Are We There Yet? Or, is this what fieldwork feels like?

UntitledI have just returned from Johannesburg, a city I have not been to since 1997, when I first went to South Africa. I had a nice time, and as ever, I learnt a lot in a  short space of time by being in a very different place. I have spent lots of time in South Africa in between that first trip and now, but apart from going in and out of the the airport and a brief day-trip in the early 2000s, not any time in Jo’burg. So it was an occasion for reflecting on what it is I have been doing coming and going to South Africa in the meantime.

I remain unsure whether or not the time I have spent in South Africa counts as ‘fieldwork’, a rather precious idea in GeographyLand, the everyday world which I inhabit. Does visiting other people’s countries and finding things out about them counts as ‘fieldwork’? I certainly think I have done ‘research’ in South Africa (actually, mainly, in Durban), but I’m still not sure why I am meant to think that the quality or significance of research is meant to depend on the implied sense of immersion or exposure associated with the idea of fieldwork.

IMG_0791I have been to South Africa 17 times in the last 19 years (it’s a long flight, you have time to count these things…). Adding up all those trips, which have been as long (or not?) as 3 months and as short as a week, I have spent almost a whole year of my life there since 1997. These trips have been funded by ‘seed’ money from the University of Reading, the OU, Exeter (and who knows what grew from that money), and by proper grown-up research funding from the British Academy, and especially from the Leverhulme Trust (an historically ambivalent source of funding for African research, it should be said). Some of these trips have been associated with formal research projects, some of them with conferences, and some of them just occasions to go and meet people and find things out. And it should be said that pretty much anything I have learnt while in this other place has been dependent on the generosity of South African academics, activists, lawyers, policy makers, journalists, and the like – generosity with their time, their insight, and their own analysis of the world they live in. ‘Being there’ turns out to be an opportunity to listen to the testimony others.

Actually, the more I go to South Africa, the less and less I think of it as a place in which to pretend to do ‘research’ – I initially went to do research on media policy, on my own, in my own name; but then I ended up collaborating with other people, which seems the only reasonable way of proceeding – in my case, falling under the spell of Di Scott, and then being part of a multi-person project on democracy in Durban with all sorts of other nice and smart people, and more recently accidentally conjuring writing projects with Sue Parnell and a shared project with Sophie Oldfield. Along the way, I have passed through all sorts of spaces of research knowledge: hotels, apartments, different cities, taxis, bookshops, beaches, living rooms, offices, bookshops, coffee shops, libraries, bookshops, shopping malls, bookshops in shopping malls. I have gone from researching media policy to researching urban-based environmental politics, using ‘methods’ including interviewing to watching TV and listening to the radio, to using more or less formal ‘archives’, on one occasion delivered in person as a pile of paper, on another accessed by being ushered into a cupboard at the SABC.

I’ve actually learnt a lot about Theory across all these visits, in a weird inversion of Paulin Hountondji’s account of Africa’s ‘theoretical extraversion’ – about the way that ideas of the public sphere, or governmentality, or class, or decolonisation, amongst others, resonate and settle in a place like South Africa. Most recently, this has been my main excuse for visiting, to learn more about how ‘urban theory’ circulates through and emerges from South African situations.

So, anyway, I wonder still why it is that time spent in South Africa should present itself (to me, but also to others faced with me) as a source of something like ‘field’ experience in a way that, for example, time spent in the USA seems not to. I have, I think (I know), actually spent more time in the States as an adult than I have in South Africa, including a whole year of immersive ethnographic observation of GeographyLand at Ohio State. I have an American sister. I’ve walked pretty much the entire length of Peachtree Street (although not all at once). But none of that is translatable into a claim of professional expertise about American life and culture and politics in the way that, I suspect, time in South Africa could be. And in saying that, I know it is the case because I have a distinct sense that I have not been very good at constructing an aura of either ‘developmental’ or ‘ethnographic’ or ‘(South) Africanist’ expertise on the basis of all that time in South Africa.

And now back to life in Swindon. A non-city much the same age as Durban, half a century older than Johannesburg, and about 300 years younger than Cape Town. But no less weird than any of them.

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