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Why should fieldwork-based research consider ‘an ethic of not going there’?

By Anna Guasco, University of Cambridge

Fieldwork has a foundational role in Geography and its cognate disciplines. Expeditions, explorations, and other fieldwork adventures are crucial to the public and internal image of Geography and form a rite of passage for geographers. Yet fieldwork is — and has always been — controversial.

Currently, fieldwork is under much discussion and scrutiny within Geography and beyond. For example, the Royal Geographical Society and the Council of Heads of Geography in UK Higher Education Institutions recently set out new principles related to sustainability, ethics, accessibility, and inclusivity for undergraduate field courses. Such changes in principles and practices emerge out of wider debates about the role of fieldwork in geographical training and knowledge production, as well as about how fieldwork should be both imagined and practiced. Within Geography, this conversation often centres around undergraduate educational fieldwork.

As a current Geography PhD student, I want to offer a different route into these debates: postgraduate experiences and positionalities. At the beginning of my Geography PhD, I already had complicated feelings about fieldwork. Sure, I wanted to do my fieldwork. But I also felt like I had to do fieldwork.

In part, that was because I’d been told as much for years. When I first presented at a conference on my senior thesis (undergraduate dissertation) which eventually led to my doctoral research, the first question I got was: “This is really interesting. So, when are you going to go into the field?” I had presented an in-depth textual analysis of travel writing and tourism advertisements about gray whale ecotourism in Baja California Sur, Mexico. That was seen as preliminary research, but, for fuller, more valid work, I had to go there. (Language of ‘going there’ adapted from Howkins, 2010.)

In my PhD, there continued to be an assumption that you couldn’t study a topic like mine without going there. For context, my dissertation analyses stories, histories, and justice issues circulating around gray whale migration along the North American Pacific Coast. That’s approximately 6,000 miles of coastline, but I often noticed, most people meant one of three places when they asked if/when I was ‘going there’: Baja California Sur, the Makah Reservation, or the Alaskan Arctic. They didn’t mean Long Beach, the Port of Los Angeles, or San Diego. ‘Going there’ conjured up images of places which could be imagined as sites of rugged adventuring in difficult landscapes.

At the same time as I was noticing these assumptions about fieldwork and its location, my own mobility changed suddenly. I already was a disabled and chronically ill student who used mobility aids, but my mobility drastically and quickly plummeted, right before my first advisory committee meeting. I started trying to find resources that were helpful for thinking about not doing fieldwork.

Surveying the Literature

Most geography methodology literature focus on either studies of disabled people, or, inclusion of disabled students in undergraduate geography curricula. The latter particularly emphasised adapting field courses for undergraduates, with little discussion of postgraduate students, early career researchers, or established scholars (with some exceptions, like Bhatka, Jokinen & Caretta, Lawrence, and Parent). This emphasis on undergraduates tacitly assumes those undergraduates will not become researchers, therefore naturalising the absence of disabled and chronically ill researchers at advanced research stages.

More broadly, critiques from feminist and anticolonial geographical perspectives observe that the image of geographical fieldwork often emphasizes exploring and adventuring in challenging and far-off landscapes . A classic image of fieldwork as a rite of passage is getting your boots muddy; instead of sitting at your desk, you get out there, get dirty, and acquire ‘real’ expertise. Typically, this geographer-explorer image is rooted in a very particular masculine, colonial figure which excludes many geographers. These critiques share a goal of making fieldwork more inclusive and ethical.

Both existing goals in geographical literature – making field courses more accessible for students and improving fieldwork practices – are worthwhile and admirable. But they all still presume you’re going to do fieldwork. Expanding access to and improving the practices of fieldwork, whilst things that absolutely should be done, don’t question the central role of fieldwork itself.

I was looking for something different, because I was grappling with possibly not doing fieldwork myself. Luckily, I had a supportive supervisor and advisory committee. But on an institutional level, I felt an exception was made for me individually, rather than there being any structural shift from seeing fieldwork as the presumed baseline.

This was February 2020, a month before everyone else in my programme started switching to remote. And suddenly, when everyone needed to do remote methods, there were more resources, advice, support, and validation.

