By Aida Kassaye
As students of anthropology, we are trained for years until the moment we are finally deemed ready to go on fieldwork. Having read numerous accounts about the importance of finding key informants and establishing “rapport” with your respondents; our knowledge and skills are at last put to the test. In the Research Master Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam, we were given five months to collect our data in a matter of our choice.
My focus for those five months became researching the effect of “transnational grandparenting” (transnational caregiving by grandparents) on Ethiopian migrant families living in Washington, D.C. This is the place where the largest Ethiopian community outside of Ethiopia resides. I chose for a “multi-sited” design, dividing my research between Washington, D.C. and Addis Ababa, as I believed that family members often hold different views on caregiving roles and obligations. Getting ready for my multi-sited fieldwork I knew that I wanted to come in contact with both parents and grandparents, and generally imagined “doing fieldwork” to be a wonderful combination of holding semi-structured interviews and “deep hanging out” – immersing myself in my research subjects’ social and cultural world on an informal level (Geertz 1998).
Being partly Ethiopian myself and having friends and relatives in both locations, I figured that finding respondents would not be too difficult. Yes, there was the language barrier (I do not speak Amharic, the Ethiopian national language) but most people in the U.S. would speak English, and for those that didn’t in Addis Ababa, I would get a translator. As multi-sited ethnography means to “follow the people”, pursuing the ties and social networks that go beyond national borders, my research thus implied two months of finding families in Washington, D.C. and three months in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, tracking the family relatives of my respondents in the U.S.
Or so I thought.
As it turned out, multi-sited fieldwork was a lot harder than I had anticipated, especially in Addis Ababa. There, a combination of practical and more substantial problems hit me once I had arrived: a translator was hard to find, the telephone network in Addis Ababa only worked fifty percent of the time, and I had no idea how the extensive transportation network of little blue-white vans worked. More problematically, many of the phone numbers that I had received in the U.S. didn’t work in Ethiopia. Most problematically was the fact that people did not want to talk to me. After almost a month of almost no interviews, I despaired: this was not how I imagined my multi-sited fieldwork to go! What was I doing wrong?
Time proved to be the answer. Splitting the five months between the two locations had meant that I had less time to understand the context of each site. So, only after a few months in Ethiopia it became clear that due to a restricted political climate, people have become very sensitive to what they tell others about their personal life, and whom they tell what to. Grandparents in Ethiopia didn’t know if I was actually a foreign journalist who would bring them into trouble with the government. Moreover, social norms that had only become apparent after some time, meant that for each interview I had to be “properly” introduced by a mutual acquaintance.
At this point, it became vital to devise various ways to get valuable data and no longer treat “the interview” as the only significant mode of data. “Small talk” became just as helpful: I tried to have as many informal conversations about migration, the diaspora and transnational caregiving as possible. Through this “informal strategy” grandparents were finally willing to participate, which significantly improved my understanding of their roles and perceptions of the overall care arrangement. Perseverance and patience also helped. In the end, I was able to follow up on five families in Addis Ababa, providing me with an idea on the contrasting views grandparents and parents hold within transnational care arrangements.
With this in mind, it is clear that “following the people” is not as easy as it sounds. People are not as quickly located as you would think, or might not want to participate even if their families have given consent. More importantly, splitting your time between two locations has its consequences. While different settings bring forward different problems, there is less time to understand and deal with these issues. Being aware of the limitations you set for yourself when choosing a multi-sited design is very important. Yet in spite of all these “problems”, I can still say that I’m happy to have chosen for multi-sited fieldwork. If I have learned one thing, it is to be flexible and to quickly adapt to new situations. And this goes for all fieldwork in general. Don’t let setbacks discourage you, just know that there are “multi-sited ways” to discover valuable data during your research. And discovery, as we learn for ourselves as novice researchers, is often the most memorable and rewarding part of any research project.
Geertz, C. (1998). Deep hanging out. The New York Review of Books, 45(16), 69-72.