Some thoughts on field research

Photo Feb 29, 4 50 00 PMThis is my sixth research trip to Northern Ireland since 2008. In that time I think I’ve learned some lessons about how to do field research, or at least how do field research. Everyone’s experience will vary, and these are by no means intended as advice that anyone else ought to follow. Where you are matters, what you want to learn matters, your individual comfort level matters. But these things have worked for me, at least so far.

So here in no particular order, are some of the things that guide the way I go about doing what it is I do when I come over here.

1. Talk to everyone. The fellow sitting in the pub playing guitar in the middle of the afternoon may have no first-hand knowledge of the things you are interested in, but he may know someone who does. And the insights of regular everyday people are just as valuable in the grand scheme of things as are those of your “real” subjects. Sometimes mores.

2. Be approachableLet people know that they can talk to you. I have found that sitting in a cafe or pub with my journal and writing often elicits questions from folk sitting around you. That can start conversation. See #1 above.

3. Be flexible. Let what you learn guide where your research goes. When I first came over I was chasing a particular research topic, but the more people I talked to, the more I found that there were other, more interesting, and frankly more significant questions I could be asking. So I have pursued those instead.

4. Make contacts everywhere you can. Then follow up. Don’t assume people won’t talk to you. Especially if they are politically involved, they likely will have an agenda or a perspective that they want to share, and you will be a vehicle for them to do so. The only way to know is to ask. I have a raft of new contacts this trip that I need to follow up on, and while some of them will be able to speak directly to my current project, others are more tangential. Even so, what I learn from them may be more useful than I know right now, and if nothing else, I may be able to use what I learn from them in the future. See #3 above.

5. Get a local mobile phone number. Roaming charges are the path to the poorhouse.

6. It’s going to cost you an arm and a leg. Unless you are fortunate enough to have some outside research funds to cover some of the costs, it’s best just to acknowledge that your finances will take a hit. I do my best to keep my costs down, but some things, like international air travel and having some place clean, safe, and comfortable enough to stay in, are unavoidable expenses. But get a local sim card for your phone. See #5.

7. Meet people on their own terms. When I ask to meet with someone to conduct an interview, I let them decide where and when. While I am very conscious of my safety, I also know that it is up to me to put them at ease. So, if a contact wants to meet in the lobby of a hotel, or their office, or wants to pick me up in their car and drive me up the road to their home, or for me to leave the city and meet with them on their home ground, then I do it. If someone is willing to meet, and I can get there and back by bus or train, then my answer has (so far) been yes.

8. You are there to learn, not to lectureWhile I will asking probing questions, I am not there to argue, to challenge, or to lecture my contacts on their politics, their perspectives, or their experience. I take them at face value and trust that the weight of information I will gather over the course of a research trip (or several) will put things in proper context. I tell my contacts that I am there to learn from them. They are the experts. If I already had the answers I wouldn’t need to come over here.

9. Every experience is valuable. Even if I can’t use it in my writing, I have found that my teaching has been deeply enriched by the trips I have made over here, and my students are the net beneficiaries. And, on a personal level, I have been enriched by the friendships I have made over the years, the things I have seen, and the people I have met.

10. Good work takes time. As I said at the outset, this is the sixth trip I have made here since 2008, and while I have presented various aspects of what I have learned on these trips at research conferences, and the experiences find their way into my lectures on terrorism and state violence, I haven’t published anything yet. There are two main reasons. First, until this trip, all of my visits have been short, a week to 10 days in total duration. That has limited the number of people I can meet, the number of contacts I can follow up, the interviews I can do. One trip is simply not enough, unless it is for an extended period of time that allows you to build relationships, build trust, and build up your set of contacts.  Second, I have consciously chosen not to publish out of concern that doing so would burn bridges prematurely. Because I want and need to talk to a variety of actors across the various political and sectarian divisions here (and boy are there a lot of those) to get as full a picture as I can, I am careful not alienate anyone that I might want to reach out to again in the future. That may be overly cautious on my part, but so be it. At this point in my career I have the luxury of time.

11. Enjoy it. There’s a reason that I bring my dulcimer when I come here.

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The dulcimer made its session debut at Kelly’s Cellars in 2012.

 

Some things change … at least visually

Sandy Row 1

Since my last visit, one of the most famous paramilitary murals in all of Northern Ireland was replaced with something … less paramilitary. Gone is the old Ulster Freedom Fighters mural (seen above) that for years welcomed visitors to the Loyalist stronghold of Sandy Row. In its place is a new mural (seen below) that still marks the neighborhood as Loyalist territory but does so through a less-menacing, more acceptable historical reference, King Billy, who passed through the area on his way to fight the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Sandy Row 2

In the nearly 20 years since the Belfast Agreement most of the paramilitary murals in Republican areas have been replaced with ones celebrating culture and heritage, or less problematic aspects of local history. Loyalist areas have been much slower to follow suit. East Belfast, in particular, continues to boast more than its share of menacing imagery.  Some traces still remain in Sandy Row, but they are fading, the paint chipping of the wall, and in some places splashed with graffiti.

The repainting of murals was part of a concerted effort at neighborhood renewal, an effort to rebrand Republican and Loyalist communities alike as progressive and inclusive. Unfortunately, like plastic surgery, changes like this generally only skin deep.

Back to Belfast

Pipes and mandolin in Kelly's Cellars.
Pipes and mandolin in Kelly’s Cellars, Belfast.

Tomorrow afternoon I board a plane bound for Dublin, and from there a bus north to Belfast.  I’m spending the next four and a half weeks, part of my sabbatical from Oakland University, continuing my research on the maintenance and stability of the Northern Ireland peace process.  This will be my sixth trip since 2008 but the first time I’ve been able to stay for an extended period.

My hope is that having more time in the country will make it possible for me to make more contacts, talk to more people, to follow up on issues that I haven’t had the time to before, and to immerse myself in an environment that I’ve spent a large part of my professional life reading and occasionally teaching about.

I’ll be using this blog initially to comment on my travels and the research I am conducting.  So stay tuned for future developments.