler uses shared transport (eg minibuses) frequently, as the “Will you marry my cousin?” discussion is inappropriate in public.  Another advantage for shared transport: It reduces the risk that the driver will divert from the route.
  • To wear a headscarf or not?  Schwedler notes one strategy for Western women: Wear a headscarf loosely, so as to show respect but avoid the “(sometimes mocking) look of a tightly pinned Islamic-style hijab.”  I like this idea.
  • Tight jeans can be more offensive than a loose skirt that only goes down to your knees.

I will now return to packing my Hausaland-appropriate hippie skirts sourced from every second-hand clothing store in Cambridge.