Fieldwork during a pandemic – preparations

Dear readers, dear fellow researchers and all those interested,

two weeks ago I have asked on twitter whether you would be interested in an online ethnographic diary – and since many liked the post and some even told me that they were looking forward to it, I have decided to actually do it.

So from now on I will write diary letters to this blog to reflect on my time in Sri Lanka, keep you up to date and discuss my fieldwork with you.

What?

As you know the current times are not the easiest to do ethnographic fieldwork. So I think a little bit of background is necessary. I am a scholar of the gender history of religion and this trip is part of my historical and ethnographic PhD work on religion and girls‘ education in Sri Lanka. I was planning to come to Sri Lanka for about half a year starting in October but since the University there is still closed and the pandemic situation is very unpredictable I cancelled my plan at the beginning of July. When I spoke to my supervisor a few weeks later he said that I should still go for a shorter time period at least to get some archival material and do the extensive ethnographic fieldwork next year. As usual, ideas sound much better than the actual planning and realization of such an endeavor.

The first issues were to get an official permission from my university to go on this trip, the visa and try to plan as much ahead as possible. The first two went well – I am officially allowed to leave and enter – and for the latter we have to see.

I have been to Sri Lanka before, right before the pandemic really started. I went for a short period of three weeks on vacation to make myself familiar with the place and start to make contacts. I did not want to go to another country for a longer time period without knowing anything about how to live there, without any support network. However, Sri Lanka has changed a lot in this one and a half years and let’s hope that my preparations were not all for nothing.

Since I do archival as well as ethnographical research, I need to visit some school archives as well as talk to people who went or still go to the schools I am looking at. But, all schools are closed in Sri Lanka since spring last year and there are only online lessons. So I guess I will have to do a lot of online research as well!

Why?

The question I have been asked most and which might be on your mind now as well is: why do I have to go anyway and why now?

The answer to this question is more than just „because my supervisor told me so“ – which is actually not a legitimate but even more so relevant reason in the academic situation we are in. Even though he might not go to Sri Lanka himself right now – which he does not, because his job is save! – he is right in making it clear to me that if I do not go now, the situation might not get better. If I do want to finish this project in the foreseeable future, I have to go now. This sounds bad and it really is … but what is the alternative? I picked this project even though I knew that I had to do archival and ethnographic research in another country and no one ever knows what will happen two years after applying for a project. (Well, a pandemic really was on the bottom of my list.)

Worst case, I have to do all my interviews via phone or online in Sri Lanka and I cannot visit the archives. Staying at home would be the same. So at least I will be able to practice my language skills and meet some people…

The lockdown

… maybe. A week after my flights, hotel for the one day quarantine and my room for the rest of the time were booked, the Sri Lankan government announced a ten day long full lockdown.

Which was supposed to end the day before yesterday but is going on until 6 September – for now! Since I will be on my flight at that day, I will only know what happened to the lockdown regulations when I have already arrived. This makes it much harder to plan anything, because I do not know whether I will be able to meet anyone or if I can visit the archives. If I have to stay in my flat for four weeks or if this changes in the middle of my stay.

At the same time, I know that I am so lucky to still be able to even go to Sri Lanka at this point. I am fully vaccinated which most of my interview partners are not and I will not be affected as much by the restrictions and the health crisis there. This is why I do not know how much I can ask of my interview partners right now. Can I ask them to meet? Should I?

Preparations

I am already in contact with most of my interview partners – mostly because I already know that I cannot just go some place and meet people as I might could if there was no pandemic. But this also means that most people already know what I will be talking to them about – which can lead the conversation too far into one direction too soon.

Also, since there will be much time in between, I need some books and other things to do. Any suggestions for how many books I should take with me? Anything I have not thought about?

Worst case …

… and the lockdown continues until the end of my stay: I will still have great food, speak Sinhala and Tamil and can do my once-a-year Downton Abbey – marathon, since it just arrived on Netflix 😉

So what can go wrong?

PS: Anyone reading this who knows people from the following schools in Sri Lanka, please contact me: Ramanathan College, Musaeus College, Ladies‘ College, Hillwood College, Girls‘ High Kandy, Sanghamitta Primary.

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