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Rethinking Buzzwords: “In the Field”

May 4, 2011

In her blog ‘Blood and Milk,’ Alanna Shaikh initiates a provocative discussion about the term “the field.” The crux of her argument is that calling time in the developing world “field time” implies two main things: that it is temporary, and that it is difficult and she contends that both of those are often false.

While it can be argued that the problem with the term “the field” is simply a matter of semantics and can be used interchangeably with phrases such as “real world,” “on the ground” or “country offices” I think that misses the bigger picture – it’s not really about the jargon but rather what it signifies.

I started thinking more about the issue and how we conceptualize what being “in the field” entails when I observed conversations at LSE regarding whether simply having been born and brought up in a developing country constitutes having “field experience.” This relates exactly to the point Alanna Shaikh makes. We often don’t consider those who have grown up in countries such as India or Ghana or Bolivia for instance as having field experience per se because we don’t perceive their lives as being difficult or their stay as temporary. I think this is a highly problematic assumption because it essentially undervalues the knowledge of the local context these individuals hold and creates a sense that outsiders have a more objective view about being in “the field” rather than those who live there and experience it everyday. What to outsiders is “the field” is the space in which millions of people negotiate the complexities of their day to day lives. This process of “othering” is ultimately self-defeating.

Last night, this topic came up in conversation with a friend who has worked in Tanzania with CHAI for about a year and he shared a perspective I hadn’t thought of earlier. According to him, he would view someone who had grown up in a developing country but has not worked in the development sector per se as having relevant field experience…the difference is it would be more on the “consumer” side than the “producer” side e.g. in the context of education, the person would have gone through the education system as a student but not as a policy maker.

What really constitutes “the field” anyway? In her blog, Shaikh reveals (not surprisingly) that most of the capital cities she has lived in have had better living conditions than she experienced living as a grad student on a budget in Boston. While, of course,  this depends greatly on individual circumstances and for those just starting a career in international development this may not be the case, it really does bring home the point that being in the field is not always about adversity. Is the experience of the field not having access to basic sanitation or is it living in a capital city with access to world cuisines and five-star hotels? Is living in Buenos Aires the same as living in rural Nepal? The term “the field” is problematic because in a way it standardizes a variety of experiences that are actually worlds apart.

While I’m skeptical of “the field,” both as a concept and as a buzzword I am also unsure about what other alternatives can be used if at all. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not really just about the vocabulary but more so the connotation. Perhaps, a way forward is to change mindsets rather than dictionaries.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Guo permalink
    May 4, 2011 6:34 pm

    Great post Rida!

    The first time I ever heard this term was actually at LSE – don’t think there is an equivalent term in German (“Im Feld?”). How about other languages?

    Btw, it would be interesting to track the usage of “in the field” etymologically – seems like it is this a term from military or medical literature?

    It is actually interesting to track the term “in the field” and “fieldwork” using Google’s Ngram (a database that stores literature from 1800 to today). Seems like “fieldwork” only took off in the 1960s…


  2. Stefan permalink
    May 5, 2011 3:44 pm

    Rida, not too much emphasis on the value of local context knowledge or else I will restart bothering you with why you don’t make use of your local context knowledge yourself ;-).

    I actually think that the term exists in German as well and I could well imagine it originating from military or even just some further back aristocrat use –> go out in the field where my peasants work…

    Incidentally, I’ve been confronted with the challenge of how to talk about this as well given my approaching “field experience”…. I tend to use “overseas” although this is surely pretty British (we –> island; rest –> overseas) or just “outside of Europe”. At the end of the day, I find it most important to highlight that I will be going to live and work somewhere where I have not yet been before. This will necessarily imply challenges but obviously life need not be harder elsewhere. “Development as self-development”, no?

  3. May 8, 2011 1:12 am

    Dear Rida,

    Very thought provoking. Most of my “development” life was spent in villages or remote areas, so the notion of “the field” did not necessarily exist in our lexicon, until I went to work for a large international (CARE). Being based in the capital and subject to endless cocktail parties, “the field” became the symbol of escape into “real” development.

    I enjoy the point regarding change of mindset. I think that all too often, people who work for the larger NGOs remain too distant from the people with whom they would like to engage, and romanticize (or in many cases over- dramatize) their experiences. Living in communities and getting to know people obviously does wonders to find a common solution to issues (using both their and your “field” experiences), rather than imposing doomed-to-failure development on people.


    • May 9, 2011 10:19 pm

      Thanks for visiting the blog! You raise some great points and I’m glad this post has served to jumpstart such discussions.


  4. June 27, 2011 3:53 pm

    I think that we can be even more nuanced and define what ‘in the field’ constitutes – as you well know, it is entirely possible for someone to grow up in a developing country and have absolutely no ‘field’ experience and no interaction with the wider public. I’m thinking of the millions in Pakistan who have never travelled outside their own city and think a dozen times before going to ‘that area’ in the same city. So what do we mean when someone was born and brought up in a developing country? Arguably the experience of someone from a privileged background living in the cities, and that of someone living in the slums, is going to be radically different, even though they may be from the same developing country.

    To address your last point – I think I am not skeptical of language as long as it is clearly understood. You can cite ‘field’ experience, but you have to define what it is and make sure to the other person that X is what you’re referring to, and not Y – and Y is often that romanticized ‘field’, unfortunately.


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