Flipping the Field

Who’s asking the questions here?

Notes from The Field, a series by the Culture & Agriculture section of AAA.

Drawing on the experiences and expertise of our members, Culture & Agriculture introduces its “Notes from the Field” series. It is intended as a space for creative, thoughtful reflections on the process of fieldwork that, while not always included in “traditional” peer-reviewed publications, are nonetheless important, unsettling, and compelling for deeper understandings of people and land. Topics include: the non-visual sensorium of fieldwork (i.e., the sounds, smells, and tastes of research); creative, field-site-specific research methods; ethical dilemmas; the joys of fieldwork; and ethnography as a unique mode of knowledge production.

In this post, Andrea Rissing explores the ethnographically generative practice of “flipping the field” that lets interview participants ask their own research questions.

“I just really think you should write about slavery” was not, in retrospect, a sentence I anticipated hearing over tea in a Midwestern farm kitchen. But Sarah was adamant. “If your dissertation is about American agriculture, the word slavery has to appear at least once.”

Back in 2014, I was preparing to return to Iowa for two months of pilot research and honing the questions I would ultimately pursue for my doctoral fieldwork. Focusing on beginning farmers in Iowa’s alternative agriculture, I already knew I was interested in how this group used informal economic strategies to support their farm businesses and in the roles of inter-generational relationships on farms. I had more nebulous questions, too, about what values led people to start small vegetable farms in the middle of the Corn Belt, and how their beliefs about the environment might influence their farming practices. But I was also consciously trying not to narrow down my project too quickly; I wanted to leave space for farmers to suggest questions they thought were important.

The author working on a CSA farm in Eastern Iowa. Andrea Rissing

During my pilot study, I visited about a dozen farms across Iowa several times. These visits almost always entailed volunteering with the farm crew—using a hoe to weed just-emerged carrots, milking goats, packing up and delivering community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, harvesting big kale bouquets—and I learned quickly that monotonous, physical labor outdoors often sparks interesting conversations. Quite reasonably, all these farmers were curious to hear what, exactly, I was trying to understand by following them around all day. I would explain my still-nascent project themes and the general idea of participant observation, then turn the question back to them. “What questions would you ask?” “What issues do you think are the most important in Iowa agriculture right now?” “If you could read any book about beginning farmers, what would it be about?” Not that many farmers were familiar with ethnography, but once I explained I was interested in how Iowa’s different cultures of agriculture played out in people’s lives and influenced livelihood opportunities, people would light up.

I’ll admit these questions started out as purely instrumental—I genuinely hoped these conversations would help me cement the focus of my dissertation. In fact, this partially happened. One particularly hot afternoon I was helping a farmer in his second year pull giant ragweed out of a field he was prepping for fall greens, and we were talking generally about the array of challenges that face people starting farms. I mused that a problem with my current project design was that I would never be able to figure out truly insurmountable challenges by talking with people who were still farming. To accomplish that, I reasoned, I would need to talk with former farmers, people who had decided to quit. The farmer stopped in his tracks and said that would be something he’d love to read. Deciding to quit farming is still so taboo that even though he knew a couple of folks who had made that decision, he never really got the full story or felt comfortable asking. He wondered if their stories might help him avoid some pitfalls. Inspired by his enthusiasm, I decided to make understanding what leads some new farmers to quit one of my primary questions. This ended up being a fascinating research component (and it remains the part that farmers themselves seem to find most interesting). I also realized at the end of summer that asking people about the questions they want answered was a useful conversation starter regardless of whether it resulted in a project objective. People’s answers to this particular question gave me more insights into their backgrounds, personalities, and values than I could have anticipated, or, sometimes, ever accessed through more direct questioning.

People’s answers to this particular question gave me more insights into their backgrounds, personalities, and values than I could have anticipated, or, sometimes, ever accessed through more direct questioning.

For example, one of the first trends I noticed when reviewing my field notes was when the issue of gender came up directly and when it didn’t. Overall, the farmers I worked with didn’t talk about gender much, with one big exception. A handful of farmers I knew were young women returning to their families’ conventional grain farms. When I asked them what sort of project they’d be interested in reading about, they were much more likely than other women to invoke gender. First generation women farmers might casually mention that they felt beyond the need for targeted programming based on their gender. But the women who were in the process of becoming their fathers’ business partners thought gendered relations in agriculture was the issue to study. Similarly, it was beginning farmers with young children—usually, but not exclusively, women—who wanted a study on how parenting on farms fits into the national conversation about motherhood and the workplace, about agricultural versions of leaning in and having it all.

Other times, farmers used the opportunity to weigh in on my research to show a side of themselves I wouldn’t have otherwise thought to ask about. After hearing me explain that I was particularly interested in young people farming outside the norm in Iowa, one small grain and livestock farmer interrupted me excitedly to say, “Yeah! We’re the other! Are you using Edward Said?” It turns out he had a social science graduate degree from his previous life and had been pondering this exact topic. Another small-scale farmer, who was struggling with feeling out of step with her extended family’s focus on commodity grain production, said she would be interested in learning about the diverse motivations and life paths that lead young people from different backgrounds to start farming. Of course, I also heard project suggestions that were beyond my research abilities or interests. Several farmers suggested consumer-focused studies that would elucidate what drove people to start shopping at farmers’ markets. Others were mostly curious about agronomic questions.

People know what is important in their own lives, and creating space for them to flip the interview made for more interesting, dynamic research.

Some farmers also used these conversational spaces to call attention to questions of food justice. Sarah, with whose quote I began this piece, wanted to make sure that my dissertation didn’t shy away from the role of slave labor in American agriculture. Other farmers drew parallels between their small plots and agriculture in developing countries. They expressed feeling solidarity with smallholders around the world, recognized the international markets for most of Iowa’s products, and wondered how I might theorize these similar-but-different nodes in the global food system.

All the farmers with whom I work have different life histories and different priorities for their businesses. Asking them what they thought I should be studying during my pilot study proved to be a surprisingly useful method, not only to solicit meaningful research questions, but also to get to know them beyond the research guide. Even after my project objectives were settled, I continued these open-ended conversations about what an ethnographic inquiry might be able to illuminate about a livelihood more often studied through online surveys and soil samples during my full fieldwork. I always found that farmers had insightful opinions on what questions merited investigation. People know what is important in their own lives, and creating space for them to flip the interview made for more interesting, dynamic research.

Andrea Rissing ([email protected]) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Emory University.

Cite as: Rissing, Andrea. 2017. “Flipping the Field.” Anthropology News website, December 18, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.720

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