Advice on Fieldwork in New York City
Initially my project was about Afro-Caribbean domestics. Unfortunately I did not get funding and the summer courses I was scheduled to teach were canceled at the last minute. I was left with a choice: do I scrap the project or do I work with what I have? I sought advice from a former mentor and anthropologist, and as I cried in his office he told me to get over it and choose a project that I could finish without funding. He also said that the joy of fieldwork was being out in the open, meeting people, interacting with people and conducting interviews. My feelings were hurt but it was the best advice I’ve ever received pertaining to fieldwork.
I’ve spoken to many students who have yet to begin their fieldwork due to funding. These are brilliant scholars just writing proposal after proposal and getting rejection after rejection as they try to obtain funding. I recommend two things: 1) Choose another project that’s doable. 2) Take out a loan. If your proposal is rejected for two consecutive funding cycles, don’t sit in another proposal writing class wondering what’s wrong with you. Change your project, budget your funds wisely and keep it moving. If you just started your program and currently have funding, start saving now. When I taught, I had money from each paycheck direct deposited to a separate account, and when I had no job and no funding, I used that money for carfare or for observations.
Collecting Data in the City
At one point during fieldwork I had to wear white for spiritual and religious reasons and dealt with stereotypes of being an obeah worker (someone who works in black magic/sorcery in the Caribbean). Data collection on domestics was also only feasible during warm months. Wearing white forced me to expand my data set to include home health aides, certified nurse’s aides, retail and food service workers. I now have a dynamic project, so be okay with expanding your participant criteria.
Let your feet be your friend. I often walked to and from church on Wednesdays after work and school, taking a zigzag route from Midtown to Hell’s Kitchen. By the time I walked back across town, office cleaners had congregated outside buildings for breaks, and while I did not interview them, I would sometimes sit near them and listen to conversations or just observe them. This made me realize that immigrant women in the service industry are always working, and that one can have participants for days. I visited three different churches in the Bronx and was able to solicit participants by volunteering at events (bake sales, banquets, harvest suppers) and spending time in the kitchen cleaning up.
During the fall semester when I taught two classes, I took breaks between classes and walked to parks in the area surrounding the colleges. I would also get off a train stop earlier before classes to walk from 86th Street to Hunter at 68th Street to observe nannies dropping off kids, walking with their charges in baby carriages during early morning strolls, or running errands. After my office hours I would take a stroll without my bags, which marked me as a professional working woman, and walked up to eateries in the 70s to observe nannies sitting with their charges.
Try to optimize your time but also the spaces you’re in. For example, I met one woman on the train traveling from The Bronx to work in Manhattan. I took her number and had a fantastic interview. Bring sandwiches and water, to cut down on costs, and remember that you can focus on the spaces that people close to your participants visit. Before I had to stop cutting my hair, I went to 3 different barber shops to get my hair cut. At one point, I realized that I was going to places that Caribbean women frequent and places that their partners also patronize or hang out in too. I was able to collect ethnographic material on Caribbean masculinity, attitudes about class, race and gender. This data has added more depth and breadth to my dissertation.
Finally, take advantage of press conferences. I knew that my advisor wanted me to address unions, so I went to a press conference on homecare workers and was able to conduct eight interviews in two weeks based on that one event. I interviewed the vice president of one union and the political director of another. When I had no money for carfare, I began searching blogs and websites, called training programs for domestics and conducted phone interviews with employment agencies for service workers.
Being an Afro-Caribbean Feminist
I’d like to end on being a feminist. I recognized early on in my fieldwork that the vast majority of Afro-Caribbean and Caribbean women don’t identify themselves as feminists. My questions about feminism were often met with flat denials or silence because many of my participants identified feminism with white women burning bras in the 1960s, and as hard-working Afro-Caribbean women many thought who would want to burn perfectly good undergarments? Feminism for these women was grounded in the ways they interacted with their partners or what they taught their daughters and nieces, not some stereotypical image from the past that spoke to a privilege that Black women never enjoyed. I had to be okay with these women rejecting “feminism as they saw it” and accept that their articulations are still valid, complex and nuanced without me trying to fit them into a particular mold.
The great thing about conducting fieldwork on a dime is that it forces you to be creative and take a look at the everyday ordinariness of people’s lives, to examining the spaces/places they live and the people they share their lives with, and to find value in those things.
Christine A Pinnock is a PhD candidate at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She will be defending her dissertation, A Means to an End: Articulations of Diasporic Blackness, Class, and Survival Among Female Afro-Caribbean Service Workers in New York City in the spring of 2016.
Diana Burnett and Tiffany Cain are contributing editors for the ABA’s AN column.