The magic of doing fieldwork

Recently an Indonesian colleague asked me to write a reflection on my fieldwork experiences studying politics in India and Indonesia, for an Indonesian book on ethnographic fieldwork. Here is the english version.

Doing research in the field can be tough. You spend months without friends or family, living with people who are very different from you. You might live in places that are cramped, isolated and lacking in comfort. You constantly have to be alert and sharp, making sure that you maintain good relations with the people you are studying while trying to catch and understand everything that is going on. Not infrequently fieldwork takes you to areas that are dangerous and violent, due to conflict or high crime rates. As if that is not stressful enough, the fieldwork will also feed you with a daily dose of depressing stories of oppression, deprivation or abuse. On top of all that you will feel sweaty, tired, and anxious about whether anybody will be interested in what you are doing.

Seen it that light, it is a mystery: why would anyone voluntarily spend months or even years doing fieldwork, going through all of that? Why not take the more comfortable path of more quantitively oriented researchers? These lucky bastards can analyze their datasets just by sitting behind their desk in a cool office, with a coffee-machine nearby and the knowledge that they will sleep safely in their own soft bed. If life was about being comfortable, everybody would doing quantitative research.

But life is also about something else. And there is quite a lot of that ‘something-else’ in fieldwork. To me, slogging it out in the field to – in my case – follow the shady side of politics, is a magic-filled activity. It gives me an intensity of feeling and thinking that I cannot get anywhere else. Reminiscing about my fieldwork experiences studying politics in India and Indonesia, let me try to put into words what that magic is about. As I return to the early days of my fieldwork in India, I would say that this magic of fieldwork consists of three main things: intensity, reflexivity and ‘click-moments’.

The ‘Ootla meeting’ in Gujarat

The Ootla

In march 2005 I moved to Ahmedabad, the main city of Gujarat in northwest India. I went there to study the Hindu-Muslim violence that had rampaged through the city in 2002, killing almost 2000 people. The city was new to me, and I was anxious and unsure whether I would be able to actually have meaningful conversations about such a sensitive topic. My plan was to immerse myself in the political networks that – according the reports I had read – were responsible for organizing this violence. Would I be able to connect with these people, would they let me into their lives? And would I actually want that?

I had the good fortune of finding a house in the centre of the old city of Ahmedabad, in a centuries-old neighborhood called a ‘pole’, with cramped but very sociable streets where everybody knew each other. As it turned out, the street life in that neighbourhood would become the cornerstone of my fieldwork. In these neighborhoods the houses are generally build above the street-level, to keep dust and water out. As a result most houses have an elevated stone platform next to the entrance. These are called ootlas. Since they are slightly elevated, they form convenient places to meet and to talk. People spend many hours on the ootlas, especially in the evenings. People  sometimes call these gatherings an ootla parishad, ‘ootla meeting’.

After a few weeks, my new neighbor Pankajbhai took me to one of those oolta meetings. At that moment, I was just grateful for the opportunity to meet some more neighbours. But as sat down on that stone platform, trying to follow the conversations that people were having, I realized that I had stumbled upon an invaluable source of information and insights.

Almost every evening the elder men (no women were allowed) of the neighbourhood would gather at this ootla. One of them would be dispatched to get chai (tea), as alcohol could not be drunk publicly in the dry state of Gujarat. As it turns out, all these neighbours had some roles to play in the city politics: some were party workers, others where business contractors with links to politicians and some had a history in petty crime. They loved to talk about politics. And I loved hearing them talk. As the evenings lengthened, I heard the latest gossip about who-is-supporting-who and who-paid-who. These men acquainted me with the language associated with local politics, and they provided me with very valuable reflections on how the nature of politics had changed over the years. As the fieldwork lengthened, I could also use these evening meetings to check on things I heard during the day. I asked my neighbours about stories I heard elsewhere, and asked them whether they would agree with my interpretations. As it would be odd to take notes at the ootla, I practiced my skills at memorizing. After a long night listening and sipping chai, I would rush back to my home and write down feverishly all that I could still remember from these conversations.

I remember how, sitting around these newly-found friends while enjoying my chai and the decrepit yet beautiful buildings of old Ahmedabad, I would sometimes be overcome with a strange sense of happiness. This happiness was not related to the friendliness of my neighbors or the temporary feeling of comfort caused by the warm chai. Rather, it seems to me that this happiness had something to do with the intensity of experience. As I was sitting there, I was trying to take it all in, and all at once: not just the character of these people, their gestures and their stories, but also the meaning of these stories, and how I should interpret them. And if I had any mental space left, it went into listening intently to understand the Gujarati language. It was as if I was both feeling andthinking at full throttle, with all my senses and faculties making a maximum effort to take it all in. And the strange thing was that this intensity was not tiring at all. On the contrary, it was exhilarating and energizing to the point of being addictive. This feeling of being very much alive, caused by the sense that every observation and thought, however small, matters, is certainly an ingredient of the magic of fieldwork.

