Mobile Lives: Musings about ethnographic research on migration

As we prepare to launch a three-year study on female migration from Poland to Norway and its effects on the migrating women and on those they left behind, we want to reflect on the research approaches we plan to deploy in the field. Trained in cultural and social anthropology decades apart, we were nevertheless taught the same precepts of good anthropological research: that ethnography is the hallmark of anthropological studies, that good ethnographic research involves direct and sustained social contact with those one wants to study, that intensive interviewing and close engagement with study participants, “deep hanging out,” and robust participant observation are a must. But in the globalized and ever more mobile world, fieldwork projects are not what they used to be. The field has changed and so have the rules of engagement. Migration research by definition involves the study of mobile populations. Today’s migrants, especially Polish migrants traversing different countries in the European Union, are not the emigrants of yesteryear who crossed international borders or the Atlantic Ocean and settled in a new place permanently. Contemporary Polish migration is much more liquid; migrants often settle into motion; transnational lives become the norm. Take Ewa, for example; she and her husband and two small children live in Warsaw but Ewa’s business is registered in Norway. She travels to Oslo, Trondheim, and Bergen—where large Polish communities have emerged—once or twice a week to provide interpretation in the courts or in hospitals. She pays taxes in Norway and will earn her pension there when the time comes, but in order for her artist husband to have a meaningful career they made Warsaw their home. It took a lot of planning to secure an interview with Ewa and although she spent three hours with one of our research team members, this was a one-time shot we had to talk to her. The likelihood of hanging out with her and conducting a prolonged participant observation are just not feasible. There is even less chance to follow her to Oslo or Trondheim on her business trips. We might be able to grab a cup of coffee with Ewa if she is in Oslo when our team conducts research with Polish women who make their home there, but we cannot count on this. Lucyna’s husband lives and works in Bergen, but she has recently moved to Poland to take a job as a radio journalist. In order to understand the dynamics of this transnational couple, we need to conduct field research both in Bergen and in Szczecin. Marta is very active on a Facebook page for Poles living in Norway. This morning she posted a question regarding access to prenatal care and child subsidies. Marta is three months pregnant and plans to deliver her baby in Poland, but raise her in Norway. We haven’t met Marta yet, but monitoring Facebook pages and blogs seems a necessity if we want to understand the experiences of Polish women in Norway, in transnational families, and the effects of their mobility on their family members who remain in Poland. So have you guessed what methodological approach we are using to understand the intricacies of Polish female migration between Poland and Norway? Yes, you are right: multi-sited ethnography where the sites include real geographical places in both countries as well as virtual spaces. We believe that multi-sited ethnography–a data collection method that allows researchers to follow a topic or social problem through different field sites and analytically explore transnational processes, groups of people in motion, and ideas that extend over multiple locations–will allow us to reveal the full scope of the migration experiences of Polish women and its impact on their life trajectories, transnational families, integration into the Norwegian society, and familial and social networks they left behind. The birth of multi-sited ethnography coincided with the economic and political transformations of the globalized world. Such processes as decolonization, the end of ‘organized capitalism,’ and the introduction of its neoliberal form greatly impacted both anthropological theories and fieldwork methodology. The previously existing concept of ethnographically ‘being there’ has been reconfigured, critically reflected upon, and scrutinized across the discipline. In contrast to traditional ethnography, multi-sited ethnography follows a research topic across numerous spaces for shorter periods of time. The differences between traditional and multi-sited ethnography can be understood visually as following a topic across one space (vertically) or multiple spaces (horizontally). The introduction of this ‘new’ perspective has not escaped criticism. One of the most important questions raised relates to the basic understanding of ‘the field’, its scientific recognition, and anthropological exploration: How many fields constitute ‘multi-sitedness?’ Is it possible to maintain an in-depth engagement while doing fieldwork in multiple sites? How much time does one need to spend in the field in order to achieve a sense of anthropological intimacy and familiarity? Some anthropologists worry that this approach may lead to a lack of ethnographic ‘depth’ and ‘thickness.’ As many anthropologists argue, to achieve a sense of empirical ‘depth’ takes time and is hard to achieve within a multi-sited approach. Another criticism concerns the ‘abdication of ethnographic responsibility,’ which means that the complex relationships between the researcher and the researched in the field are neglected or assumed to be of secondary importance. These critiques argue that the idea of just ‘following people’ puts the researcher in ‘danger’ of losing the key ethnographic sense of reflexivity, positionality, complicity, and collaboration in their fieldwork. These criticisms have their merits and cannot be easily discarded. Some accuse migration scholars for using multi-sited ethnography interchangeably with qualitative research involving interviews and surveys or simply multiplying the number of field sites. A ‘true’ multi-sited ethnography merges the micro (local) and macro (global) levels into one complex unit of analysis and follows the emerging new research contexts, phenomena, and ideas in the field. Such approach is nothing new in anthropological fieldwork and the idea of being open to serendipity and unpredictability in the field has been well known for generations. However, as Ester Gallo indicates: “multi-sited ethnography implies not only the capacity of being ready to put into question theoretical assumptions and research expectations that precede fieldwork; it also requires the researcher to put into question previous sites of ethnographic inquiry in light of new ones.” We are convinced that exploring sites that are linked to each other is a way to rejuvenate comparative migration studies based on ethnographic research. Do we think it is easy? No, not at all. We anticipate the occasional wrench being thrown into our plans. Stay tuned, we will report on our adventures in the field often.

by Elżbieta M. Goździak and Marek Pawlak

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