A look at fieldwork experiences in social science research

S.M. Rayhanul Islam | Thursday, 5 January 2017

Social scientists, specifically the anthropologists, conduct their researches in many ways, but the method most characteristic of the discipline is that of fieldworks based on 'participant observation'. This usually means spending a long period (a year or more) living as closely as possible to the community being studied; learning the language if necessary; sharing the activities of daily life; observing and participating in the texture of social interactions; and identifying underlying patterns. Through analysing this experience and exchanging ideas with members of the community, a researcher aims to gain a deep understanding of how society works, including its inherent tensions and contradictions. The book 'Pains and Pleasures of Fieldwork' is a collection of articles written by the scholars and researchers who have conducted intensive fieldwork in Bangladesh and in the state of West Bengal in India. It contains seventeen articles contributed by Bangladeshi, Indian and Western scholars and researchers who have attempted to narrate their pains, hurdles and pleasures of fieldwork.
The book begins with the chapter 'The Field of Ethnographic Fieldwork' contributed by Dr. A. K. M. Aminul Islam, a former professor of Anthropology at the Wright State University, USA. The author is of the opinion that the first step of an anthropologist is to collect data about culture. This is what is known as ethnographic fieldwork. Actually, ethnographic fieldwork by an anthropologist is the basic tool for collecting data on behaviour patterns. Dr. Aminul has studied what he calls a 'subculture' of Bangladesh. He has gathered information from a Dhaka village by employing the method of 'intensive fieldwork'. He argues that an ethnographer's responsibility cannot be measured in terms of the funds he gets or in terms of the time he spends, rather his objective should be to understand people, not according to his own way of thinking, but according to the ideas and values of the people he is studying. 
In her article 'Collecting Cases' Jean Ellickson (former professor of Anthropology at the Western Illinois University, USA) primarily focuses on collecting case materials from two villages (one in Comilla and the other in Rajshahi ) of Bangladesh where she conducted anthropological fieldwork in the late sixties and mid-seventies. The author also narrates her contrasting experiences of fieldwork in these two villages located in the two different regions in Bangladesh. Dr. Ellickson illustrates several cases from these villages which can help one gain deep insight into some aspects of the rural society in Bangladesh. The next article 'Living and Working with Villagers in Rangpur: A Few Remarks' is contributed by Willem van Schendel, a trained sociologist and a former professor of History at the Erasmus University, Netherlands. The author has conducted intensive fieldwork in a village of Rangpur district to gain a deep understanding of the roots of poverty and human inequality. He rightly mentions that many crucial questions regarding poverty and inequality could not be answered by conventional types of sociological research, and he, therefore, suggests the anthropological approach in order to understand these problems. 
In her article 'Learning from Poor Women: A Method of Village Study', Dutch scholar Jenneke Arens describes the lessons she has learnt during her stay in a Bangladesh village for about a year. The author along with her (then) husband lived in a village in Kushtia district in 1974- 1975 to learn about the power structure from the poor women and men, and to analyse exploitation from their points of view. Jenneke mentions that they have not followed the so-called 'objective' methods of research, developed by the Western scientists. These methods, she argues, are based on Western values which reflect Western 'imperialist and capitalist societies' and aim at reinforcing the capitalist system. The author, however, informs us that neither of them has studied sociology or anthropology and that is an advantage for them in the sense that they are less indoctrinated by the Western scientific theories and jargons in those fields. They are mainly guided by their own intuition, human interest and general knowledge. The author believes that to become a good researcher, it is important to learn from the people, first of all the poor, by listening carefully to them, and to analyse the data from the points of view of the poor peasants and women. 
The next chapter 'Towards a Methodology for Policy and Practice' is contributed by Mick Howes, a trained anthropologist and a former fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, UK.  The author looks at the problems of methodology from the standpoint of an expert in applied anthropology. Mick Howes has conducted his fieldwork at a Jamalpur village with the intention of assisting policy making with regard to small-scale irrigation in Bangladesh. In his article 'The Problems of Fieldwork in Rural Bangladesh: A Personal Account', Dr. Anwarullah Chowdhury (former professor of Sociology and later professor and founder-chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Dhaka University) narrates his experience of fieldwork at a village in Dhaka district. The main focus of his study is on social stratification of that village. The author highlights the challenges of fieldwork in a rural community in general and the problems of establishing rapport with it in particular.
Canadian anthropologist Therese Blanchet has conducted intensive fieldwork at a village of Jamalpur district and her article 'Becoming an 'Insider': Woman's Privileges in Village Fieldwork' is a vivid account of her fieldwork experience. Her experience contains the problems of fieldwork encountered by a researcher who happens to be a foreigner as well as a woman. Therese's article tells us that during the study of rural women in a 'purdah' dominated society like Bangladesh, a researcher can collect all useful and relevant data by becoming an 'insider'. By remaining an outsider, she argues, the researcher can hardly gain deep insights into the culture and society he or she is investigating. In his article 'Pains and Pleasures of Field Research: A Personal Account', Kamal Siddiqui, a former secretary to the Bangladesh Government, describes a very exciting as well as fascinating experience of his fieldwork. The author mentions that as a civil servant, he had both advantages and disadvantages in carrying out fieldwork in rural Bangladesh.
The chapter 'Towards a Multi-dimensional Approach of Fieldwork' is contributed by Suruj Bandyopadhyay, a former professor of Sociology at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. The author is of the opinion that the complex social realities can best be understood by a complex multi-dimensional framework of research. In the article 'Fieldwork among Tribal Tea Plantation Workers' Sharit K. Bhowmik, a former professor of Sociology at the University of Bombay, narrates his experience of fieldwork among the plantation workers of tea gardens of Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal, India. The author's active involvement in the plantation workers' movement against their exploiters adds a new dimension to anthropological fieldwork. Professor Mahmuda Islam's article 'Female Researcher in the Field: A Few Experiences' highlights the problems in conducting fieldwork among the rural women in Bangladesh. In his article 'Fieldwork among the Jotedars and Adhihars of North Bengal', Abhijit Dasgupta, professor in Sociology at Delhi University, demonstrates that underreporting, over-reporting and manipulation can be detected by anthropological fieldwork.
In the article 'My Fieldwork Experiences in A Garo Village of Bangladesh', Professor Kibriaul Khaleque describes an incident that has given him an impetus to turn his attention to the Garo social organisation and also points out the reason for his studying anthropology. In his reminiscences 'Fieldwork at Dhanishwar: A Few Experiences', S. A. Qadir, former Research Director at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, narrates both the pleasures and pains of his field level research work experience. In the article 'In the Midst of Santals: My Experience of Fieldwork', Dr. Ahsan Ali, professor of Anthropology at the University of Dhaka, attempts to provide a complete and coherent description about the Santals of the Barind Tract of Bangladesh and to document the process of changes reflecting de-Santalisation (de-tribalisation) in the Barind and the process of formation of an identity of the same in West Bengal, India.
Professor Saifur Rashid's article 'An Anthropologist's Memoir of Fieldwork: Experience of Working among the Koibortta Fishers in Kishoregonj' is mainly a narrative monologue expressing the author's thoughts and experiences of doing fieldwork in Kishoregonj. The book concludes with the chapter 'Access the World of Birth Attendants in Bangladesh: Experience from the Field' is contributed by AKM Mazharul Islam, professor of Anthropology at the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet. This chapter helps the readers to learn about the inner world of the Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) in rural Bangladesh, which a researcher can never have access to through literature-review or otherwise.
The writer is an independent researcher.
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