By Dan Casey (PGF Chairperson, 2017-2018)
Recently I’ve been out in the field a lot. Having a picture of how things would go and trying to plan could not prepare me for what I ended up encountering. Below you’ll read a series of mishaps (perhaps laughable, but not so much at the time) and how in some ways you could try to counter them. A lot of the mishaps are context and research specific. However, there are some general points from these, that you, as a researcher, could reflect upon for all types of fieldwork.
My research project looks at the role of partnerships for delivering environmental benefits within UK farming. These reflections mostly come from fieldwork periods in the Cumbria region from December 2017 onwards. I’ve been carrying out semi-structured interviews (especially with farmers) to learn about what makes a good partnership work, what doesn’t and the key players who should be involved within partnerships.
Weather has been one of the biggest obstacles to my fieldwork. Arriving up to Cumbria for a week and a half back in December, the day I arrived seemed fine. Later that night, on the weather forecast, a storm was forecast to be blowing in with high level warnings for snow, gale force winds and ice issued. ‘Oh noooo’ increasingly began to be my response, with family members texting to warn me and see how I was dealing with the weather. This meant that many of the individuals I was planning to speak to were facing increasingly difficult conditions. The farmers I wanted to meet were having to bring sheep down from the hills, sort out soilage and make sure that a number of other things were in place to care for their livestock and indeed crops. Given Storm Desmond, back in 2015, it is no surprise the panic weather warnings like this can trigger. Farmers work tirelessly day and night to run their farms and the way in which many farmers run the farm I have become increasingly impressed with for the two and a half years I’ve been doing this PhD, especially when faced with adverse weather conditions. It is a profession many of them love and are truly passionate about, indeed one of my interviewees commented “Nature’s in your blood if you’re a farmer”. Farming is something I think deserves more respect and understanding about, given the importance of the profession for providing us all with food, a basic need.
This month, March, I’ve even had to postpone my fieldwork given the conditions left after the ‘Beast from the East’ blew in, as my supervisor wisely felt that it would be too dangerous to carry out my research during the further period I had planned, given the volume of snow and ice in various parts of Cumbria. One thing I’ve also learnt, wherever you do your fieldwork, is to plan for these circumstances. Weather wasn’t necessarily something I’d planned for in my risk assessment … As all my fieldwork is domestic I wasn’t too concerned about the threats it could pose, thinking that I’d lived in the UK my whole life as opposed to me going abroad (but these are well worth thinking about).
TIP 1: Plan for all instances that could affect your fieldwork, even if you’ve never come across such conditions before. Map out a contingency plan and what to do if each instance happens, even postponing your fieldwork if necessary (in detail, separate from the risk assessment). It benefits your own safety but also would allow you to focus on periods of fieldwork that are more likely to be beneficial.
The main reason for me coming up to Cumbria was to speak to farmers first-hand for myself. I want to learn from these farmers how they work with different partners to look after the environment. The issue was that Cumbria is an entirely new area to me. I knew no one and it was a completely unfamiliar environment. Being born and bred in London, Cumbria was a completely different environment. However, with Irish ancestry in my family, I’m a regular visitor to rural County Kerry, Ireland. Living in a city and visiting the countryside often allowed me to understand some of the differences between doing research in rural and urban settings and I have tried to build on this and my families’ farming history to build up trust with those I speak to. It’s also aided thinking about how to logistically manage research in remote areas. The importance of building up networks within the farming community was paramount for getting access to interviewees and contact details for other farmers to speak with. This allows interviews to be set up in advance, rather than going around aimlessly trying to get interviews. At first, I’d be driving trying to chat to farmers myself I might see at the side of the road. One farmer, in a friendly way, said “have many farmers told you to bugger off?!”, I replied laughing that “a few had”. The advantages to networking with your research participant group/s in advance is that you’re more likely to get access to more people who are interested and who want to take part in the research.
In all my years of research, even compared to speaking to policy makers or CEOs of charities in past projects, farmers have been the most difficult interviews to arrange. Farmers don’t always have their own websites with contact details readily available. To establish interviews likely to go ahead it’s necessary to get these details as early as possible and then make contact. One of my interviewees was contacted around April and we didn’t end up meeting until October, so there can certainly be a lot of planning time needed. A lot more planning time than I had envisaged! (especially given that my research projects in the past have not been 3-4 years but at most 2 months).
One of the things I think really helped me the second time I’ve come up to Cumbria and going forward is that I’ve kept in touch with the people I’ve met along the way. My first interviewee, who was a farmer, Will Rawling, is Chairperson for the Cumbria Farmers Network. Will had immense knowledge and very kindly shared this with me alongside passing me on four further farmers to contact. Moreover, one of the B&Bs I stayed in (may I add, probably the best place I’ve ever stayed) was in Greystoke, Stafford House. The owners, Hazel Knight and Ian Corri, have gone above and beyond to help me out with my fieldwork. Not only have they got me interviews but they’ve also advised me on some elements of the project I could develop further. It was also nice to see people who deeply care about the research I’m doing and don’t see it as just another project or view the research as meaningless. Instead, they’ve reiterated to me the impact the work could have and the importance of it. We’ve then also had chats about various other things from red squirrels all the way through to what a vine tomato is (don’t ask)! Moreover, I’m now also known at a few pubs in the area (and always make sure to stop off when I’m around for lunch there to have a chat). All of this helps me to relax and also focus on other things apart from the research, whilst also helping me out with the research. Thus, offering multiple benefits for my project and not making me feel like the sole researcher I was the first day I got on that train up to Cumbria. It gives me an opportunity to socialise alongside work.
