Heading to the field in a pandemic-y world

The past few weeks I’ve been preparing to finally head to Bangladesh and spend a few months doing research there this year, and I have learned on major lesson: fieldwork during a global pandemic takes an extraordinary amount of effort and determination.

I was one of many people who were meant to begin fieldwork at some point during the pandemic, I think that being in the liminal space between fieldwork and coursework for so long has been good in some ways (having more time to read about my fieldsite and think through my research plans) but really hard in some ways (feeling so very far away from the communities that I study and getting behind on plans and progress that was already in motion). Between lost visa applications, many cancelled flights, getting caught up at airports who weren’t sure if pandemic regulations allowed you to fly or not fly, unclear quarantine periods, and COVID tests galore, flying from the US to Dhaka has never been this difficult.

What became clear from all of this, to me, is that the normal conventions of what fieldwork looks like and the ethics of it need to be completely rethought post COVID (probably also pre COVID). Before leaving for Dhaka, I was very worried about how to not get covid myself, how to not give it to the people I hoped to study, if the archives I needed would be open, and what the dual impact of COVID and the cyclones that hit during the pandemic was on the people who I study. I was prepared to see them doing worse, for disruptions in livelihoods, migrations patterns, and food chains.

My original plan was to come and mostly do archival work and to call my interlocuters weekly to check in on their life updates (read: work I had decided was more COVID safe), but within days of landing I felt an intense pull to go to the Sundarbans — things felt shockingly normal here, the numbers were low, and I kept wondering why I crossed the whole world to not go the last little bit to the communities that I study. After lasting about 8 days in Dhaka, I headed to the Sundarbans.

In some ways it felt like no time at all had passed, everyone was there, houses and places looked pretty similar to what I remembered and not too much worse for the wear. And in some ways it felt like eternities had passed, there were new babies, and entirely new economies. The biggest shocker was the exponential rise in soft shell crab farming. During my previous trips, there were a few crab farms and many people who went to the forest to catch crabs but this entire economy had spread like wildfire during the pandemic, as compensation for loss of many other types of livelihoods. The very crab cultivation that many many Sundarban residents had complained about and said they would never do because it worsened the salinity intrusion that was tormenting their daily lives.

What I was not prepared for was that the disconnection from the field would create an intense internal confusion for me. Sitting in homes that felt ever so comfortable before the pandemic, now I wondered what my presence in their homes and lives was for. What was I bearing witness to? The pressure of putting in so much effort to getting to the field felt like it should culminate in something…. BIG. But ethnography doesn’t usually feel big, I think.

An emptiness of why am I here and what I am doing followed this first trip. For me, a big part of this is that I understand that as an ethnographer at the end of the day I’m not doing anything to help the communities that I am studying. But in a post pandemic, cyclone and increasingly climate change riddled world, this was an even more difficult pill to swallow than ever before. I’m thinking a lot about the break between academia and activism and ways of being an ethnographer activist. I would love to hear from any of you about the ways in which you deal with and think through these types of situations as well, specifically how can we create more just and less extractive ways of doing fieldwork?

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About rakasen

Raka Sen is a graduate student in the sociology program at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include the sociology of climate change, social resilience, cities, neighborhoods and disaster sociology. Her research revolves around the gender divisions of the work it takes on the individual level to adapt to climate change in rural Bangladesh and India. She studies the Sundarbans, a piece and parcel mangrove forest that is often referred to as climate change ground zero. Prior to beginning her graduate study, Raka was a Researcher at Rebuild By Design, a resilience initiative launched after Hurricane Sandy. At Rebuild she worked on a study of managed retreat in the Sandy region and studied how long term infrastructure projects develop over time. A Colorado native, she holds a B.A. in Sociology, Urban Design & Architecture Studies from New York University.