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Is Geography Fieldwork Outdated?

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford


Fieldwork has been widely defined by the geographic discipline as “a supervised learning involving first-hand experience”, that usually takes place “away from the classroom”. Amongst universities, fieldwork is often regarded as an ‘initiation ritual’ that lends students credibility, as well as providing unique experiences to link theory with the real world. Fieldwork however has a problematic history within Geography, due to masculinist Western discourses that problematically reinforce neo-colonial imaginations of intrepid male explorers within a ‘terra nullius’ – that is, supposedly empty land which is often inhabited by indigenous peoples. Furthermore, reconceptualisations of what the ‘field’ actually is are troubling these traditional notions to introduce a greater fluidity between the boundaries that make up the so-called field. Here, I will address some of the arguments that debate the necessity for a discrete and separate field.

Imaginations of dynamic and exciting fieldwork remain prominent within geography, yet such ideas are legacies of 18th century Enlightenment ‘explorers’ such as South American explorer Alexander von Humboldt and Antarctic pioneer Captain Robert Scott. Masculinist and European attitudes that celebrated such figures as brave and daring serve to entrench hierarchical discourses that reinforce male-female binaries. They also work to present foreign lands and peoples as strange, exotic and ‘undiscovered’ until witnessed by a white man. Despite declaring himself to be against the brutal Spanish colonialist regimes forced upon native communities in South America, Humboldt’s description of wondrous distant jungles and foreign civilisations helped conceptualise the ‘field’ as a place of difference and exoticism, trapped in time and waiting for the white explorer. Arguments against the glorification of fieldwork therefore often rest in attempts to disrupt the legacies of these masculinist and colonialist traditions.

However, these histories of the field and fieldwork can be used in productive ways. Fieldwork is being increasingly reimagined as a valuable tool to destabilise such hierarchical binaries of Self and Other by drawing attention to the fieldworker as an attentive, self-aware and emotional body. Instead of reinforcing the myth of an objective and detached researcher, if we celebrate who we are and who we become as we interact with the world around us, fieldworkers end up opening up a productive ‘space of betweenness’. This not only flattens the dichotomy associated with a traditional researcher-researched relationship, but troubles the idea of the field as a discrete and isolated space.

For example, the increasingly globalised world in which we all live in makes us all products of the simultaneously local, national, and global nature of contemporary society that we perform research in. The idea of fieldwork being redundant therefore is paradoxical to the realities of contemporary research and academia, whereby the researcher and what they research is a product of the settings they find themselves in. Through recognising this, fieldwork becomes reclaimed from problematic origins to a sensitive tool of subjectivity.

On a more practical tangent, the independent learning, problem-solving, and team-building operations that are highly valued within and beyond the geographic discipline are considered aspects of fieldwork that can be reinforced to facilitate the interpersonal skills of the researcher. They also provide a catalyst for creative and spontaneous opportunities to ‘connect theory with real experience’. Whilst it is important to recognise the legacies affecting traditional understandings of fieldwork, rejecting fieldwork for these reasons would lose sense of the impacts active learning has on the researcher themselves. However, it remains vital that such fieldwork is conducted with careful attention to ethical and reflexive procedures towards research participants and the settings or communities researchers may find themselves located in.

Fieldwork has enjoyed a glorified position as being central to geography due to its associations with daring exploration and discovery. It is important to destabilise such Eurocentric and masculinist attitudes, not for the purposes of eradicating the notion of fieldwork, but to reimagine it as a productive enterprise for both geographers and non-geographers. Paying attention to the increasingly porous boundaries of what constitutes the field and fieldworker is therefore vital to open oneself up to learning about the worlds we exist in.

Further reading:

  1. Anderson, K. (2000) Thinking ‘positionality’: dialogue across multicultural, indigenous, and settler spaces, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 90(2), pp. 381–391.

  2. Hope, M., 2009. The importance of direct experience: A philosophical defence of fieldwork in human geography. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2), pp.169-182.

  3. Nairn, K. (1999) Embodied fieldwork, Journal of Geography, 98, pp. 272–282

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