Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology
Goethe University Frankfurt
We evaluate the result of our research based on the final product in the form of scientific articles and books. However, how this final product was obtained and what thorny path the researcher went through is usually hidden in methodology sections of dissertations and is rarely mentioned in subsequent publications. Researchers conduct fieldwork either alone, with partners, or with their families. Each of the mentioned situations has its own advantages and disadvantages. Researchers, accompanied by family members, provide a special case which I would like to address in this blog based on my own experience.
I started my PhD at the University of Tübingen when my daughter was recently born. From the very beginning it was clear that my family will be part of my research and accompany me on the field. When my daughter was 1 year and 4 months old, I headed off to my fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan together with my husband and my daughter.
Doing research accompanied with a family requires careful preparation not only for the field, but also some arrangements in the ‘home country’ before going to the field or after returning from the field, which is no less important. When we talk about “accompanied fieldwork” or “doing research with kids”, most researchers write about how they prepare for fieldwork and their narratives focus on aspects related to their time in the field. However, I would like to emphasize that we also face many challenges before entering the field and after returning from the field, which are discussed relatively very briefly. In my case, I should say that I felt challenges also in Germany, in my home country. Here, to begin with, I will focus on two of them.
At that time, I was a recipient of the DAAD scholarship. In addition to my scholarship, my husband and my daughter received some financial support as well as some part of our accommodation rent in Tübingen was covered by the DAAD, which was great. However, to my surprise, I learned that the DAAD scholarship only covered the first three months of my stay abroad. It was explained to me that the scholarship covers mainly study/research stay in Germany. I was very upset with this kind of rule and I could not understand why the DAAD did not take into account the fact that anthropologists might conduct field research, which can be carried out in any part of the world and last up to one year or longer. I started to look for funding and successfully secured one for my main research stay in Kyrgyzstan. I was happy and relieved to get some funding, however, the feeling of despair and the process of looking for funding caused additional concerns and was very much time-consuming.
The second challenge was to keep the place in the kindergarten of my daughter in Tübingen. Despite the fact that there were many kindergartens in that university town, getting a place for a child was not an easy process. One had to register in advance and be on a waiting list until a place was allocated for the child. When we were about to leave for my fieldwork, my daughter was already in one of these kindergartens. I was told that in order to keep a place in the kindergarten, I had to pay for each month, even when we were absent. As we were planning to be away for half a year, we decided to de-register our daughter from her kindergarten. When we were back in Germany, it was not immediately when my daughter started to go to a kindergarten again. The second time, my fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan lasted for three months. Again this time I took my daughter with me to the field. In fear that we might not immediately find a place in a kindergarten for our daughter upon our return, the second time, we decided to keep our daughter’s place in her kindergarten and therefore paid for three months during our absence.
I am focusing on these two examples because these are aspects that any parenting researcher may encounter in their home countries as part of their preparation for their fieldwork but which already takes place before even entering the research field. Since the mentioned cases are well-predictable, I hope that some action can be taken to improve such situations. Fieldwork is the most exciting part of the research. However, unlike predicable and thus preventable cases in home countries, the circumstances in the field are not fully controllable. The beauty of fieldwork must be in this! In other words, even if a researcher is well organized and well prepared, in the field, there will always be moments when things will have to be adjusted and rearranged according to circumstances. It applies to a research conducted by the researcher alone or when the researcher is accompanied by his/her family.
Of course, when a researcher is accompanied, especially by small children, more careful logistical arrangements are required. In my case, it even determined the fieldsite, which I had to change because of my accompanying toddler. According to my initial plan, I was to conduct research in Naryn town, which is located in the mountainous region of Kyrgyzstan. In winters, when there is a lot of snow, sometimes the pass between Naryn and Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is closed. Since I had to conduct research during the winter time, I was worried that the road to the hospital in Bishkek would be closed in case my daughter got sick and had to be transported to Bishkek. After careful consideration, I decided to change my fieldsite from Naryn town to Kochkor village, which is located in the same region, but, in case of urgency, one can reach Bishkek from Kochkor without obstacles.
When we arrived in Kochkor, at the beginning, my husband looked after my daughter while I conducted research. However, at a later stage, I had to look for a helping hand – a female caretaker. During the day, I was coming “home”, a two-room section of the house that I rented in Kochkor, to check on my daughter and the caretaker. Leaving my toddler with her father was not an option for me, because in my opinion, at an early stage, a child needs the mother more than the father. Moreover, I was more comfortable having my child around rather than leaving her behind and constantly worrying about what was happening to my daughter and whether she was fed well and taken good care of by my husband or relatives. But most importantly, I did not want to miss a single development of my child. I think it would be tolerable if I were away for a month, but nine months is a big term for a child to be separated from her mother.
In the field, a combination of my data collection, such as interviews, participant observation, or writing diaries and transcribing recorded interviews with my daughter became a natural process. Some evenings, I could work on transcribing and keeping diaries, sometimes not. There were also days when my daughter was sick and I stayed with her all day, which I accepted as part of a natural parenting-motherhood during her fieldwork phase. There were thoughts that chased me from time to time such as “If I were alone, I might have done more than now”. However, looking back retrospectively, I understand that taking my child to the field was a wise decision, as many aspects of it positively shaped the overall course of my research.
The theme of my research was to study children in Kyrgyzstan and their healthy growth. Since women are the main gatekeepers of the health of the family and especially children, mainly they were my interlocutors. When I asked those women questions about their children, usually the very first question that I got from them was: “Do you have a child yourself?” My positive “yes” answer helped me to easily integrate myself to the circle of mothers. Moreover, the neighbours saw me walking with my daughter, which also helped me to build good rapport. Seeing my daughter around playing with their children also increased the curiosity of my interlocutors, who also asked about my experience of raising a child in Germany. In my case, where I myself studied children, having my child around was a big plus for the healthy development of my research.
Another advantage of an accompanying child on the field is that, in my view, the child grows up to be an open and versatile person. We teach that anthropology is a discipline that helps us to understand ourselves through learning about others. A child who is exposed to other culture through their parents’ research will grow up to be a person with better understanding of the world, flexibility in communication, and respect to other peoples and cultures. This I could perfectly see in children of my colleagues in Germany, a couple, both of whom are anthropologists. Their children visited the research fields of their parents and learned about cultural values of the people whom their parents studied.
If I return to my own case, after calling the memories of my research with my daughter back and reflecting on those days in Kyrgyzstan once again, I realize that being a parenting researcher is actually a natural process. Like doctors who go to the hospital to treat their patients or teacher who go to school to teach children, anthropologists also do their job by travelling and conducting fieldwork for an extended period of time. The style of their work should also be acknowledged and all possible support should be given to them. As parenting researchers, we already face challenges of balancing research and caring for our accompanying children in the field. Getting some kind of support, especially financial one, would immensely help us not only financially, but also psychologically, which directly affects the quality of our research.
Any fieldwork, whether accompanied by family or not, will always pose a challenge. In the field we usually encounter some unexpected circumstances that we need to adapt to. Every culture is different and unique: each host community will have its own values, stereotypes, customs and expectations, which anthropologists keep learning while in the field. They are unpredictable challenges of fieldwork, which are difficult to detect in advance and prevent. However, here I have focused on cases that are highly predictable and therefore preventable. It would help us a great deal, at least in our home countries, if such family-friendly aspects could be seriously taken into account and supported in order to make the work-life balance of parenting researchers more balanced.