‘Fieldwork’ time: moving on from Juba

football

A hat made of a plastic football, in Juba.

I’m re-starting my PhD properly on Thursday, after six months of working on my Arabic, which is still only shweya, and on the South Sudan National Archives, which is also shweya, although a little less of a mushkila than when I arrived.  I’m leaving Juba for Aweil – after my previous trip, I think it’s a good enough place to start work – on Thursday, with no real fixed plan after that.

My panicking over moving to Aweil and beginning research properly has taken many forms over the last few days.  I’ve spent a long time trying (and failing, thanks to my poor internet connection) to download software that I’m telling myself will make work so much easier.  I’ve worked long hours on drafting training materials for a workshop I’m running back in Juba in mid-June (yeah, I’m running back ‘home’ in only a week and a half – but for three days), and on writing up an article on youth and citizenship that’s way, way overdue.

I’ve also spent a bit of time faffing around trying to read e-books on ethnographic methods and anthropological theory, in a desperate attempt to work out how to ‘do’ this.  But this has increasingly come up against something that’s been bubbling away for the last year in my thinking about ‘doing the PhD’.  I’m not an anthropologist – despite the accusations of one member of my review panel for my PhD upgrade last summer, at the end of my first year.  In my mind, anthropology is very generally based on a long, long period of research with, rather than of, people and their lives and histories, often in a particular space or places.  I guess that’s why I’m often accused of ‘doing anthropology’ (in the case of my reviewer, not positively!) rather than history: because, due to the lack of written information and archival sources for my particular historical interests, I have to talk to people, in South Sudan, for a long time, in order to get some (hopefully) of the information I want.  But I have absolutely no idea about anthropology: I’m from a straight historical background.  This doesn’t seem to matter, though; my work, through interviews in wierd places, is automatically interpreted as anthropology-style ‘fieldwork’.

I am really uncomfortable with the term ‘fieldwork’, though.  I group it in my mind with the word ‘bush,’ which is used out here a lot, either by people who need an excuse as to why they weren’t picking up their phone (“I was in the bush for days”) or as a cool, legitimacy-grabbing term for actually getting out to see a village or town in South Sudan, and not having access to cappucinos and swimming pools (generally).  Often when I hear it used, I think – maybe meanly? – they just went to Wau.  There is a swimming pool in Wau.  There is phone signal and wifi in Wau.  They went to a village or a cattle camp overnight.  That’s someone’s home.  Yes, there are bushes around.  It feels like a shorthand for authenticity.

In some ways that’s kind of how I feel about the term ‘fieldwork’.  Some people doing ‘fieldwork’ take what I think might be (again, I’m not an anthropologist) a very old-school ethnographic route: the longer you’re ‘there’, the more time you’re in the ‘bush’, and the further into the ‘bush’ you are, the more intense – and thus intensive? – your research is, and the more legitimate it is.  Spending two months-ish in Aweil?  Not intensive.  Living in a compound, rather than with a family?  Not legitimate enough.  It makes me feel like I’ve got to be eating okra every night in an isolated village to have any kind of ‘fieldwork’ going on.

So I’m reading books about anthropological method, and obviously finding people who agree with this – albeit in sensible, academic terms.  People comment on the messy dichotomy between ‘home’ and ‘field’ – I just referred to Juba as home, above, and a lot of the people I know out here move around so much, including to the UK, that the divide seems odd.  I just don’t have enough of a grounding (since I’ve never studied anthropology) to know how to discuss my historical research based on interviews, or my understandings of what I’m doing, using these terms.

I’ve decided I’m just going to call it ‘work’ and be done with it.  So, I’m going to work, in Aweil.  Don’t try my phone, I’ll be in the bush.

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3 Comments

Filed under Academia, Africa, History, South Sudan, Travel

3 responses to “‘Fieldwork’ time: moving on from Juba

  1. You’ll be great! Have a great time and see you in Juba in a bit.

    T

  2. Aly Verjee

    I usually have a rant when people say they are going to the ‘field.’ Fields might be fenced-off plots for growing vegetables or grazing animals. And a country might very well be full of fields. But fields are not countries.

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