TIP 3: Go out of your way to socialise, be friendly and make friends. Don’t make it all just about the research.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The dreaded first solo drives after passing your driving test, and the stupid satnav … both things I had to do or use on fieldwork. One of my interviews was literally the biggest disaster you could ever have imagined. The interview was scheduled for 3pm, about a one-hour drive away from where I was currently staying. The satnav was programmed and off I went. However, the satnav decided to have a mind of its own (like many of you reading this will know). Took me more than double the time I expected to get me there, with it trying to send me on ‘no access roads’ and areas where there were subsidence warnings in place, forcing me to turn around. To top that off the weather was just a dream! Eventually, after finding the postcode I’d been given, I ended up at a derelict house in the middle of nowhere … I thought this can’t be right surely. Thankfully, there was phone signal (a luxury that isn’t available everywhere in the countryside). I called up the farmer who eventually was able to work out where I was and whom directed me. I had to go across the fells, opening and closing the gates behind me when I went through. The road was full of ice and snow, requiring skill to navigate, and constantly stopping and starting. As the last gate closed I got back in the car and went to turn the car on, but it wouldn’t start, no matter how many times I tried. Being already 30 minutes late for my interview I had to call the farmer up again, this time apologising and to ask for help. I got out of the car and began to walk down the iced road towards the farmhouse. Me being me, slipped over flat on my face, with the research papers going everywhere, my phone screen cracking and the key fob from the car keys breaking off. Finally, I reached the house. The farmer came out with a buggy and I stood in the trailer at the back. Unbelievably, when we got back to the car it then started up, but we’ve had to postpone the interview and it hasn’t even been rearranged yet. This left me emotionally drained and pretty deflated … let alone all the other stuff that happened that I’ve not got time to write about 😉
TIP 4: Google Map the area you’re visiting or use OS maps, without the need to solely rely on technology so that you know if the satnav is taking you off route. Also, plan interviews near where you’re staying (to cut down journey times and the stress of finding an address, especially in rural areas where this will be a lot harder to navigate) and leave early (to plan for anything that might happen).
Another thing I had to navigate was the vast opinions I’ve came across in my research. Some of these opinions have conflicted with my own and my ethics. However, you have to learn to accept this and move on, even if at times someone may be trying to be provocative. Research is not about ‘cherry picking’. These opinions you hear, whether you agree or not, also represent a diversity of views and can lead to lessons learnt and a wide variety of policy suggestions for the research.
TIP 5: Be open to new opinions. Everything you hear is an important form of knowledge.
On my fieldwork, especially my first period of fieldwork, I had many ups and downs. Probably more downs than ups! The emotional rollercoaster of a researcher has been documented in academic literature by many. I was alone for the majority of this time on fieldwork. I’d watch TV of an evening to help me relax. However, I’m also lucky to have friends and family on the other end of the phone. I gave them calls/messages at various times to discuss things and this helped. However, for a day or two after a bad stretch I didn’t want to speak or talk to anyone and kept myself to myself. It might be that you need this time to yourself too. Moreover, on the last day I emailed my supervisor urgently wanting to talk with her sooner rather than later. I anticipated that she would be angry with the progress I’d made and wanted to sort this out. However, to my surprise she was extremely understanding and reassuring. She was able to lift my spirits up and offer sound words of wisdom, saying herself that fieldwork is tough! I’d also had messages from friends supporting the project on social media as well. All of this has allowed me to carry on with what I’m doing and push ahead.
TIP 6: Stay connected with your networks at home. Keep your supervisor informed about your progress, they might be able to offer useful advice. Take some time out if you need it.
Farming timelines (or any other groups) can be very different to your research timeline. Always be aware of when your participants will be at their busiest. For example, in farming, around March and April this is lambing time. You can expect farmers to be exhausted, working long days and really not wanting to chat with a random PhD student. Despite my research pressures I’m having to learn to navigate this. Indeed, one lady in a pub told me “Good luck getting a hold of them [farmers]”, a phrase that has been repeated many a time. I do realise though that farmers work extraordinarily hard, doing tough jobs, thank you to those taking the time out of your day to speak to me. They’re the heroes, doing me a favour.
TIP 7: Know your participants’ time pressures and when would suit them best. Don’t only consider your own research timeline. They’re the ones doing you a favour!
There’s simply just some stuff you can’t be prepared for. For example, one of my interviews was cancelled an hour before due to an injured bullock and the vet being stuck in snow. The bullock subsequently had to be slaughtered. However, the interview is to still be rearranged. I had to just carry on with something else. It’s a fact of life that the unexpected is always going to happen.
TIP 8: Have a backup plan for how to use your time if something unexpected does happen. I’m sure there’s always some bit of work everyone can be getting on with.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of my research efforts, rather only a very small part of it. However, hopefully, what it’s shown is that the fieldwork process is extremely complicated and messy. Be prepared for mishaps and an unfortunate series of events. However, no matter how much you prepare, you’re not going to be able to cover all bases. I hope I’ve provided a humorous account of some things that have happened (at least now I can look back and laugh at them, I have to!).