The Ten Rules of a First Exploration Journey
September 19, 2017
This story is about finding guidelines and boundaries.
Every new project needs a frame. This is especially true for those projects that aim to discover something novel. When I started my first research journey in Israel this year I created a list of the most 10 basic rules that came to my mind during the flight to my destination. These ten rules were planned to allow me to find my way back if I ever get lost during the field research. The list proved to be quite helpful, although I say it is neither complete nor non-adaptable. I rather experienced that some rules apply more in one context than in another.
It is great to finally get do this. I think I am well prepared for my first journey. The backpack is packed. The schedule is set and tight. The places are mapped and located. After a couple of years secretly planning this, I finally embark on a journey not knowing where it is going to take me.But before we start. Let’s set some ground rules. Every project needs boundaries. And so does one that has no coherent aim at all. Here are the most general rules for all encounters
The following article will take you through this basic set of rules. I will add some reflections after having used them.
Always describe the situation you are in.
When I get into the field and to unknown places it easily happens that I get carried away. It is an adventure, always. I can not imagine a spot where I might ever get bored. This energy is great. It keeps me going. On the other hand, however, this energy does not favour meticulous descriptions, taking time to reflect or a sensitive eye for observation. There are simply too many things happening at the same time. This is true to what is happening around me, but also to the stuff that is happening inside me, my emotions. To keep as many as things remembered as possible I started to constantly take notes and speak with myself. It helps to slow down. The practice of writing and speaking is slower than thinking and allows different observation.
Talk about what you see via dictation.
Connection to rule number one, rule number two is a habit that has emerged out of the practice of talking to myself during field research. By recording my own voice and the descriptions I tell I can later, during the writing up of a project, reconnect to myself. It is an odd thing to do. But those words tell you more than pragmatic information. They allow reconnecting to the feelings and emotions that were happening at that moment. They give an idea about flow and space.
Decide if the things you see could be part of a certain format in the future.
Rule number three deals with the first basic structuring of data collected (sound, pictures, description, notes, … what so ever). It is important to think about the connectivity of observations and materials on location. This is sometimes difficult because often many things are happening the same time. But the ideas and links that arise out of this practice are most valuable. They are the first hunches that give the drive for the work happening after the field research.
Count things, objects, people that define a situation.
Now, this is not fun. It takes time. It is not very creative – but, it is all the more important when describing and reflecting research data in context. Keeping track of the things that happen around you means also keeping in mind how often something was sighted or observed in context with other things. This allows to create a matrix of relations later in the procedure of data analyses and will allow drawing conclusions about phenomena and situations sighted.
Search for the small things, not the big ones.
I am drawn to revealing hidden and interesting perspectives to topics and places under investigation. The tricky part is though, it is difficult to recognise what is going to lead to an insight and what is not. This leads to the situation that I am often attracted to things because they are more prominent than others. They are louder, bigger, more vibrant, or quicker than other stuff. Thus rule number four deals with attention to detail. Often the more interesting things are hidden behind layers. They are not loud, big, or prominent of any kind. It is therefore always good to keep looking for small things instead of big ones.
Capture the path you walk.
Walking during field research is tempting. I love it. I love the feeling of not knowing what might be hiding behind the next corner. To remember and later to connect observations and data to places, it is a great habit to track the path of investigation with a GSP device. For me personally, this allows reconnecting to every place I have visited during a session by looking at the map and remembering the area in my mind.
Be slow, be patient, be curious.
Being in the field, especially when it comes to a longer period of time can be exhausting. It is important to economise your physical and mental energies. Things happen when they happen. Often they happen because they weren’t planned to happen, at least to me. Being patient is crucial – staying curious is essential. Simply stay a while and listen.
Always drink enough water.
Now, this is a no brainer. Yet always carry enough water with you otherwise you will run into problems. Getting dehydrated during field work is bad. It drains body and brain. On my research days, I usually walk around 20 to 25 kilometres. It is alright to stop eating during that time. It is not alright to stop drinking water though. Not important if you are working in a warm or a cold environment.
Walk as long as it needs that it hurts.
The masochist rule. I don’t know if this one applies to you dear reader. But I need it. To push further, see and observe more I need to set physical goals that allow me to deal with the physical perspective of this work. The blisters on my feet tell me that something happened even if I am completely lost in sorrow that the thing I am investigating is not going to lead anywhere.
Take time to write down your thoughts and observations.
Finally, the daily field notes. After a full day in the field (8 to 12 hours), it is always tough to sit down in the evening and to write down reflections about the things that happened. This time, however, is most crucial and before you stop doing it shorten your time in the field. There is no sense in collection data be it photos, interviews, soundscapes, and so on if you don’t take the time later on and work through them. You will forget many things, many small things that are important.