For scholars conducting international research—archival, anthropological, data-driven, and all points in between—certain tools can be essential to the process. In this miniseries, SSRC staff caught up with eight current or former SSRC fellows to get a glimpse inside their research bags and to hear their best tips for conducting research. Here, 2017 African Peacebuilding Network grant recipient Azeez Olaniyan and 2017 International Dissertation Research Fellowship recipient Emma Shaw Crane offer their points of view.
African Peacebuilding Network Grantee, 2017
Senior Lecturer of Political Science
Ekiti State University
The destination was the riverine area of Ondo state in Nigeria, and the mission was to carry out fieldwork on the post-conflict situation in the oil-bearing communities of the area. I used to have a phobia of large bodies of water. Interestingly, they became a source of excitement after I spent several weeks in the various communities, many of which are located on the lagoon.
When your research is related to conflict and violence, you will likely come in frequent contact with militias, ex-militants, ex-warlords, and security operatives. As a result, the contents of your fieldwork bag must contain items that will help you do the job and also save your neck, should the situation arise. So, as I prepared for this round of fieldwork, the first items to go into my bag were my wallet (which contains my university ID and ATM card) and a letter of introduction written on my departmental letterhead, duly stamped and signed by the department head (to prove that I am neither a detective nor a militant, as the case may be). Then I reached for my digital voice recorder, which is essential for recording interview proceedings. This is a crucial item that must not be forgotten. I made sure I had extra batteries. A notebook or writing pad is of absolute necessity, because, as a rule, I jot down notes as I record. I have learned not to put complete trust in recording gadgets. Some people will not even allow me to record their voices. One has to resort to jotting notes. At any rate, the writing pad complements the voice recorder.
Without pen and pencil, fieldwork is practically impossible. There is no way you will not take notes. I always have them in pairs, because I don’t want to be without one. If I get permission, I always love to record my interview on video. This is where my iPad became very useful. The Sony Camera takes higher-quality photos, so it was given a space inside the bag. Phones are too important to be left behind. Apart from the need to communicate, at times, it was also useful for recordings and to take photos. As a rule, a “stranger” like me has to put on a life jacket for the traveling on the water. The locals don’t. So, I had to rent one for the entire period of research.
Wherever I go, my laptop must accompany me. So, my MacBook got an ample space in the bag. The modem gives me all-important internet access. USB and external drive are a must for me to store information and data from the field in different places. Finally, my glasses (without which reading becomes something of a punishment to me) were the last item to go inside, because I even had to wear them to pack correctly!
- Local contacts
I found the use of local contacts very important for successful fieldwork. Conflict areas are usually under security watch, and people are naturally wary of talking to outsiders. Visitors are always viewed with suspicion. Making contact with members of the local community has proven to be an effective strategy for allaying people’s fears.
- Confidence building
It is important to build confidence and friendship with the people you are researching. I always assure people that as a researcher, my work will bring their issues to national and international attention. I identify with them. In a culture-sensitive environment like Nigeria, one needs to be very sensitive to feelings and traditions. Once you show that understanding, it demonstrates good intentions.
- Getting permission before recording
Recording peoples’ voices without their consent could land one in trouble. Secret or discreet recording in a conflict-affected environment could be costly indeed. I make sure I secure their permission before turning on the recorder. And when the respondent declines to be recorded, I resort to taking notes by hand. By that you are building trust with the people. You are also saving your neck, particularly in a conflict area.
Emma Shaw Crane
International Dissertation Research Fellow, 2017
PhD Candidate, Social and Cultural Analysis
New York University
I do fieldwork in very different kinds of places—offices, peripheral neighborhoods, a military base, people’s homes, and municipal community centers—and these are the things I always carry. My recorder is a Zoom H2n, which is great because it’s small and simple but records high-quality audio. (I facilitate radio workshops alongside my fieldwork, and I use the Zoom for that, too.) I use my iPhone as a backup and rely on this portable charger. I carry the Zoom and phone in waterproof cases. This notebook was a gift, but I always use this size, since it fits in a small bag. My camera is a basic digital Canon and I mostly use it to take photos of landscapes and environments, because my research is partially about built environments and the spatial organization of urban peripheries. I haven’t photographed people for research yet, but I do take photos of parties and important events to print and give to my interlocutors (something that I learned from my friend, the photographer and anthropologist Camilo Ruiz, who I did fieldwork with in Bogotá several years ago). I also always carry a USB because the experts that I talk to will sometimes offer me PDFs or photographs.
My advisor recommended that I bring just a few of my most beloved books with me to the field to reread. I spend a lot of time waiting and on buses, so I always carry a book and headphones. I just finished rereading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and this week I’m carrying around Abou Farman’s Clerks of the Passage. I carry a little bag with essentials (contact lenses and case, lip balm, ibuprofen, extra hair tie, etc.) plus sunglasses, extra batteries (usually rechargeable, I swear!), and pens. The tap water is great in Bogotá and South Florida, so I use this water bottle. I’ve had this bag for years, and it’s water-resistant and sturdy, but when I go into offices I use something more formal.