And the magic does not stop there. As I repeatedly learned during my study of local politics in Central Kalimantan, fieldwork is also magical for its capacity to force you to engage in intense self-reflection.


A debt of honour

For a brief moment in 2013 Hambit Binti was one of Indonesia’s most famous politicians. This district head of Gunung Mas, a remote but resource-rich backwater in Central Kalimantan, made the headlines of all national newspapers. Yet the news was hardly flattering. Through a middle man Binti had bribed Akhil Mochtar, the chief justice of Indonesia’s constitutional court. Binti had given Mochtar at least 250 thousand US dollar to ensure a favourable ruling. The constitutional court was about decide on the contested results of Gunung Mas’ recent district head elections. With the bribe Binti wanted to ensure that he would win another term as district head. Unfortunately for Binti, Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency KPK had gotten wind of the deal. Their investigators swooped in and arrested both Mochtar and Binti. Binti was eventually sentenced to a 4 year prison term[1].

A few months after these sensational events, I went to Gunung Mas to study the elections that had led to Binti’s arrests. I had expected to encounter outrage and shame about Binti’s behaviour. Yet I found the criticism to be surprisingly muted. Many people I spoke to were actually very appreciative of Binti. They emphasized how helpful he had been. They spoke about how Binti kept a stash of money in his office for the purpose of helping out visitors. I heard glowing stories of how Binti would hand out this money to people needing an expensive surgery, help to finance a wedding, or just to start a business. Others told me how Binti had arranged a job for them at the district government. They all emphasized how approachable Binti was. He would always receive people in need of support.

I often could not conceal my amazement during such conversations. Binti’s bribes had tarnished the image of both Indonesia’s judiciary and Gunung Mas. He was known for handing out concessions to palm oil companies in exchange for lavish campaign donations – which often led to conflicts between the incoming palm oil company and village communities. He drove around in expensive cars while most of his constituents were poor. Surely such a blatantly corrupt man would not be remembered fondly?

Yet I gradually realized that I did not see Binti through the same eyes as my informants. This was driven home to me one night when I shared a beer with Toguh [name changed], an experienced local journalist. Toguh again waxed on about Binti’s generosity. But when I challenged him, he put his finger on the specific kind of morality that underpinned Binti’s local popularity. “During the election campaign he gives 200 thousand rupiah [about 15 USD] to people. If people have received money, they cannot complain afterwards [about corruption]. They have the feeling they have an obligation to the district head, a hutang budi (‘debt of honour’). If people are already paid, why should they complain?”. As the evening lengthened, it turned out that Toguh himself was feeling such a honour debt: “My luck is that I have a family relationship with Binti. So I have friend who was poor and needed a job, we could just go to him. Then the district head [Binti] talked to the department head and arranged a [low-paying] job. He did not ask for a fee, he just asked ‘work well, so that you do not put me to shame’. And when the election campaign came, my friend supported the bupati. The district head did not have to ask for this, my friend knew his position (‘tahu diri’, lit. ‘knew himself’)”.

This conversation was special to me. Not so much because of what Toguh taught me about politics in Central Kalimantan, but rather because Toguh made me think about my own convictions. Going into this research, I felt that my own attachment to rules and regulations was ‘normal’ and did not need explaining – instead, what intrigued me was why people like Toguh and Hambit Binti felt that doing favours to people could (and even should) sometimes trump these rules and regulations. After my conversation with Toguh I no longer felt so sure about this anymore. Perhaps my attachment to rules and laws is just as intriguing. If I would, like Toguh, depend on friends and family for the most important things in life, would I then still prioritize these abstract rules from an alien institution (‘the state’) over my obligations to these close friends and family members? Perhaps not. Perhaps my convictions are much weirder then Toguh’s: why would I feel an attachment to rules and regulations imposed on me by an impersonal, far-away institution like the state? Where did that come from? Would it not make more sense to care more for our personal relationships?

