September 6, 2019, by lzzeb

Facilitating fieldwork: the importance of acknowledging friends, family and technology

A blog by Sarah Hall

As an economic geographer who studies the financial services sector, my field sites are financial centres within large cities. Far removed from the mountains and lakes that may seem to be quintessentially geographical field locations, my research takes place in the clusters of financial services firms found in places like Canary Wharf in London. This allows me to conduct in-depth interviews with individuals working in or commenting on the financial services sector. I then combine analysis of these conversations with relevant secondary data on issues such as tax receipts, trade flows and labour market data to understand significant changes within financial markets and their implications for finance led economic development.

Having conducted research in financial centres in the UK, Europe and China, I’m immensely grateful to the financiers who have given up their time to talk me through, what to them may seem, rather mundane changes in their everyday working lives. I’ve learnt a lot from these individuals about issues ranging from the growing importance of Chinese finance in London to the possible impacts of Brexit on the UK’s financial services sector. On first impressions, these research interviews may appear to be a relatively solitary form of fieldwork, meeting with financiers on a one to one basis for up to two hours at a time (my longest interview to date has lasted closer to three!). However, I want to reflect on the wider support networks that have allowed me to undertake this research and the implications of this for issues of equality and diversity within fieldwork. In particular, I focus on combining caring responsibilities with fieldwork but the issues that individual researchers face are diverse and extend well beyond this.

I’ve enjoyed a huge amount of privilege in the conducting of fieldwork, not least enjoying external funding to support my travel from external organisations such as the Economic and Social Research Council, the British Academy. I’ve also had financial and wider support from my colleagues in Nottingham. It is undoubtedly true that without this my fieldwork experiences would have been much reduced. However, actually completing the fieldwork whilst raising three young children has presented its own set of challenges and I can only imagine how much harder this would be if I were in a more precarious position. That said, I think it is important to make visible these challenges and also reflect on how I’ve tried to navigate them.

To do this I’m going to focus on my recent British Academy fellowship that involved interviews with Chinese financiers in London. This research project started in January 2015. I spent that month trying to secure access to Chinese banks (more details on that process itself can be found here!) but one of the most significant challenges was purely practical and centred on fitting in travel to London between nursery drop offs and collections. There is an established literature on the difficulties of securing access to interview financial elites but less discussion has been made of the personal support networks that I drew on during this field research. There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child, but this experience taught me that it takes a village of colleagues, childcarers, friends and family to facilitate fieldwork and I think it is important that recognise and acknowledge this.

Later on in the research project I added another element to that village as I sought to manage an individual field based piece of research with maternity leave. The British Academy, who funded the research, were extremely supportive in providing me with an extension that more than covered the period of maternity leave. But I still had to think about how I would maintain the research project’s momentum whilst being off work. How would I stay vaguely on top of developments in Chinese financial markets that were developing rapidly at the time? How would I stay in contact with research participants whose assistance I was likely to need as I began to write up the research. In a rather experimental move I turned to technology and rather belatedly set up a twitter account. By book marking tweets and carefully curating a small number of accounts to follow, I used this to quickly log key developments that I returned to and investigated thoroughly when I was back at work.

I had never really thought of social media as a tool that might help me combine fieldwork with childcare. Much is written about the intrusive nature of the technology and its inability to allow us to rest and recharge. These are certainly dangers and I only dipped in and out when I could, but for me, used within quite strict limits, it has continued to serve me well as a way of staying (digitally) connected with my field.

My research is simply not possible without time in the field, speaking with financiers and related professionals. I’m incredibly privileged to have the time and funding to undertake this work. However, it is important to illuminate, acknowledge and thank the range of supporting infrastructures that allow geographers to access field research in the first place – for me these include friends, family, colleagues and technology. These networks deserve greater recognition, not least to enable more geographers to combine their everyday lives with the benefits that stem from field research.

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