Liz Storer is a 3rd year PhD researcher at the Department of International Development, LSE. Anna C. Shoemaker is a 4th year PhD researcher at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University.
What’s the general area of your doctoral theses?
Anna: I am looking at how pastoralists interacted with landscapes over the last 500 years in Amboseli, southern Kenya. My fieldwork took place in 2015 in Olgulului/Olarashi group ranch. Along with a team of Kenyan archaeologists and group ranch members I conducted surveys, excavations, and interviews. We were interested in figuring out where pastoralists were living and moving on the landscape, and the landscape resources they most valued over the last half millennia. We have also been looking at change and continuity in the material culture of Amboseli pastoralists and how people’s things tell stories about the way this landscape was connected to wider regional networks of trade and interaction.
Liz: my research focuses on local conceptions of justice and public authority in West Nile, Uganda. Primarily I am working with Lugbara communities at multiple sites across two districts, and I have been in the field since March 2015. Departing from local wisdom has drawn on multiple facets of human existence that I had not previously associated with the pursuit of justice, including spiritual healing and broader ideas of health and well-being. I have been working with two research assistants throughout my time, and plan to leave the field later this year.
What’s the significance of fieldwork in your research?
Anna: There has not been a lot of archaeological research done in Amboseli, so doing my own surveys and excavations was necessary. It’s also important to me that people in Amboseli have some say in how their history is portrayed in my thesis, so during fieldwork I try to communicate my findings and elicit feedback. My research has really benefitted from spending time walking around the landscape, talking with pastoralists and learning about their traditions.
Liz: Fieldwork forms the basis of my research – which is completely grounded in local histories and processes of knowledge production. In the late 1940’s, extensive field work was conducted by the eminent anthropologist John Middleton, so in part I have tasked myself with re-examining the relevance of the central ideas in his work following the upheavals faced by West Nilers in the early 1980’s, and amidst ongoing transitions to ‘modernity’ and wider state-building project of the Ugandan Government. But beside this, there has been limited fieldwork in the region, since so much of this recent history is unknown. My research was broadly premised on contributing to filling the gap.
What kind of challenges do you find PhD candidates encountering when preparing for fieldwork?
Anna: I’d say that people have really varied challenges while preparing for fieldwork. These may include ethics review processes that are overly cautious and impose limitations, lack of guidance and mentorship, or just a general sense of bewilderment or self-doubt. Unless you’ve had similar experiences, it may be difficult to empathize with the intensity of some people’s fieldwork. Fieldwork can push you to grow and develop in new ways, but that process is not always pleasant.
Liz: I would agree with Anna. Everyone’s fieldwork is different and people face personal and institutional challenges, as well as unexpected difficulties that arise whilst in the field. I think a big change is how people conceive their connection to, and responsibilities towards those within the field after leaving – changes to technology mean that researchers aren’t distanced from those that they work with in the sense that they used to be.
Whilst often the course of fieldwork is unpredictable, I think a clear message is that there are forms of certainty that can be provided to prepare for the field, and it is important to remain connected to supervisors, peers and other researchers whilst in the field.
You have recently edited an online journal on fieldwork. Can you tell a bit about Field Diary?
Field Diary is an informal online journal featuring stories and reflections from academics and others who do fieldwork. We are its co-editors, and submissions mainly come from doctoral students. There is a heavy focus on East Africa.
Although our research interests are clearly quite different, in 2013 we were both graduate attachés at the British Institute for Eastern Africa (BIEA) in Nairobi. We developed a friendship then and have also both benefitted from the support of wider peer networks that were fostered during that time.
We both agree it is important to be able to seek guidance and mentorship from colleagues when embarking on fieldwork, and it seemed that this issue of Field Diary would be a good way to get students sharing advice and asking questions about challenges encountered in the field.
It has benefitted us both to be part of regional networks of researchers across disciplines (and levels of experience) that we developed from our time at the BIEA. This exposure has also allowed us to appreciate the different challenges faced by different styles of fieldwork, as well as the need to start to create channels to visibilise struggles that people often deal with silently.
Sounds fantastic. To conclude, what do you find as the most enjoyable part of doing fieldwork?
Anna: I always enjoyed eating meals together with the research team, we would relax in those moments and share ideas about how fieldwork was going and suggestions for what to do next, or just talk about politics and life. I miss the camaraderie of fieldwork now that I’m back in Sweden writing up my thesis!
Liz: Definitely agree with this, I really value the way that people come together to eat and discuss issues, and the generosity with which I have been included in many of these discussions. I really enjoy the humour of so many of the Lugbara people I have met, and the attitude with which difficulties are approaches and solutions sought is really inspiring.
You can access the Field Diary issue edited by Anna and Liz here.