Digital Fieldwork: A New Site for Scholars

Header image from the Digital Fieldwork website
The Digital Fieldwork website

Many Asian Studies scholars are familiar with what we might call “traditional” fieldwork, such as on-site interviews, archival research, and participant-observation studies. In doctoral programs, it’s common for advanced students to disappear from campus for a year or more as they journey to research sites and collect materials and data to write up into a dissertation. In recent years, however, it has become more difficult to carry out international fieldwork, due to a number of factors: a global pandemic, tightened research budgets, uncompromising visa regimes, uncertain political environments, and more. Family life and concerns about how travel contributes to climate change also lead scholars to seek out research projects that can be conducted remotely.

But there’s still a tendency in the profession to treat on-site fieldwork as legitimate and remote research as a second-best substitute. A group of scholars at Indiana University (IU) and Georgetown University (GU) are fighting these outdated ideas with a new website, Digital Fieldwork. Offering first-person reflections and advice for new researchers, they hope the site will provide resources and support for those embarking on digital fieldwork projects.

To learn more about the Digital Fieldwork initiative, I interviewed Lahra Smith (Georgetown University) by email.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): Thanks so much for your willingness to share more about this new resource with #AsiaNow readers. To begin, how did you and your IU-GU colleagues get the idea for Digital Fieldwork? Does the site have its origin in the pandemic experience, or is there a longer history to your work?

Lahra Smith (LS): It does have its origins in the pandemic experience, but as you note, other scholars have been working on this much longer. Our own collaboration and the work that initiated the website came from the pandemic-related shutdowns, however, and the resulting delays and disruptions to some of our own plans for fieldwork, as well as that of graduate students in our PhD programs. We initially held a workshop at Georgetown in the summer of 2020 and then realized that there was this great work already out there by scholars who, as you note, had been unable to “get to the field” because of limitations of funding, visa restrictions, family or care obligations, health or disability, and conflict or political restrictions. In addition, within a few months of the pandemic-related shutdowns, there were folks sharing resources and hosting talks on how to make transitions to new methodologies and maximize existing resources. We wanted to create both a platform to share the news about these workshops, conferences, and talks, as well as their own projects, but also generate new reflections on the process of Digital Fieldwork. The “Reflections” page is a really important part of the site because it is where we hope the community can share experiences and insights into these transitions.

MEC: What sort of feedback have you gotten on the project so far?

LS: The feedback has been heartening. We have heard from graduate students, junior researchers, and seasoned scholars, all of whom have been thinking about what is lost and also what is gained by these changes. We know people are visiting to read these reflections, as well as to search for new reference materials and resources. We have had suggestions and new ideas from individual scholars, as well as from those that are teaching classes on Fieldwork.  

MEC: We’ve learned so much more about the possibilities opened up by platforms such as Zoom and WhatsApp in the past two years. Despite concerns about surveillance and privacy in online spaces, it seems to me that more and more researchers will be conducting at least some amount of digital fieldwork as we move forward. What are some of the approaches you’d like to see graduate programs teach their students to prepare them for this kind of work?

LS: Recently two of our team were able to share thoughts about this at a “methods roundtable” for a professional association and several graduate students were in attendance. It does seem to me that there will need to be more explicit training in these methods. Not surprisingly, all of us in the Zoom room at that conference shared experiences and opinions about the various available platforms related to safety of participants and surveillance.

But what strikes me and what our team talks about a lot is that the ethics of research has always been a critical component of graduate fieldwork preparation, or at least it should be. That has not changed, and all this means is adding a new repertoire of questions to the existing ones. We have always asked—how will I ensure the anonymity and safety of my research participants, and how is that determined by the context in which I am doing the research and the tools that I use for that (audio recording, notebooks, laptops, etc.)? Now we may be adding Zoom vs. WhatsApp vs. Signal etc., but the interplay of the practical and the ethical has always been extremely important for field researchers and will remain so in a digital context, though it is altered for sure.

MEC: How would you like to build out the Digital Fieldwork site in the future? What are some of the resources you hope to add?

LS: We have several goals. We want to build the reach of the site to researchers working in different world regions and using different types of tools and platforms, so we are always looking for contributions and resources that can showcase the range of what constitutes Digital Fieldwork. In addition, the team is eager to collate and publicize talks, workshops and trainings on all things related to Digital Fieldwork, so making sure that we are doing that is a key goal. We will also be introducing a periodic email “Update” that will point readers back to the site to share what is new on the site.

MEC: Finally, how can #AsiaNow readers get involved in Digital Fieldwork?

LS: We would welcome multiple types of involvement. #AsiaNow readers can become a contributor by posting a resource, reference, or reflection. This means any reference or resource material that you think other scholars or practitioners doing Digital Fieldwork would benefit from. We would particularly welcome original Reflections, which are 1,000-2,500 word pieces that reflect on how to carry out, manage, or address challenges in conducting digital fieldwork or offer intellectual reactions to the experience of conducting digital fieldwork. If you have altered your fieldwork in some way, during the pandemic or previously, what choices did you make and why? What trade-offs were there and how did you weigh those? What ethical questions are raised? We welcome contributions from your community!

MEC: Thank you, Lahra, and best of luck to the Digital Fieldwork team!