Sensing the Field during the Pandemic

My contribution presents a reflexive diary kept by me over a period of seven weeks between May and June 2021. The diary is about how a social anthropologist prepares herself physically, technically and emotionally for her field research after several lockdowns and in pandemic conditions in Europe (commuting between physical and virtual spaces in Germany as a research area, but additionally as a family residential place and Austria as a working and second residential place). The complete diary consists of 38 pages and is written in Georgian. Only certain parts are selectively presented here. My focus in this specific case unfolds feelings and concerns that otherwise had been unknown to me as a researcher and that had never been felt with such intensity in my professional life.

I think I am not alone in having mixed and ambivalent emotions about ethnographic research in the pandemic. We, social anthropologists, are indeed facing many challenges due to the worldwide conditions today. Some of these challenges seem solvable, some – not so much. My diary is an account of/about such multi-layered and multifaceted challenges and thus simultaneously a type of contemporary testimony on the (im)possibility of ethnography during the pandemic. On the other hand, my diary attests to the unbelievable expansion of the boundaries of possibilities via virtual networks. In this way we are now able to acquire professional and theoretical knowledge that would have been unthinkable before pandemic.

I present the unedited excerpts from my diary in order to follow the chaotic and interlocking thoughts and feelings. Parallel to the “usual” preparations such as visa regulation and residence-; as well as research permits for the “field”, the dramatically shifted boundaries of being offline/online and between work/leisure spaces are addressed below.


Figure 1. Photograph by the author, July 2021

Insights into the diary

Day 12

“… I told my old friend today about my planned research in Osnabrück…since I have worried and worried so much in advance [even before my research], I have decided to write about it systematically. To keep a kind of “pre-fieldwork diary”. I call this one “sensing the Field”….

Day 13

“In a moment, I tune in to an online lecture… The lecture makes me think again about how much the Covid pandemic has changed the way we work. Sometimes I am “on the road” in three countries in one day. Recently, I was in London in the morning, in Tbilisi shortly after noon and in Vienna immediately afterwards.”

Day 14

“Vienna has made my working life incredibly complicated.  I keep forgetting that Germany is now considered a “foreign country” for me. But my children and my husband live there. Every step that would otherwise be “so easy” becomes a hurdle regardless of Covid-19 conditions.  That’s why we’re now trying to somehow turn Germany back into “home” through this “docking” with the University of Osnabrück. So that I am allowed to do research in the first place…”.

Day 15

“Nowadays, not only our interlocutors live in a hypermobile, fluid world, but also we, researchers. I work in Vienna and (soon) in Osnabrück, currently live in Vienna and Essen and am unconsciously or consciously catapulted into the past again and again, to my home town of Telavi in Georgia, where my parents live. This is what I call the “imaginary translocality”…”

Day 16

“The decision today is not on the individual to be able to do research, but the restriction is independent of us. It is societal and pandemic. I think whether it is okay for a researcher to think about field research so much beforehand, whether these thoughts and limitations do not influence our intention too much. The trajectories are kind of pre-determined. Do we have to insert this line beforehand? What works pragmatically and what can be dispensed with beforehand?”

Day 17

“…My pre-field phase is also influenced by external political situations all over the world. Conflicts, violence, demonstrations and abuse of power everywhere… Somehow that is also our life nowadays – not being able to emotionally disconnect from these global processes. Just log off…

The boundaries between online and offline are fading. My husband notices on and off that I am “somewhere else” while I am actually physically in the same room with my family. As if two parallel lives were playing out in front of me at the same time in a physical space. I then feel the “real” life at home only “incidentally” with my sensory tentacles. Children’s laughter and good night stories reach me….This is the difference between just being there and being with it. In the evenings, when I write my diary or do recherché for my field, this happens to me all the time. I am physically ‘together’ with my family, but not necessarily ‘present there’.” 

Day 18

“…Today I was at RECET physically [Research Center for the History of Transformations in Vienna]and exchanged views with my supervisor about my plans… the same evening I took part in an online meeting in Berlin. Lately, via Zoom, I often see the people I usually know as book authors on my shelf.”

Day 23

“…I also worry a lot about if and how “good enough” my research will be. I try to avoid digital interviews, because on top of digital shortcomings, it became so complicated for privacy reasons. I need pre-running, trust. Whether the interlocutors will trust me?

Day 29

A neighbour [in Essen] asked me recently if and when I would go “home”.  When I answered, I realised with a laugh how many “homes” I can imagine at the same time.

Do you mean Vienna [My place of residence until the end of the project] ?

“No”

“Oh, to Osnabrück”? [My research site]

“No”

“To Georgia”? [He meant to Georgia (My birthplace).]

“Nah, this year I’m supposed to do research. It’s not going to be anything”.

At this I think of how everything has “shifted”. Georgia as home has remained somewhere in the past for me and in me. Places of work also count as places of residence, but my [felt] real home is in Essen, with my family”.

Day 31

“I have been vaccinated and this has brought me one step closer to my field. I feel good so far….”

Day 35 

“I was in Osnabrück today [During my time off in Germany] I looked at potential research sites. One could describe it as “touching the field”. I have chosen Schinkel as my place of residence and research.

Day 46

“I got the official approval for my research trip from the University of Vienna today. It can start!!!…”

Addendum

The entries of the last two weeks are mostly factual and characterised by technical details for research. Money for the flat has been transferred, childcare organised for longer periods. My husband and paternal grandparents will take turns looking after the little ones. Certain stretches they will be with me in the field. The day for the “move” has been arranged. Contact persons have been written to and meetings arranged. At the end of the month I was invited to a district meeting which proved to be very useful and informative. I was warmly welcomed and promised support.


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