From October 2019 to September 2020, I was at home in Malaysia conducting my yearlong PhD fieldwork. Now, having safely completed this component of the PhD and returned to the University of Oxford amidst a pandemic that marches on, I reflect on turbulent moments from the field. This reflection centres on the second leg of my fieldwork at a rural school from January 2020 to August 2020, which was completed with the support of the BAICE Student Fieldwork Grant.
Life goes on…somehow.
In the middle of a national lockdown in May—stranded at home as my fieldwork ground to a halt—I wrote:
‘There are times when I feel like I am reliving the same day over and over. At my family home in the interior of Pahang, I pace indoors, coated by the punishing midday heat. I am slowly forgetting the contours of the landscape beyond the boundaries of the home. We wait for this dream to subside—a pandemic has seized the gaps and cracks between what were once mobile bodies, connected places and the normal rhythm of time, congealing as if by magic, suspending everything in slow motion…
It has been two months since I last recorded my updates here. Between then and now, the Malaysian government has extended the Movement Control Order (MCO) twice to contain the COVID-19 virus—first for two weeks, followed by a month, to conclude on June 9th. What lies beyond remains uncertain; such is the maxim of the new normal. In lockdown, I celebrated my birthday with self-saucing chocolate pudding made by my younger sisters. Over WhatsApp calls, my nephew told me excitedly, repeatedly, perhaps divulging a cautious secret—he will be getting a younger sibling by the end of this year. As if observing from the outside instead of enduring, the fasting month of Ramadan rapidly, dreamily spills into subdued Eid al-Fitr celebrations. Yet amidst all these happenings, still there are times when I feel like I am reliving the same day over and over.’
Rereading this excerpt now, with the knowledge of all that has transpired since, I am reminded that in the eye of the storm, life still finds a way. Although PhD fieldwork did not turn out to be the way I had imagined, amidst all the hardship, there is light to be found in the comfort of family, in the observance of ritual and anniversary. I recall a few moments worth mentioning. A stray cat wandered into our yard and decided to stay. We named her Coco as a wink to the virus. My new niece, secretly foretold by her brother, was born in late November. These celebrations in and of life gave me perspective of the bigger picture, reminding me of so much that is not lost, amidst the grief of what is.
The only way out is through writing
I have found writing to be a cathartic outlet in the haze of fieldwork. Looking back on my fieldnotes now, as I am in the thick of data analysis, I notice my attempts at capturing the contours of the (changed) field, even as it evaded my capture. Written whilst stranded at home in lockdown, my fieldnotes seem to stitch together limited observations and analytical musings, jottings from online conferences attended at odd hours and accounts from various ‘texts’ (academic, novels, short stories, movies). Conversations with supervisors are interspersed with records of chats with friends in faraway places. Perhaps I was keeping a record for posterity—a message for my future self who, with sufficient distance, would be able to decipher such a surreal moment in the doctoral journey.
A message from the field:
‘In this time, I grasp at a number of activities to remind myself that despite being home in the lulling comfort of family, and that my fieldwork has been disrupted, I am still a PhD student engaging in the life of the mind, forging an academic identity somehow amidst the chaos. The writing of fieldnotes continue, however sparse and ambivalent they may be in this time (am I technically in the field?)…This PhD continues, I convince myself, even when I don’t feel up for it on certain days and lay in bed motionless, even when progress appears glacial, even when it seems like such an inconsequential project when the world seems to collapse…’
To write is to bring into being the (be)wilderness of the field and fieldwork. I did indeed make progress, even if I did not think so at the time. Writing is a testament of that PhD progress, inch by inch. I am reminded then as I am now of the words of the sociologist Laurel Richardson on the value of writing and persisting:
‘…we ‘‘reword’’ the world, erase the computer screen, check the thesaurus, move a paragraph, again and again. This ‘‘worded world’’ never accurately, precisely, completely captures the studied world, yet we persist in trying. Writing as a method of inquiry honors and encourages the trying, recognizing it as emblematic of the significance of language. I write because I want to find something out. I write in order to learn something that I did not know before I wrote it. (p. 35)’
An ethics of care transcending bureaucracy
Questions of ethics have been a persistent spectre in the course of my PhD research. The interruption to school life and the livelihoods of my research informants magnifies this shadow, reminding me that an ethical posture calls for a genuine recognition of how the research enterprise in embedded, entangled in the material lives of those we seek to learn from. In the middle of lockdown, severed from the physical site of fieldwork 4 hours away across state lines, I mused:
‘Over these past two months, I have reluctantly been revising my application for ethical clearance to move data collection into the online realm. I am learning that to pause in this moment, not to rush into troubleshooting, to hold space for how my informants are adjusting to the circumstances of lockdown, is an act of care, an ethics transcending bureaucracy. I choose to wait things out. In retrospect and introspect, I allowed myself time to mourn the loss of my original design and all the lofty aspirations infused therein.
My friend ‘M’ assures me: “It is time to have patience and tranquillity, as our research is not disconnected with social flows…and that includes this pandemic.”
Try as we might to systematically plan a course of research, we (must) surrender to currents outside our control. Latching onto care makes this reality more bearable. In the field, my informants constantly teach me about the centrality of care in navigating the field. I am reminded of a moment in mid April:
‘The teacher sitting beside me in the staff room where I have been given a cubicle, who shares bread and stories with me, calls to inform that my car tyres have gone flat due to immobility. When I returned home with my parents in mid-March, I had left the car (borrowed from my mother) and other possessions (clothes and books, among others) at the site. I had assumed I would be back in the field after the one-week school holiday. This was before lockdown became the norm; a week away has now stretched into ten and counting.’
Feeling rather disconnected from the field at that point, the call, along with the offer to help with research in any way, greatly moved me. If we allow ourselves to see research beyond transaction and extraction, then we open up our consciousness to a radical dependency in the broadest sense. Care is fuelled by reciprocity and attention to the enduring webs of relationships—what in Malay is called silaturrahim. It is a reminder of continuous engagement and reflection beyond the ethical clearance form, beyond the temporal end of fieldwork.
Epilogue: “Hope is the thing with feathers…”
‘Despite the circumstances, relations and objects tether me to field, and I hold on tight. This gives me hope of returning eventually, even if only to say goodbye.’
In late June, a month after penning the hopeful reflection above, I was able to return to the field and properly wrap-up my fieldwork by August. Hope works in mysterious ways, never quite in the way we think it will. In the poem that accompanies this epilogue, Emily Dickinson reminds us of the endurance and persistence of hope amidst the gale and the storm. As certainty dissolves under the shadow of the long pandemic and life is reshaped anew, hope is a potent tonic that keeps us going in the PhD journey, and in life.
Note: An earlier version of this reflection from within the field can be accessed in podcast form here. (Link: https://anchor.fm/unlockinglockdown/episodes/Aizuddin-Mohamed-Anuar-on-the-experience-of-fieldwork-during-a-pandemic-ek2doj)