My first visit to Côte d’Ivoire took place in the autumn 2009. I was desperately looking for a way out from a personal and professional end of University crisis and for a topic for my PhD. When I met an Italian UN officer working in Cote d’Ivoire at a summer school I basically auto-invited myself in Abidjan. Through personal connections I managed to get in touch with the Africa reporter of the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto and I committed to write a reportage about the Ivorian peace process. I travelled with one of my best friends and stayed fifteen days.
We went around in Abidjan using the reportage for Il Manifesto as an excuse in order to get access to diplomats and politicians. We travelled by bus to Yamoussoukro, where we went around as tourists, and to Bouaké, where we tried in vain to meet the famous rebel warlord Cherif Ousmane, and in fact just spent half a hour waiting in vain for him in his office.
I came back to Cote d’Ivoire the summer afterward. I was now officially a PhD student doing field research and I was a bit more prepared: I had read a lot and I had previously been to Paris and gathered with the help of French journalists and diplomats a list of contacts of people that I wanted to meet. Still, I remember my first one and half month of fieldwork as full of improvisation, disorganization and naiveté. I managed to get a professor of the University of Cocody that I had barely met before to pick me up in the middle of the night at the airport. I did not know where I was going to stay, so the professor took me around the day after in order to look for a cheap accommodation in one of the student residences around the University. I settled at the Maison d’Accueil Protestant, in front of the Cocody public hospital. It was a quite improbable place, not only because of the approximate cleanliness and the wore out bed sheets, but also because on Sunday it got populated by a series of pasteurs (preachers) of dubious credentials that spent most of the afternoon shouting, probably trying to chase the devil out of some bewitched believer (I was between two fires, as the holy day started at 7:00 with the Mass chorus at the neighbouring Catholic Church. This is why I was always trying to find some alternative place to my room to spend Sunday).
The University of Florence, to which I was officially affiliated, was probably one of the worst possible places in order to learn how to do field research. For most academics there, the only sources to be used in proper research were Western diplomatic sources. So, I was basically trying to teach myself how to do research. My “method”, if there was one, consisted basically in trying to meet everyone that was even remotely involved in the Ivorian peace process and collect as many documents, books and newspaper articles related to the Ivorian crisis I could find.
There are some moments when I ask myself, what does it mean to be doing field research today, when I am supposed to be an “experienced” researcher, I have got my PhD, done fieldwork in four other countries, collaborated in two large projects and published several peer reviewed articles? Am I really more organized and mature? Do I have a clear idea of what I am looking for and a clear way to how to get there – in other words, a clear “method”? Or are improvisation and confusion inevitable aspects of field research itself?
My feeling is that most of the rules of academic work are about pretending that we are method oriented and organized. We write a research project with our questions and hypothesis, a fieldwork schedule, we are supposed to have our questionnaires and interview guides ready, and so on.
But fieldwork in reality is very much about dealing with the unforeseen. We start with an idea in mind, and than we realize that what we wanted to do does not make much sense, but there is something else we had not thought about that is really interesting. Most pre-prepared questionnaires and interview guides are only of limit usage, because of the sheer diversity of people that a field researcher meets. Ideally, one should prepare a lot of different questionnaires, which would be extremely time consuming. Moreover, in order to prepare the “right” questions, a researcher should be properly informed of the background of the person that he will meet. Google can help to discover more, but is no magic stick.
To all this, I should add the importance of informal conversations and observation. Not only many people prefer to meet researchers in an informal setting, but sometimes a chat with a taxi driver can be more illuminating than an interview with a Minister.
Then, a lot of practical issues end up inevitably orienting our fieldwork. We choose to travel to one city instead of another city because we have contacts there, and without local contacts it is impossible to access a lot of interesting information. Unexpected security issues, an accident such as catching a disease and the availability of accommodation or the needs of other people force us to modify continously our planning.
It is because field research is inherently chaotic that it is looked with suspicious by the worshippers of “scientism”. Yet, I would argue that it is precisely its apparent “chaos” that allows for true discovery. After all, if everything would proceed perfectly smoothly, from formulating our hypothesis to testing them positively, it would be a sign that in reality there was not much to discover – not much to research about.