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Field notes from Colombia: The solitude of research

I cherish the solitude of field research.

I have come to love the long silences of bus rides and solitary meals alike, even though I realize that to the Colombians who surround me, the sight of a girl choosing to eat her ajiaco alone is a peculiar one — so peculiar, in fact, that seven of them (!) decided to join me after pointing and whispering for a few minutes last week. I cherish the spontaneity of how interactions form when you are completely alone, when you can say ‘yes’ to the prospect of any conversation because you are not shielded by another human, a book, or the appearance of busy-ness.

And yet, field research can also be lonely.

The processes I am directing this summer remain fascinating to me. I get unreasonably excited about designing qualitative research, spending hours devising effective and sensitive interview questions, and slowly watching patterns emerge from the stories. From ‘the data’, as they say — as I should say, but stories are more than data to me. I enjoy asking the questions and letting the responses guide me to more inquiry. However, there is one fundamental difference between my current field research and the gender-sensitive conflict management field work I have done in the past: Even though the processes of interviewing and identifying needs and motifs are similar in field research and field work, they serve different purposes. After nearly a half-decade of service-based field work, I am struggling with ‘just’ asking the questions without being able to offer a service in return, without the promise that I will come back to the individual who shared her story with some ideas for action.

Rainer Maria Rilke would tell me to “be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.” The humanitarian practitioner and storyteller in me knows that not every story is shared in the hope for action, not every narrative is a problem to be solved. The academic side of my brain would further suggest that research can, indeed, be a form of service in itself. We need the questions, we even need the lag between the questions and the answers, in order to know better. Learning how to know better is exactly that: a learned skill, which requires as much patience as learning another language or a musical instrument. I am a rookie at this side of ‘the field’ and, given how much I love beginner’s mind, this is a lucky place to be. But, for now, it also feels a bit more detached than I am used to. It feels clinical to ask deeply personal questions in a more removed way that is consistent with a pre-agreed, pre-approved questionnaire. It feels incomplete to say thank you at the end, with a notebook full of notes but no capacity to respond to pain that was aired or authority to take action.

Distance and emotional removal is not a lesson I wanted to learn. Fittingly — or ironically — it is nearly impossible to learn it in a Colombia that touches and hugs and stares and kisses hello on the cheek unfailingly every time. And this is where the field research vacillates from solitude to loneliness. Between the stringent confidentiality rules and the geographical distance between me and those with whom I love to discuss these topics in person, I find myself with a lot of silences. When the subject of one’s research is as heart-wrenching as my research interests tend to be, darkness often fills the silences. I find myself craving companionship and guidance in equal measures, reassurance that I am ticking the boxes without doing any harm and that this process will feel more natural over time.

Ten days into this stay in Colombia, most photographs I have taken feature clouds so puffy they look fake and colors so vivid they look digitally saturated. I assure you, they are not. I also assure you that a truly authentic image of my research so far would couple these photographs with a depiction of solitary uncertainty and the discomfort of learning a new way of asking the questions.

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