“Do not jump into deep waters immediately” a wise professor advised me just before I left to Mexico for my three-month fieldwork trip. In other words, take time to accommodate, to adapt and to explore. And so I did. The first days I allowed myself to get familiarized with the culture, the language and the routines. I told myself to enjoy this ‘free’ time because soon I would be a busy-bee collecting my data. The Monday after I was supposed to have my first job interview. All excited as I was, I woke up early and at 8:00 a.m. sharp – wearing my “I-am-so-ready-to-get-this-job-dress” – I called the office to confirm the location and time of my meeting.
Strange, I thought, since I was supposed to be there (“somewhere”) in one hour. Several hours passed as I called the office multiple times, leaving two voicemail messages, biting off my nails and walking up and down the room, still no answer. Que pasa? I looked at my watch. It was 3:00 p.m. and it was “quiet”. At 6:00 p.m., and many coffees later, I finally received a call. The connection was bad, clearly indicating the man called from his car. With a creaky voice he promised me he would call me back.
So far, three weeks later, still no answer.
Situations like the one described above have repeated themselves over and over during the first weeks of my fieldwork. As a response I decided to change my research strategy. Instead of passive sampling and waiting for an answer mañana, mañana, I started to actively inform others about my research plans. I find myself either chatting with youngsters in crowded bars or with businessmen and -women in their spacious offices daily. Most of them have been very willing to help me and unwittingly they connected me to un amigo who is in their words “the key to my research project”. Reality however seems more complicated. The past few weeks I have seen and tried many keys but so far none of them has opened the doors to my project. This however, is not the point of this story.
The reason I’m writing about my in-field experience is to translate it into two lessons for all researchers. Exactly because of the extended and at times frustrating first weeks of “gaining access”, I found out that active sampling in the form of networking is a necessary phase of research in especially “network societies” like the Mexican one. Let me elaborate on this. In Mexico the term familia is central to social life. It is an unwritten rule to help, meet and trust those who belong to your imaginary community, whether blood-related or not. Now, how to become part of such a familia? The best relations develop here in informal settings: small-talk matters. It is in those moments that you feel at ease – talking about yesterday’s news and other daily happenings – in which you win people’s trust and important networks are established. These relations, however (as all other human relationships), need to be nourished. Go out for coffee, visit a museum or go on a trip. In living moments together social networks evolve. Once bonds are strong and you are adopted in a familia, doors open to other members of the familia. Since you know A, and A knows B, B feels obligated to help you. It’s like a ma(themat/g)ical formula.
This brings me to the second lesson. As a researcher in a “network society” you should never focus on one person and expect him/her to be the key to your research project. My experience has taught me that there are several keys that open the doors of research. Finding the “keys” is not an easy process. It is a challenge and requires patience, spending time on and with others. It is all about spreading opportunities. During this process you might feel lost and alone. You might even ask yourself in guilt: “what is the sense of being here when the only thing I gain here is entertainment and an empty wallet?” So far, I can tell you that time will show. I have met the most interesting people via-via when eating tacos. Only when you meet people, and through those people other people, you enlarge your field of research opportunities. Here’s to the old-fashioned snowball-sampling method.