Getting into the field

Getting into the field

Sean Durbin

Fieldwork | English | UK

Sean Durbin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Manchester Metropolitan University

While funding for Recovira officially began in November last year, we had plenty of work to do before getting out into the field. In early January we held our first in-person, all-country meeting in Manchester, where we experienced a rare glint of winter sun. There, members of the academic teams spent three days talking about (as academics like to do!) and refining our research questions, as well as deciding on what shared questions we would all ask the communities we are working with in our respective countries.

Given that we are trying to answer the same bigger questions, one might ask why wouldn’t all the questions we ask community members be the same? There are many reasons for this, but the main one is because this is an ethnographically-led project rather than, say, a survey based one. For those unfamiliar with the term, ethnography is a method grounded in observing life as it happens in order to draw some conclusions about how different communities or social groups function—what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973) referred to as “thick description”. And because the world is often an unpredictable place, and communities do things differently, it doesn't always make sense to ask the same questions in different contexts. So while we may want to answer the same questions in this project, in many cases the specific questions a researcher ends up asking participants will emerge organically as they spend more time in the field.

This last point is what made it so important for me to be able to get out in the field. In my case, “the field” consists of different Church of England communities where I live in London. Research like this takes time. It involves reaching out to (often very busy) people and not only asking them to give up their time to speak with you, but also asking them to trust you to represent what they say fairly and in a way they would recognize.

When we got our ethics approval signed off by the University, I was excited to get started reaching out to different Parishes in the area in the hopes of hearing about their experiences of the pandemic, their engagement with digital technology both before and after, and what they are up to now. The only hitch was that our ethics got signed off just before Lent. So rather than risk burdening busy people at a particularly busy time of year, I decided to wait until after Easter to reach out in earnest to different communities in the area.

Since Easter, I have been fortunate enough to speak with a number of church leaders who have generously given interviews about their and their communities’ experiences of the pandemic, and their uses of technology in this virtual age we now find ourselves. Beyond this I have also had the opportunity to start participating in weekly events where I am able to speak both formally and informally to church members and introduce myself and the project. While it is far too soon to even attempt to draw any kinds of conclusions, I can say that the people and communities that I have spoken with have experienced the pandemic and its effect on their church life in different ways, and I am excited to be able to continue these conversations with them throughout this exciting project.

Image credit - AI image generated using Dall-E2. "A visual depiction of the digital age blending traditional church imagery with digital technology"

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