There is no easy end to fieldwork. Our job as anthropologists is to turn a slice of normal life into a story, and stories generally require beginnings, middles, and ends. When you're in the field, you don't know what the ending will be, because those only come later - through analysis and writing.
It can be tempting to stay on and collect data indefinitely, convinced that you just need 'a little more.' You keep hoping to stumble on that eureka moment that will make it all clear. But that's not what fieldwork is about. Having just come back from the field, here are three tips to help you finish up on time and feeling good. They are:
- Buy your return ticket now.
- Move on in your methods.
- Turn your to-do list into a wish list.
1. Buy your return ticket - Now.
Give yourself a hard deadline and buy your ticket home. Having an end date will help you stay active. Ideally, you have a reason to come home that is also time sensitive and beyond your control to change. Maybe it's a class you're teaching, restrictions on your funding, or family responsibilities. Something you can't miss - and don't want to miss - that you have to finish up and come home for.
My own hard deadline came when one of my best friends decided to get married. When she first told me the date, I panicked at the thought of losing a few weeks at the end of my fieldwork. Booking my return flight home lit a fire under my ass to go and do things I'd been putting off.
Book your return ticket as soon as possible.
2. Move on in your methods.
Embrace change and learn to improvise. Fieldwork requires different methods at different times, and it's important to move on when it's time to move on. When things start getting repetitive, it's probably time.
After months of participant observation, I wasn't learning much that was new. It was comfortable and familiar, but I needed more time to carry out interviews. After a few frustrated weeks, I realized I had to let go of participant observation and give myself time to do the other work I'd planned to do. I still dropped into the office once a week to catch up, but I was free to finish the other things I wanted to do.
Instead of piling methods on top of each other, trying to schedule interviews around your participant observation schedule, just move on. Give each method the time and attention it deserves.
3. Remember to enjoy yourself.
Focus on enjoying your last few weeks or months in the field. Remembering fieldwork with fondness will only help in the transition to analysis and writing up. On the other hand, if you return from the field a nervous wreck, it's not going to be easy to dive back into your data.
I noticed my anxiety levels rising about two months before my scheduled flight home. Stressing out about the best use of my time was only hurting my productivity. I took a week off to clear my head and decided that I was done. Whatever I got from there on out would be icing on the cake. Lo and behold, I was more relaxed and present in the work that I did accomplish, and it was easier to connect with people. The quality of my data improved.
You're just not going to get good material if you're not in a good head space, so trust that you already have enough and enjoy the remainder of your time.
Fieldwork is a marathon, not a sprint. So pace yourself. Set an end date, move through your methods one at a time, and choose enjoyment over stress. Focus on quality over quantity and you'll come back with material you can trust is good, excited to write up.