Fieldwork interviews, children and other impossibilities (Miranda Francis)

John Tenniel, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
In Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice, in her youth, she could believe ‘as many as six impossible things before breakfast’.

As a parent, PhD student and worker, I’m sure that I am not alone in sometimes feeling as though I have achieved many more than six impossible things before breakfast!

Research is difficult and fitting fieldwork into a busy life is particularly challenging as it requires conforming to external timetables.

My fieldwork involves long and often emotional interviews with women in their homes. It all takes time: setting up the interviews, finding my way to unknown places, clearing a whole day in my diary and my mind for an interview. On interview days, when I eventually get the children to school and childcare, I relate more to Alice than the White Queen: ‘I knew who I was this morning, but I've changed a few times since then’.

Yet, I have learnt that parenting and fieldwork can coexist - most days.

So, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, here are six things that have made my PhD fieldwork a little less impossible:

1.  ‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely.

Starting anything to do with a PhD seems to be difficult. It's easy to fall into the trap of delaying fieldwork. There is always one more journal article to read before you will be completely prepared to begin. I didn't feel at all ready for my first interview but, in hindsight, I'm glad that I threw myself in the deep end.

As soon as I received ethics clearance, I organised some friendly ‘guinea pigs’ as my first interviewees. I quickly discovered that a real interview is quite different from a trial in your living room. It is only in the field that you learn how things work for you.

So, my advice is to just begin.

2. 'Keep your temper', said the Caterpillar.

Planning interviews takes much longer than I imagined and requires patience.

I have discovered that retired women are not sitting around knitting socks waiting for a researcher to interview them. People have their own lives and, as the researcher, we are making demands on their time. Co-ordinating timetables, posting information and testing recording equipment takes time. It takes me around a week to prepare for one interview. Appointments also change. My ‘recording bag’ is always packed with several copies of consent forms, audio-recorder, extension cord, batteries, laptop, USB, notebook, two pens, tissues and a bottle of water.

3. ‘—but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?’

Running late is not a way to begin anything. I have learnt to allow for my poor sense of direction and aim to arrive an hour early. I use this time to prepare. If there is no cafe nearby, I park in a side street and take the opportunity to calm myself, have a drink, check over my notes and still be on time.

Most importantly, I record my pre-interview notes: my emotions and expectations of the interview, the weather, what was on the radio and current events. One of my initial interviews was the morning after the terrorist attacks in Paris. I recorded this in my diary and it helped make sense of a reference when re-listening to the interview many months later.

4. 'The time has come,' the walrus said, 'to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships - and sealing wax - of cabbages and kings'

Once the recording equipment is plugged in, I try to be in the moment.

This is the one time in my life that I practice mindfulness. I chase away thoughts of washing, dinner, or the school lunch left on the kitchen bench.

The "record" button is my signal to concentrate on the interview.

5. ‘It's ridiculous to leave all the conversation to the pudding!’

After my first few interviews, I rushed back to pick up children and straight into the madness of dinner and bedtime routines. By the time I got to writing up my interview reflections, several hours had passed. This was a mistake.

In a few hours things can be forgotten: a particular smile, hand gesture or eye movement. All add depth and texture to an interview. I now factor in time immediately after the interview to write up my notes. This can be anywhere but I believe this time is crucial. I would prefer to cut the interview short than miss it. I have found it helps to give myself verbal reminders in the interview – ‘I see you are drawing that with your hands.’

6. ‘Consider what a great girl you are. Consider what a long way you’ve come to-day. Consider what o’clock it is. Consider anything, only don’t cry!’

Sometimes, interviews don’t work: we push the wrong button, the SD card fills up, a truck roars passed at a crucial moment, or we miss a cue. Even experienced interviewers make mistakes – or so I am told. An interview is a complex dance between two people and is intrinsically unpredictable. I am learning to enjoy those moments when everything comes together, and to celebrate them with my family.

Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Miranda Francis is a history PhD candidate at La Trobe University's School of Humanities and Social Sciences. 

She is a recipient of a scholarship funded by the Transition to Contemporary Parenthood research program at La Trobe University's Judith Lumley Centre.

Her research is an oral history of parenting in suburban Melbourne over the second part of the twentieth century. 

It involves life history style interviews with women over sixty focusing on their memories of parenting.


Unknown said…
Great piece Miranda, really useful!
Gillian said…
As a fellow PhD student I found this piece encouraging and so very practical; thank you for sharing your wisdom.