The blog post is an effort at honest reflection of the personal side of conducting field research. Using private notes from my field diary, I sought to convey the contradictory emotions that my recent experience with fieldwork had triggered. The article highlights the insecurities, stress, and anxiety that get otherwise overshadowed by my own understanding of fieldwork as both personally and professionally enriching and constitutive experience. In this article, I reflect upon my fieldwork in Tunis where I spent two months between October and December 2016, interviewing politicians, civil society representatives, experts and journalists about the constitution-making process that followed the 2010/11 uprising, writes Tereza Jermanová.
I research politics. In my doctoral thesis, I study the extraordinary events of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that started in December 2010 and January 2011 (respectively) and the processes of writing new constitutions that these upheavals brought about. I interviewed mostly politicians, but I also spoke to journalists, activists, scholars, and other specialists from these two countries. Back in England, I now read through piles of my notes, documents that I copied while in Tunis, articles and books published by others, and listen through hours of interview recordings, trying to make a sense of all my data, reflect, tell a story, and write it down. I tend to think about this stage of research cycle as less exciting than fieldwork; in words of Mock Turtle and Gryphon, characters from Alice in Wonderland – ‘Explain all that,’ said the Mock Turtle. ‘No, no! The adventures first,’ said the Gryphon in impatient tone: ‘Explanations take such a dreadful time.’
I prefer fieldwork.
I enjoy fieldwork because that’s when politics reveals itself to me more naked, tangible, giving me the sense that if I stretch my fingers just a little bit further, I would touch it. My work feels for some reason more real there than when I sit at my desk. When I’m in the ‘field’ (how strange that word is anyway…), my thoughts click, and problems that I couldn’t solve for months become immediately obvious. There’s more into fieldwork when I strip the layers down from my professional (or rather the more reasonable) to my selfish self. A side of me feels that just being there is an achievement of something (you’re chasing an experience that others might not have) and it makes me more interesting, and it is indeed interesting, exciting, adventurous, meeting new people, learning new things, living that life. Those who come back from fieldwork
have the aura of people who did something real. The everyday uneasiness of things then gets covered under personal satisfaction that at the end, I’ve managed – gathered interesting insights, met the people that I planned to, survived the loneliness of a new place, handled it without long lasting psychic consequences…
But then, when I was skimming through notes from my last research trip – searching for details on interviews that might have slipped my mind – I accidentally stumbled upon these exact words, which I had scribbled in my small pink notebook (in Czech, my mother-tongue) last November, almost a month into my fieldwork in Tunis.
So I’m here for a month and it’s so intense, mostly emotionally. You feel like you can’t make it, that you don’t know enough… I do one interview and it’s all great, and then another one and it’s not. It’s like up (a lot up) and down (really down). A feeling of success that I made an appointment with someone important, as if that, on its own, would make the fieldwork successful. A bit superficial. And then you learn – again – that things are more complicated. Someone else doesn’t pick up the phone, another one can’t meet up or cancels, and suddenly, a slump. Thinking whether these interviews are important at all, perhaps I should read more instead. But then there’s the level of thinking, of ideas, which is so intense here. Yet it’s hard to keep it going, in a reasonable way, when there’s this much. And then, I’m here alone. It is all so physical, the fear of dialling a new phone number, will they be congenial? Fear of my French. Will they come to our appointment?… The intense experience of the interview itself. And then the absolute exhaustion. The feeling that I should transcribe the interview, but that I terribly don’t want to, I want to sleep, but I have to prepare for tomorrow’s interview… So much pressure at the same time, and a worry whether I will be able to finish everything in time, stomach ache.
And I concluded: I should make these notes more often.