I was very fortunate to be in Trondheim whilst there was a PhD 'disputas', or what we would call a viva. On Friday Karina Barquet successfully defended her thesis on “Transboundary Conservation and Conflict”. In the UK the examination takes place behind closed doors, for anything from an hour to several hours, as long as it takes, and the result is quite variable : from a straight and immediate pass, a number of months to make ammendments, an award of an MPhil instead or complete rejection! ...
It’s been quiet on the blog since I returned from Svalbard in February. I have been head down, trying to write chunks of thesis. However, at the moment I am employing the ‘change is as good as a rest’ strategy: The Wales DTC of the ESRC has kindly supported me in paying a visit to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Geography department...
This week I took part in a two day interdisciplinary, multi-modal research workshop, organised by the ESRC Wales DTC in Cardiff. The aim of the day was to explore the different modes we make meaning and observe with, the affordances of four key media with which we can record ethnographic observations, and the relationship between these modes and media. The event was a great mixture of discussion ad practical fieldwork. We started out discussing and fleshing out the distinctions and crossovers between the ideas of modes and media, building on the paper we had read . Then we discussed the four different media we would be concentrating on in the workshop with the four leaders: field notes (Bella Dicks), still images (Rachel Hurdley), audio (Brett Lashua) and video (Bambo Soyinka). After introducing the research question: How is Gorsedd Gardens made into a meaningful place through the social interactions of people, objects, materials, 'nature', sounds time within it? We were then let loose to explore the Gardens...
At the end of August I attended the Royal Geographic Society (with IBG)'s annual conference in London. In preparation for, during and after the event I did a fair amount of reflecting on what the purpose of taking part in conferences are. I think it's fair to say that academics put a fair amount of time into deciding which conferences to go to, which sessions to apply to contribute to, what we should actually say when we get there and then what to do with it afterwards, so I thought I'd share a few thoughts on that sort of thing before the moment passes.
Time has flown by since I returned from Svalbard, it's been 2 months already! It has been an interesting and slightly chaotic time. I hadn't really thought about what it would be like having 'done' my fieldwork, except that it meant I ought to get on with analysis and writing and could for a while forget about organising funding and travel details. For the first couple of weeks it felt a bit like coming down from a long holiday - trying to get back into some sort of routine, enjoying the comforts and beauty of home, but missing the excitement of exploring a new place.
I wouldn't say I was suffering complete 'post-fieldwork blues', but I can certainly relate to some of the experiences of Michelle Redman's post, especially about loving the 'doing' aspects and instant feedback opportunities fieldwork brings.
Being a largely qualitative researcher, it's not that often you'll see that many figures in my work. Sometimes putting a number on things is interesting and can give a good overall picture though, so here are a few random things that you might be interested in, quantified from the recent Svalbard fieldwork trip I'm just back from...
As a parting gesture and small payback for all the help people in Svalbard have given me with my research, I thought it might be fun/interesting/fair to subject myself to the same questions I have been asking. As with all the interviews I have undertaken, I start with the general questions I ask everyone. I usually then move on to some more specific, context dependant ones - so, I'll do a couple of answers to common questions, then leave it open for you to ask whatever you want! Enjoy...
Svalbard life can seem a little bit bubble like at times, remote and a little world with quirks all of its own, but the bubble has a permeable surface for sure. There is a lot of talk about Svalbard being a future and indeed present hub of the Arctic, usually from a logistics point of view, but not exclusively. Over the last weeks I have witnessed some of this in a variety of ways. Near the beginning of the trip I remember someone finding the idea of a social science department at UNIS a bit silly as there aren't many people up here, what is there to study that you can't study elsewhere?
One of the things we tend to think about when the word 'value' comes up is economic value, how much can we get for our money. In Svalbard the answer is usually a lot less than you might hope for and after a while you have to stop being shocked and grumbling because it gets a bit boring. My mum used to have a saying, 'sometimes you just have to pay up and look rich', ha, never has it been more applicable! So, just how much are we talking here? Well, I've saved up about a months worth of supermarket receipts, so let's see...
Messiness is something that most of us are brought up to avoid, and certainly as a quality not particularly revered. At some point I realised that, for the most part, I am a 'messy' kind of person: messy room/office/desk; messy thoughts/ideas/approaches; messy hair.... Whilst I enjoy a good clean up of all these things occasionally, at some point I've come to accept that fighting it constantly will be exhausting and counter-productive.