As I wrote my first-year report and progressed into candidacy, I continued to look for helpful resources. Some of the only work I found talking about postgraduate fieldwork and disability and/or chronic illness, was in non-peer-reviewed academic blogs. Whilst such pieces are helpful, and I’ve now written one myself, I also realise isolating these critiques outside the realm of peer-reviewed journals risks reinforcing the taboo and whispered nature of these conversations.

Towards an Ethic of Not Going There

In my recent commentary, I therefore aimed provide the type of methodological work I had wanted to be able to cite in my own first-year report.  By destabilising fieldwork’s centrality within Geography, this piece aims to question whether ‘we’ really should be ‘going there.’

Fieldwork is problematic and exclusionary for different researchers, based on various positionalities, caring obligations, and other considerations. I incorporate a framework from disability justice perspectives, ‘access is love’ (Ho et al, 2019; Mingus, 2018), which moves towards understanding ‘access’ as relations of care, respect, and accountability, instead of seeing access and accessibility as burdensome tick-box exercises.

We also need to move away from focusing only on fieldwork’s inaccessibility to questioning its accessibility instead – a transition inspired by many conversations I’ve had with fellow geographers. People often understand why I personally might not do fieldwork, without shifting their thinking about their own fieldwork or fieldwork’s role more widely. This tendency to individualize fieldwork’s problems elides broader structural critiques of fieldwork: when fieldwork’s (in)accessibility is kept at an individual and logistical level, the onus is on individual researchers to advocate for institutional change. But fieldwork itself remains unquestioned.

As the commentary puts it plainly: just because you can ‘go there’, doesn’t mean you should. It is essential to recognize fieldwork is not an individual experience. There are other people involved. It’s not just individual researchers, their departments or funders, or people they’re seeing at conferences. Fieldwork involves whoever’s place you’re going to. Fieldwork involves showing up in other people’s places and putting your body in proximity to other people’s bodies. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how fraught such actions are. But they were always already fraught. Drawing on the work of anticolonial environmental scientist Liboiron (2021), I discuss how this access can also be unjust. Regardless of whether researchers have good intentions, presumptions of access inherent to fieldwork could be described, repurposing the language of ‘access is love’, as ‘access is violence’ due to the exploitative and potentially dangerous nature of this presumption of access.

Whilst ‘access is love’ and ‘access is violence’ might seem like opposites, I see them as two sides of the same coin. Both emphasize accountability, care, respect, autonomy, reciprocity, and relationship-building. Both eschew individual technical solutions in favour of radical reorientations towards structural change. Just like access as love/violence embodies two sides of one coin, so too are inaccessibility/accessibility and we need to think of them as such.

This leads me to what I’ve called ‘an ethic of not going there’. It’s not a framework that suggests fieldwork is never ethical or never warranted, but rather that fieldwork should have to be justified in the same way that not doing fieldwork is expected to be justified. It embraces place-based research and long-term engagement, instead of parachute/helicopter research. It questions which places get labelled as field sites and which don’t. It questions what work counts as fieldwork and what doesn’t.

An ethic of not always going there questions whether ‘going there’ is in fact necessary and ethical and it is a question that we should ask ourselves every time we consider going to ‘the field’.


About the author: Anna Guasco is third year PhD candidate and Gates Cambridge scholar in Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. Her current work focuses on histories, stories, and justice issues circulating around gray whale migration along the North American Pacific Coast.

Suggested further reading

Guasco, A. (2022), On an ethic of not going there. Geographical Journal.  https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12462

Bhakta, A. (2019). “Which door should I go through?” (In)visible intersections of race and disability in the academy, Area, 52, 687-694. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12554

Domosh, M. (1991). Beyond the Frontiers of Geographical Knowledge, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 16, 488-490. https://doi.org/10.2307/623033

Lawrence, A. & Dowey, N. (2021). Six simple steps towards making GEES fieldwork more accessible and inclusive, Area, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12747

How to cite: Guasco, A. (2022, 13 July) Why should fieldwork-based research consider ‘an ethic of not going there’? Geography Directions Available at: https:/doi.org/10.55203/UWFW5172

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