Your ‘field’ is different from mine

When I was working in Orissa, India, I was based in Mohuda, a village 10 km from a small town, Berhampur. The head office of the NGO I was working with was located in Mohuda. For any one visiting from even the state capital, Bhubaneswar, let alone New Delhi or from outside India, Mohuda was ‘field’ enough. But for those of us living in Mohuda, our field was a few hundred meters outside the campus – in the village where we had worked with the community to build toilets and houses; women who were part of the village savings groups, and the little biomass-based power plant we had installed. There was of course more of the ‘field’ further away – spread all over the state where we worked, requiring uncomfortable overnight bus journeys…

Naturally, I secretly smirked at everyone who arrived in Mohuda and proclaimed to have stepped foot on the ‘field’. I am also sure my colleagues in project offices in various parts of the state smirked every time I arrived at their offices and announced my presence in the ‘field’. So in sum, I think this game does even out from time to time. Your ‘field’ is different from mine.

In development, the ‘field’ is where the action is. Everything done from far is to support the implementation machine(s) in the ‘field’. The ‘field’ need not refer to a place that is scrappy and tough, although it could, if appropriate. How many of us really do ‘field work’? Does living in a developing country qualify as ‘field work’? Is working out of a satellite office of one’s own organisation that’s outside of the headquarters ‘field work’? Does working/visiting a partner’s office in a developing country constitute ‘field work’? Within a developing country, is visiting a project office outside of the headquarter ‘field work’? Or is it only ‘field work’ when you go meet the ultimate beneficiaries of your work – the community? How about when you go down to a different country to work with government officials?

What I find strange is the tendency to either complain or romanticise the food/culture/ transport/clothes/homes in a manner that establishes one’s outsider-ness. Many of these narratives (tweets, photographs, blogs…umm…instagram?) are evidently for the ‘non-field’ audience who can then either sympathise or appreciate our experience in the ‘field’. These stories that seek to shout out – “look at me, I am in the ‘field'” seem a bit flawed, at some level – not just because they smack of ‘developmentourism’, but also because of the not-so-subtle attempt to claim the moral high ground. Even if you are learning a lot, and all you want to do is to tell people that you are…could we find better ways to do so? I make no claims to having never done this myself.

450+ words later, I also think to ask: does this matter? Let me know!

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4 thoughts on “Your ‘field’ is different from mine

  1. Agree with you about ‘moral high ground’ that use of ‘field’ assumes. I too have had a great discomfort with this label. It ceases to die. ‘Field’ visits are the norm. But I felt that for some of the professionals in this field, the idea of ‘field’ takes shape rather unconsciously and then stays on!

    May be it is the way identities of various actors begin to shape (because not many are conscious of their position/self-image/context etc when they begin working) in development sector. One tends to become ever so conscious of the difference between the geographies, groups of people one works with and the overall environment. . And the articulation of this difference or even noticing this difference becomes easier when one labels the difference as something happening in the ‘field’ vs your own geographical and social context.

    Back at the university during development studies, a professor worked at length with the students to make them conscious of this process – this ‘encounter’ that is likely to happen and the ensuing confusion which would make the person grab that ‘field’ label and begin explaining his work within it and outside it. As I recall, those of us who managed to be conscious of this process, stopped using it.

    I have to admit though, that I did have a separate page called “field notes” when I started my blog!

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    • I guess the terminology itself has a certain import. A coupe of other aspects of this:

      But for those based not-in-the-field, it’s also about the internalisation of what you must do when you are in the ‘field’. People who just cannot suppress the desire to announce to the world how they are such a natural in the ‘field’ is quite amusing, actually. Obviously, social media has amplified those voices. But it is no different in essence from someone narrating his exploits in-person.

      The flip side of this – those who live and work in the field could develop a feeling of smugness – I definitely did in my little stint. That’s a bit of smugness which was pretty soothing to the ego, and a bit of motivation, but also just a not-so-subtle power-play with visitors.

      Liked by 1 person

      • These aspects you mention are identifiable! And have witnessed it too… I hope, like other troublesome labels/terms/words in dev, this too runs its course and fades away in some years!

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  2. I do think it is unfortunate when ‘the field’ takes on a seeming equivalence with ‘the bush’ or ‘the sticks.’ All fields are someone’s home or place of work. There is probably an element of outsider-ness but I am not even sure that needs to be the case (if, for example, we want to support critical thinking (a la Freire) and barefoot researching (a la Appadurai) of locals of their local communities. I suppose I try to think of ‘the field’ as where I have my researcher lenses on, whether that is the hospital 0.5 kms from my house or a remote village in Nepal — so more about my state of mind and whether I am in learning or fact-finding mode of some sort. Does that seem fair?

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