So, when I read John Law's 'After Method: Mess in social science research' , it was not revolutionary, to me research has never really been about 'non-mess'/ strict, linear, objective methods, and I can thank some forward thinking lecturers, teachers and colleagues for their patience/ encouragement for that, but it was an important reminder which also nudged me towards being open to a broader range of research encounters. I readily adopted his notion of 'gathering' bundles of relations: coherent and incoherent in a 'methods assemblage'. Though perhaps this was becoming a convenient excuse for messy thinking, I was perplexed that all the complicated thoughts and 'head mess', when straightened out and tidied up, boiled down to a simple list of the normal: interviews, focus groups, field diary. Of course, such 'simple' sounding methods hide far more complicated processes, logistics, subjectivities, values, decisions; but I have also been trying to cultivate a more observant and open attitude to the other, less formal, research encounters and my own role in all of this 'data collection' I am doing.
Where am I going with this? Well, today I feel like some form of synchroncity stepped into the research arena and resurrected an element of the project I had almost put to bed. On the flip side there have been times when shear bad timing or luck has prevented research encounters. This led me to wonder whether others had written about luck, chance, spontineity and research before (I didn't turn much up there, but I am sure something is out there). I did come across this excellent paper from Billo and Hiemstra  on, guess what, messiness and PhD fieldwork! For any PhD students out there (or researchers in general), I urge you to read it. Very useful advice and is a really positive example of how far things have come since Law's call, in terms of being more open, honest and reflexive about the processes of research: from planning, through fieldwork and afterwards. Both Billo and Hiemstra were faced with difficult challenges in 'the field' which meant a reassessment of carefully made plans. They expand on the notion of flexibility, embodiment and reflexivity in research based on those experiences. Music to my ears!
Realistically, I may be comfortable with mess, flexibility, reflexivity, subjectivity etc etc, but it doesn't stop me worrying about whether the choices I am making, all the time, are the 'right' ones, for the PhD, for the research participants, for Svalbard, for the world, for my 'career'.... but rest assured I am at least thinking about it!
 Law, J. (2004) After Method: mess in social science research, London: Routledge.
 Billo, E. & Hiemstra, N. (2013) 'Mediating messiness: expanding ideas of flexibility, reflexivity, and embodiment in fieldwork', Gender, Place & and Culture, 20(3), pp.313–328. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0966369X.2012.674929#.U5ioW3b4Lwo
Happy Birthday Longyearbyen, 108 today! Today is Longyearbyen Day, which has been celebrated since it's centenary in 2006. To mark the day there were a few historical things going on, which I attempted to join in with. Longyearbyen has certainly seen a lot of changes in it's relatively short lifetime (a quick version from the Cruise Handbook is here!). The Museum had a free entry day, so that was a good opportunity to re-visit: I definitely spotted different things in there today than I did on my last (very long) trip there a year ago. I also joined a history tour of some of old Longyear City, conducted in nippy weather and completely in Norwegian. I managed to piece my own version of the story together by recognising dates and keywords, but I definitely missed all the jokes! We ended with more history at the church, but in warmth, with waffles, and some nice singing (ahhhh) - Svalbard has its very own hymn!
Bit of an extended post today since I have skipped a couple....
Staying here in Longyearbyen for any length of time, people start to become concerned that you manage to find your way out of town and experience some of 'the nature' here. Though Longyearbyen has just about everything one needs, after a few weeks, a kind of 'cabin fever' can take over, knowing what a small urban area you are confined to compared to the vast expanse 'out there'. Getting out into the wilds is now made more difficult by the lack of snow and ice around to get about by snow-scooter and skis (that's key value of ice and snow number 1 of this blog post!) One way around this is ingenius use of quad bikes that dog teams can pull, giving them essential exercise and fun during the summer and being pretty fun to tag along with (lucky me got a lift from an acquaintence who needed another pair of hands to deal with some extra dogs!). There is still snow on the glaciers though, and it was that snow and the process of it melting that I set out to help investigate yesterday with a fellow PhD student, Krystyna Koziol. Not only was it a great day out of town in some glorious weather, but I also got some more first hand experience of what field science in Svalbard can be like, which has sparked some interesting reflections.
