Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Field notes 2010: back to fieldwork after five years

I slept like a log, showered, and had a traditional Polish breakfast with the research team: cucumber, cheese, ham and bread with tea (I brought my own gluten free bread with me). Polish spreadable cheese is really delightful (smietankowy is my favorite) – it is mild and smooth, and pairs nicely with cucumber. Cucumber is one of the most common vegetables here, the others being cabbage, potatoes and tomatoes. These are all favorites of mine, so no complaints here.

I haven’t done fieldwork in several years and I’ve missed it. Plus, I want to give Laura a chance to show me what a great job she’s been doing. One person I spoke with was surprised I was going, but what else am I going to do at the field site? It’s important to understand the data we analyze in context, and that means getting out of the lab, interacting with your subjects, showing your immense appreciation, and honing your skills and validating your surveys. I don’t want to just hire others to do this work, because building a relationship with the community is what will insure the success of future projects. Besides, it’s a beautiful location and a lot of fun.

So anyway, we pack up the gear needed for blood spots and saliva, for anthropometry, for surveys, and gifts of candy, tea, coffee and children’s books, and head out.

Laura and Gosia, one of Grazyna’s fine undergrad assistants, walk until they find where they left off the day before. Gosia does all the talking when we get to the doors of potential subjects because Laura’s and my Polish aren’t up to snuff for complicated interactions.

We fall into a nice rhythm. Several no’s and a yes, more no’s and another yes. Men are more likely to turn us down than women, and the reason is always that they have no time. We see one man having a beer (in the morning) with his family on the back porch as we pass his house only minutes after he declined to participate in our project due to how busy he was.

But we can’t expect all, or even most, of the folks in this village to invite in city (and international!) strangers simply because we are doing a study. In the US, we regularly turn down surveyors who visit our homes or call us without feeling a shred of guilt… and yet we are surprised when Polish people do the same. Plenty will say no, and I’m sure there is some selection taking place that impacts the distribution of the data from the fact that certain people are more likely to say yes (mothers at home with young children, for instance). If we got 100% participation, I would worry that we were unknowingly coercing our subjects. So to me, the no’s are actually a sign we are doing things right.

On my last visit we endlessly role-played first conversations with potential subjects, because even though a mix of yes’s and no’s are good, it would certainly be nice to maximize our chances of a yes. We found the following to be the most helpful: announcing our affiliation with Jagiellonian University, explaining the information we would like to gather and how it would be interesting to them, but would also further knowledge and contribute to science, being clear it was not compulsory, and offering a gift. The first is important because it lends us some sort of authority and safety; we aren’t random people off the street. The second, both the parts about what the subject well gain as well as how they will contribute to something bigger than them, is really crucial. I think people choose to be involved in studies if they seem personally interesting, and/or if they think their contribution will make a difference. If we can articulate both of those things well we catch the interest of a lot of people. The third, where it is not compulsory, relaxes people who have had a lot of compulsory activity foisted upon them. And offering a gift shows you respect their time and effort, that you understand what you are asking is a bit of a presumption, and in the case of this field site, that you know the culture well enough to know what they will appreciate. If we could get all of those points in the first ninety seconds and the person still didn’t budge, it just wasn’t meant to be, so why feel bad?

Once we found a willing family, Gosia would conduct the interviews, Laura would take the measurements, and I would at turns record Laura’s measurements and talk to the children (my Polish is only barely good enough to interact with kids these days!). Laura has learned a lot of Polish in only a few short weeks, and was able to convey her intentions to subjects quite well. It was fun for me to be the follower, to not be in charge and instead marvel at two young women leading well. Plus, I like playing with kids.

After a quick stop at the local sklep (that’s shop) for ingredients, we headed home so I could cook dinner. I wanted a way to thank the wonderful field workers and the great field manager Andrzej. With the help of sous chef Laura, I made carrot soup, yogurt-cucumber salad, and white bean, leek and kasia (buckwheat) salad. It was sort of nouveaux-Polish-American. I thought it pretty tasty.

Then field assistants Gosia, Monika and ever-amazing manager Andrzej packed up to head to Krakow and civilization. The rest of us stayed and worked. Night time is hard, because even though a part of me feels like I never left Poland, another one remembers that I am now a wife, a mother, a tenure-track professor, and this short stint in the field working, traveling and visiting beloved friends is keeping me away from other loves, and other duties.

I sleep fitfully, the heat and humidity keeping me uncomfortable, and the wild wind from thunderstorms making the doors rattle distressingly in their jambs for much of the night.


  1. Evening,
    I am Caroline Kisielinski and I am in ANTH 143 this semester. I was just reading through your blog and all of the information you have sent us and I noticed I am very familiar with the area you were doing field work in. My mom was born in Brzesko, which is a bit north, but her entire family is spread throughout the region. Even though I was born in Chicago, I used to visit Poland every year and I ended up spending my entire summer down south with my polish cousins. I just thought it was kind of cool that you might have met someone from my family, and I am taking your class suddenly.


  2. Hi Caroline, I'm so glad you commented! That's cool that your family is from the area. I really like it down there. There were a few restaurants I liked in Limanowa, and then the Baranowka which I think is in Chyszowki. The mountains are also very beautiful. We will have to reminisce together some time about your summers there -- that sounds like a nice childhood!