‘You will only know about your research once you're in the field.’ ‘We can only know very little before we've actually been there.’ ‘You can never be really prepared for your fieldwork.’ ‘Be prepared to be surprised.’
These were words of wisdom that I've heard from experienced anthropologists in my department whom I look up to a lot. Sounds daunting for a novice researcher like me, but here lies the beauty and strength of ethnography. Doing ethnography means being flexible and adaptive to situations on the ground. As anthropologist Anna Tsing from the University of California Santa Cruz summed up when we had lunch in Amsterdam: ‘Open your mind and pay attention.’
I feel lucky and privileged to have the funding and opportunity to perform ethnography for a year, with two months of preparatory trips beforehand and another round of update visits to my research location (thanks NWO!). After months away from the “ivory tower” of Wageningen and deep in rural Indonesia, I am by now pretty sure that ethnography is the best way to do my research. It allows me to capture things that I found relevant along the way. It also allows me to reflect and revise earlier thoughts that have shaped my initial research proposal.
However, ethnography doesn't mean that anything goes. The flexibility that comes with doing ethnography means the researcher needs to put in extra effort to organise and contemplate on her findings. Monique Nuijten, my professor at the Sociology of Development and Change group, once told me that it is very important to organise the information that I've gathered from my research from time to time and contemplate on it. Otherwise, I will get a whole lot of information with nothing that I can write about, because I have no structure. I definitely do not want that to happen in my research.
Ethnography is slow because it is a continuous process of engaging, with our research subject as well as with our own thought process. Engagement takes time to develop. Rapid assessment or preliminary survey can be helpful in ethnography, but the research doesn't stop there. Findings are garnered through the researchers’ sensitivity. In other words, ethnography is as much an art as it is research.
Nadya Karimasari is a PhD candidate at the Sociology of Development and Change group.