Despite all the preparations necessary for the fieldwork to happen in the first place, there are still a lot of factors that can leave data collection hanging in the balance: weather conditions, equipment failure, snow not behaving itself, field assistant availability...We had some interesting moments on Foxfonna glacier yesterday, with some quick thinking solutions from Krystyna saving the day of sampling. I hadn't thought too much about what the actual data collection might involve, but I was probably thinking more high-tech than plastic sledges and rope equipment transport, digging snow pits, good old-fashioned note taking and the all-important plastic food/ sample bags to transport them back to base. What was clear though that the most essential ingredients to collect the best quality data are persistance, motivation and committment to the project. Perhaps these are not so dissimilar to characteristics needed on this 'side' of the discipline, just with very different ramifications! It seemed a lot more obvious out on this kind of fieldwork, that you only get one shot to collect this particular thing - another day the conditions might be different, and more broadly, the trip itself has so much planning and resources involved to make it happen that the whole thing is not going to happen again. This leads me to reflect that though there might not always be such finality with a more human geography based approach, each story I listen to is told in a very specific context, one that is not repeatable and with all kinds of 'external' factors in the background, which perhaps I need to hold in mind...
I also learnt quite a bit about different types of snow and ice and how to observe them, and what snow can tell us about (value number 2) interesting stuff. Thanks Krystyna for a thought-provoking and fun day's hard work in the snow!
Today the internet and mobile network was out for a few hours. It doesn't sound drastic, and it wasn't. Not really. It did stop me in my tracks for a while though. This phenomenon is becoming more and more rare and it's amazing how much we rely on staying connected. I was going to check that email before I did this, I needed to call some people to arrange interviews, no and nope. I'll research this... oh yeah, no. I wonder if this is everywhere? I'll just check on... oh yeah, no. I could of course rely on old-fashioned calling round someone's office/ house and that's what I did. Reading a book, another good option. It was a momentary glimpse into what life must have been like in Longyearbyen when there was no outside communication at all and how those living out in the remote huts around Svalbard today isolate themselves. It must be a peaceful life, but I don't think I would be up for those levels of loneliness for prolonged periods!
Today I met someone who just picked up an email I sent months ago when I was looking for somewhere to stay in Svalbard. We are, hopefully, going to help each other out on our respective research projects, and it's going to be great :) These are the kind of things that often get left out of our research proposals, methodologies, write-ups, articles. Unless everyone else out there doing research are some kinds of research-bots following a strict plan, and I don't think that's the case, then there are a lot of these kind of chance encounters that happen along the way. It's certainly not the first time in this project that one of my pleas to the ether have led to good things. So, when I spent another day sending out many more of them, it was an excellent reminder not to stop doing it! I read an really inspiring article yesterday about stories which get left untold from research  and I hope I can bring some of these kinds of encounters into my writing in some way when it comes to it....
 Smith, A.-M. (2014) 'Old Fieldwork, New Ethnography Taking the Stories Out of the Bag', Qualitative Inquiry, 20(5), pp.699–708. http://qix.sagepub.com/content/20/5/699
In other news, the sun has come out again at last - hooray mountains are back in sight!
I've had a day focussed on tourism today, one way or another. It's actually 'low season' at the moment, between the busy snow-scooter, skiing - filled March and April and the summer season proper, although there are still visitors about here and there. So, like the tourist operators and service providers, I have been gearing up for the next round coming in...There are actually quite good statistics on what kind of people come from where for Svalbard, but not so much qualitative information on why they come and what they take away from their visit. So I am going to attempt to get a bit of an insight into value in Svalbard from this perspective as well, and am part-way to setting up a survey system. In fact, the most observant of you will perhaps notice there is a link to it at the top of this very website as well as the posters and forms I'm slowly getting around the town with. I say attempt as I really don't know what kind of response, if any, I will get from this approach, but sometimes research is about it being worth a try, right?
This evening I was very much looking forward to going to a cultural show from the people of Barentsburg visiting Longyearbyen, but due to one of my classic dispraxia-type blunders, I managed to miss it entirely (why do evening activities start so early here?!). Very trying, but ultimate failure. So instead, I ended up reading some more about tourism, which was actually quite well-timed, as some of the chapters were calling very strongly for more research into Arctic tourism...