Fieldwork: trial and error




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.

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Some thoughts about being back in Abidjan, and on the taxi strike.

It is almost one week now that I am in Cote d’Ivoire, and my plan is to stay here for three months. The trip was exhausting – I flow through Istanbul, the plane made a stopover in Cotonou, than could not land in Abidjan because of the weather, went back to land in Accra, than waited and took off again for Abidjan… in total, I was on the move for almost 24 hours and it took me a couple of days to fully recover from the fatigue. So probably this made more intense the feeling that one has coming from Europe – to have landed to another planets. The first days were strange, they were like a journey to the past, to a period of my life that had been important to me but that I considered finished.

I think the cultural shock this time was somehow amplified by the fact of coming from Hamburg. I think that Germany is more culturally distant from West Africa than Italy, and in a sense I think that being Italian has helped me to adjust to West Africa in the past. I had to adapt again to a different way to circulate in the city (from the S bahn to the shared taxis, or woro-woro…), a different way to go shopping for food (from Penny Markt, to the lady selling avocados at the street corner), a different way to pay (only cash is accepted). I had to realize again what it means 30 C with high humidity, and why is better to get up early in the morning in order to take advantage of the fresher hours.

But I think that, after one week, my adaptation process is almost complete. I am now feeling a sense of the purpose, understanding why I am here, feeling again that passion about this country that motivated me while I was writing my PhD thesis. It is strange that, through the media and the internet, we have apparently access to all sort of information, including about the most distance places. I think that it is this that gives to some researchers the illusion that all data is alreay there, that they do not need to travel and live in other countries in order to be able to say something about those countries. Yet, in one week in Cote d’Ivoire I think I have understood more things than in months spent reading international and local media and reports about Cote d’Ivoire on the internet.

Apart from the high politics issues I have to deal with in my work, the main big event here in the Cocody neighbourhood this week has been the strike of the woro woro (the shared taxis), which has affected all the population (excluded of course the rich, who have their own cars). These yellow (every neighbourhood has its specific colour) Toyota corolla are in a sense part of the Cocody landscape, so their disappearance for three days has been kind of strange. But the reason why I mention the Cocody strike is because this small local issue is a good exemple of how it can be difficult to establish the cause of a social event and its meaning.

Version 1: The mairie (Cocody administration) has said to the woro woro that they cannot park in certain places, which were previously some of their “stations”. So, they strike because they are angry against the mairie. (Source: a street vendor that was forced in the past to quit his stand on the main road, and who by consequence has little sympathy for the mairie).

Version 2: The woro woro drivers are on strike because they protest against people (variably indicated as “des jeunes” – young people – or “les syndicats” – the unions) who are demanding them money, in fact racketering them. (Source: a driver of “taxi compteur” – normal taxi – and a woro woro driver of another neighbourhood).

Version 3: The woro woro drivers had no intention to strike. They were forced to stop working by the “syndicats” that are racketering them, under threath to smash their cars. It is the “syndicats”, who have become in the course of the years a real mafia, who are angry with the mairie, because the mairie is trying to prevent them from asking money from the woro woro drivers. (Source: a woro woro driver from Cocody himself)

So, in the first version the mairie is victimizing the woro woro, while in the third version it is trying to protect them from racketering. Morale: when trying to interpret a social phenomenon, never stop to the first explanation, even if it seems plausible, but always try to dig deeper.


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