Book Review

in Anthropology in Action
Disasters in Field Research: Preparing for and Coping with Unexpected Events

Gillian H. Ice, Darna L. Dufour and Nancy J. Stevens, Lanham, MN: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, ISBN: 978-0-7591-1802-7, 216pp., Pb: £22.95, $32.00.

Reviewed by Jeffrey A. Sluka

It is widely recognised that successful ethnographic fieldwork requires not only training and pre-planning but also the in-the-field skill of adaptability in order to deal with unexpected problems and issues which invariably arise. This book provides an excellent introduction and general guide to fieldwork, with an emphasis on predicting, planning for and dealing or ‘coping’ with problems and risks. It is highly engaging because the writing style is simple, straightforward and pragmatic. Each chapter includes boxes presenting brief vignettes from experienced fieldworkers from a wide variety of disciplines who present ‘real life stories’ of particular problems or ‘disasters’ they encountered and how they either resolved or in some cases failed to resolve them, and concludes with a short section on ‘Suggestions and Strategies’ which provides practical suggestions on ‘how to avoid or minimize the impact of the unexpected’ (3).

A brief introduction is followed by seven thematic chapters. Chapter 2 addresses permissions, permits and approvals (e.g. from host countries, local communities and research participants). Chapter 3 deals with fieldwork logistics (e.g. travel, transport, money, living arrangements and communications). Chapter 4 elucidates managing equipment and data (e.g. advice on appropriate equipment and using and maintaining it). Chapter 5 is concerned with participant recruitment and retention. Chapter 6 is about cultural misunderstandings (e.g. language, cultural norms, suspicions, sensitive topics, gender issues, differing expectations and avoiding cultural mishaps). Chapter 7 focuses on safety and security (e.g. the fluid nature of risk, theft, violence, conflict and danger). And Chapter 8 discusses maintaining health (e.g. diarrhoea, illness, infections, diseases, skin problems, other health risks such as animals, accidents and environmental risks, and mental health). The final chapter takes a reflexive perspective to consider ‘an overlooked question: Is fieldwork for me?’ (5). This encourages readers to assess their own ‘inclination for fieldwork’, suggests that those intending to conduct fieldwork should have an interest in travel and adventure, grit (‘the ability to keep going and stay focused’, p. 195), tolerance for ambiguity, adaptiveness and practical living skills suited to the field environment. This chapter also discusses other issues such as family and research teams. Beyond its value as a general textbook, the book also makes a significant contribution to the important expanding literature specifically on managing risk and danger in fieldwork (for an overview of this literature, see Sluka 2015). It does so by addressing many of the physical risks and dangers that may be encountered and by presenting succinct and practical suggestions and strategies for handling them.

I would highly recommend this book as a very useful textbook particularly for undergraduate students, but it will also be of use to graduate students and fieldworkers no matt er what their discipline is and in both academic and non-academic settings. It is interesting, readable, informative and helpful; covers a very broad range of problems, risks and issues; and provides a useful guide to what sorts of things can go wrong and how to avoid, minimise or ‘cope’ when they do. The only thing I would have liked to see discussed which is not is that in the chapter on Permissions, Permits, and Approvals it might have been helpful to provide some suggestions with regard to gaining approval from institutional ethics committees, many of which appear to have diffculty with codifying qualitative and ethnographic research methodologies. A growing number of fieldworkers – particularly beginners – are reporting having particular diffculties (and in some cases ‘disasters’) in this regard.

An excellent or comprehensive set of readings for courses on fieldwork might combine this book with a traditional methods text (e.g. Bernard 2011), a reflexive account of fieldwork (e.g. Gardner 2006) and a more theoretical overview such as that presented in Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader (Robben and Sluka 2012).

References

  • BernardH. R. (2011) Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches5th edition (Lanham, MD: AltaMira).

  • GardnerP. (2006) Journeys to the Edge: In the Footsteps of an Anthropologist (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press).

  • RobbenA. and J. Sluka (eds.) (2012) Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader2nd edition (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell).

  • SlukaJ. (2015) ‘Managing Danger in Fieldwork with Perpetrators of Political Violence and Sate TerrorConflict and Society: Advances in Research 1 no. 1: 109124. doi: 10.3167/arcs.2015.010109.

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Contributor Notes

Jeffrey Sluka is associate professor of Social Anthropology at Massey University, New Zealand. He received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, and is a political anthropologist who specialises in the study of social conflict and political violence. He has also published several articles on managing danger in ethnographic fieldwork. E-mail: J.Sluka@massey.ac.nz

Anthropology in Action

Journal for Applied Anthropology in Policy and Practice

  • BernardH. R. (2011) Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches5th edition (Lanham, MD: AltaMira).

  • GardnerP. (2006) Journeys to the Edge: In the Footsteps of an Anthropologist (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press).

  • RobbenA. and J. Sluka (eds.) (2012) Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader2nd edition (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell).

  • SlukaJ. (2015) ‘Managing Danger in Fieldwork with Perpetrators of Political Violence and Sate TerrorConflict and Society: Advances in Research 1 no. 1: 109124. doi: 10.3167/arcs.2015.010109.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation