When the ethnographic field followed me into my daily life

Starting the research on ordinary life in a Soviet village in the midst of a pandemic, little did I know that my search for access points into the field “out there” could turn my own life into a scene where the past rural life worlds unfold. Unable to conduct the familiar ethnographic research while going to Siberia or to northern Kazakhstan, I started an alternative ethnography of Soviet everydayness in the context of today’s Germany. Although I travel to meet some of my Russophone research partners in their German homes, exploring their current social environments as well as memories of the seemingly distant Soviet pasts, the majority of encounters and exchanges occur increasingly online via WhatsApp texts or voice messages. So customary in our daily lives, mobile communication technology transforms the understanding of the empirical, ethical and methodological field unpredictably. As I attempt to sketch briefly below, such selective and spontaneous communications dilute the clear boundaries of here and there and reverse power structures that often come to dominate the field.

Mobile exchanges have indeed become central to my research process, penetrating and affecting not only my on-site fieldwork but also my at-distance life. Sitting on a train on an early Thursday morning, I am prepared for a long ride to meet Marina (name changed by author). Marina migrated to Germany in the early 1990s from Russia and agreed to give me an interview about her past life in the Soviet Union. I look through the window into the grey rainy fields, sip a warm cup of tea and start unpacking my notes and reading materials carefully prepared for the ride. Suddenly a voice message arrives on WhatsApp leaving me bewildered and saddened. Marina does not feel well, she cannot get out of the bed and asks me to postpone the visit to another time. Just within a ten-minute ride my research mode turns entirely upside down into a life mode of weighing my options, searching for new train connections, and making new plans for the days we were supposed to spend together. And yet I am not entirely out of the research field either. As I disembark at the next station and wait for a ride home, Marina makes another mobile intervention. A few teaser stories that she provides as apologetic offerings over the phone continue unsettling the clear contours of a research field, with seemingly set days, set places, set ethical regulations and obligations as well as set roles of who follows whom.

The complex navigation between my daily life and a research fieldwork proceeds when two days later on a Saturday evening another message from Marina arrives on WhatsApp. Filled with vivid impressions of the dance performance I attended in Mainz earlier this day, I lie in bed and upload photographs for my family and friends on Instagram. I am about to put my phone aside when Marina shares a screenshot from a local monthly Russian-language newspaper, suggesting we discuss it over a phone call. Yet what we discuss is her present life and the recent news of a severe illness of a close family member. Suddenly the talk about the present becomes entangled in memories of the past, memories about the hard work her own and many other fathers endured in a Soviet mine of the Orenburg region, about suspicious illnesses and eventual death that befell those who toiled there. About an hour later our call ends, yet I cannot disconnect, cannot return into the comforts of my sheets and blankets. Instead, my thoughts and feelings remain scattered somewhere out there with Marina’s relatives or perhaps in the hazardous mine. My night becomes a sleepless in-between.

These mediated communications with research partners, like the brief vignette with Marina demonstrates, are now happening to me virtually everywhere: at my home while I work, cook, relax or do sports; during the walks I take, or a grocery shop I routinely visit. Reading through and responding to the messages and photographs the research partners send me, erodes momentarily the contours of the “conventional” research field. It makes a critical distance, strived for so desperately across the different disciplines, hardly possible. In a struggle to move clearly out of the field, I grow instead aware of the deep effects online connectivity has today not only upon our research encounters but increasingly upon my own life. Through the voice messages and texts that suddenly pop up on my phone, I unintentionally slip out of my routines and places, slip away from the people I am currently with and fall right back into the research mode.

In the end, it is no longer only me as a researcher who abruptly inserts herself into the daily lives of people I wish to study. With the increased use of mobile communication technologies and the search for new meaningful connections during times of uncertainty and change, people at their own initiative reappear in my life. They display their agency by taking over the conversation or by interrupting it altogether; they pose their own questions gradually transforming initial impressions I had formed of them; they contest the plans for a field research; they connect and disconnect.

Recognizing these and other fluid encounters in a fluid field is, in turn, the essential first step to rethink an ethnographic research of today, to reconsider the data we as researchers claim to produce as well as to be aware of the new ethical challenges that might arise as a result.

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