I went to bed that evening with my head spinning. This time my head was spinning not with thoughts about Indonesia, but rather with thoughts about the Netherlands and my own upbringing. I wondered about my own attachment to rules and regulations, and why they appeared so ‘normal’ to me. That is also the magic of fieldwork: fieldwork not only helps to understand the world around us a little bit better, we also get to understand ourselves a bit better. As we examine the convictions of our informants, we simultaneously examine our own. The daily research encounters, like my meeting with Toguh, forced me to reflect on myself and my worldview. In the process, my convictions became more fluid as I realized that my way of thinking about the world is just is a much a product of my surroundings and the place I happened to grow up in. That feels, at times, somewhat disconcerting and disorienting. I think I lost some of brash certainty I earlier felt about my own worldview. But this reflexive process also feels liberating. It seems to me that fieldwork helps to free our thinking from the constraints of our surroundings and upbringing, leaving a certain kind of ‘mental freedom’ that gives space for adopting new ideas and convictions.

Evening meeting in Lampung, Indonesia

Click moments

It was another evening (this is probably not a coincidence!) in September 2014 when I was staying over at the house of Taufik,a young bureaucrat living in North Lampung in South Sumatra. Taufik had invited a number of his friends, including a well-regarded and powerful department head of the local government whom I will call Syarif. The elections for district government were around the corner, and intense discussion ensued about the electoral chances of the candidates. I had come to Lampung to study the clientelistic character of these elections. I wanted to understand how clientelism – the practice of exchanging personal favours for electoral support – worked in practice during elections. And I wanted to know why it was effective: why would people feel obliged to change their vote after receiving a gift or some money from a candidate?

I asked such questions to Taufik’s friends. Most said that vote buying was common, and they said, with a certain air of ‘that is simply the way things are’ that vote buying was unavoidable. Handing out money during elections would not, they argued, guarantee a victory at the polls. But failing to hand out money would certainly lead to electoral defeat. It would look bad if a candidate would not hand out any money. But I could not really get my finger behind the reason for this importance of gifts. I asked Taufik’s friends why such gifts were so important – would the ideas and capacities of the candidates not matter more for voters? But somehow I felt I was asking the wrong question. Money was obviously important, they shrugged.

And then, towards the end of the meeting, a very small thing happened that gave me more insights into vote buying than the whole previous discussion. As one of Taufik’s neighbor was preparing to leave, he approached Syarif the department head. The neighbor took a note of hundred thousand rupiah out of his wallet, and stuffed it in Syarif’s hand. “In two weeks my daughter is getting married”, the neighbor said, “I would be honoured if you could come to the wedding”. With that, the neighbor left and Syarif put the bank note in his pocket.

And suddenly I felt a much fuller understanding of why gifts were so important during elections. Syarif’s banknote suggested to me that the effectiveness of vote buying during elections is related to the role of gifts in everyday life. Taufik’s neighbor gave Syarif hundred thousand rupiah with the aim of obliging him to come to the wedding. As anthropologists have been saying for a long time, gifts are strategic acts that can force the recipient to reciprocate. And, as my research assistant later remarked, “it was probably a good investment too. Because Syarif would be expected to give a much larger gift at the wedding.” In other words, vote buying builds on, and grows out of, such more everyday-life use of money and gifts to build social bonds and generate social obligations. Thanks to the small gift to Syarif – which passed by in just a few seconds – something clicked: I could suddenly understand better why vote buying was so effective during elections. Vote buying connects with widely understood and shared norms about the uses and the obligations associated with gifts. Giving gifts during elections is not just a political thing. It is an everyday social practice that politicians build on during elections. The nice thing of such ‘click-moments’ is that they shed new light on lot of other remarks and fieldwork observations that I could now understand better. As I went to bed that night in Taufik’s house, my mind was again spinning. As I pondered over the implications of that very brief, but important ‘click moment’, it felt like a lot of pieces of earlier puzzles fell into place.


More magic

I write all this with a certain sense of nostalgia. Since 2014 I have not been able to do a long bout of fieldwork. I manage a research trip to Indonesia for two to three weeks during the summer, but not much more. I have kids growing up, a hard-working wife, and a range of other obligations. In between all that the time for fieldwork is limited. Yet I still see it as the best part of my job. I enjoy the writing and teaching that I do. And yes, it is great that there are coffee machines nearby, and soft beds and all these other comforts of the city. But still nothing beats the sensations, ideas and experience I get from immersing myself in new and puzzling worlds. In the face of all these new and growing obligations that shape my working life, I will keep fighting for protecting and, hopefully, one day again expanding my time for doing fieldwork.

[1]For a highly readable investigation into these events, see

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