Researching the field from home

In this blog post, PDRA Johanne Bruun discusses the relationship between Arctic fieldwork and archival research in the context of the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the time of writing, many academics across disciplines and institutions are, by necessity, having to rethink their practices of data collection. Our relationships or interactions with the geographical field have inevitably been reconfigured by Covid-19 and global lockdown(s). Fieldwork has been postponed, perhaps even cancelled, and those of us affected will have to rethink our research strategies in response to this. In a sense, we have all been forced into the position of the armchair (or office chair) scientist.

The International Arctic Social Science Association (IASSA) recently circulated an addendum to their ethics guidelines on social science research, specifying that researchers should not put Arctic communities at risk by potentially spreading disease. Needless to say, we cannot afford to replicate colonial-style patterns of scientist-explorers bringing diseases like tuberculosis to communities in the Arctic. According to IASSA, it may be 12 months or more before Arctic fieldwork can ethically resume.

The current lockdown in the UK brings up the possibility of virtually connected communities becoming vectors of engagement when the field is not accessible. We are experiencing limits to our mobility perhaps similar in kind to what we, wrongly, sometimes assume on the part of the people, places, and events that take part in our research. The geographical field, however one understands it in relation to research goals or disciplinary training, is not simply ‘out there’ – it is dispersed and connected, and recent events remind us to be creative in thinking through how we engage with it.

Many weeks of isolation have prompted reflections on the co-constitutional and co-extensive relationship between the geographical field and its many representations found across libraries, archives, and on a myriad of digital platforms. It would be a stretch to suggest that Covid-19 has reconfigured the Arctic as a field of research, but in a very real sense, it has altered how we, as researchers, enact and engage with it, at least in the short term. As a political-historical geographer, most of my data comes from libraries, archives, and museum repositories.  These spaces function as technologies which collate, order, and assemble historical and material traces of past lives in the Arctic field. Through the dedicated work of librarians and collections managers, many such resources have been made available in digital form. In a recent talk, Lauren Gardiner of the Cambridge University Herbarium described the collections she manages, some of which are available digitally, as “a condensation of 300 years of fieldwork” as well as a “frontier of new discoveries”. Words such as ‘frontier’ and ‘discovery’ carry obviously problematic connotations when linked to Arctic fields. Yet it points to the dispersed nature of the Arctic field – although its forms may be heavily curated. Archives are in some ways cognate spaces to the Arctic field. They are not necessarily proxies or ‘stand-ins’ for Arctic encounters, but nonetheless significant fields in their own right.

In my own research, I have never seen archival spaces as entirely separate from the field – qualitatively different without question, but nonetheless deeply entangled. The archive is part of my field as a researcher. This is where I connect with the geographical field through traces of past lives. Previously, I have benefited from supplementing my archival work with site visits. Archives and libraries informed how I encountered and saw the field, just like the field informed how I read the archive. In moving between these spaces, I felt like I was taking part in a dialogue between them, and my research was a result of this dialogue. Fieldwork mattered.

Like many others, I wonder what will be missing from my research if I now cannot physically travel. Yet I still grapple with fundamental questions about how to avoid replicating the problematic practices of scientist-explorers of the past. Even without being a carrier of disease, there are other problematics associated with historical foot-stepping that I risk bringing with me when I travel to the field to do research.

As part of my research for the Arctic Cultures project, I have been investigating the Oxford University Arctic Expeditions of 1921-24. I aim to map out aspects of the historically-rooted structures of elitist and patriarchal domination of the Arctic traceable in such exploits. Members of these expeditions travelled to Svalbard to “earn their polar laurels” by traversing rough terrain, posing in front of iconic landscape features, and leaving more or less ephemeral markers in the landscape, such as flags and ruins of their camp sites. In at least one case, one of them presented their business card with elite institutional affiliations to Norwegian coal miners to gauge their reaction. Physical encounters with Arctic landscapes were important markers of social status, as well as the explorers’ status as knowing subjects. The Oxford expeditions are prime examples of the masculinist stance of “muddy boots” field science, invoking a necessary relationship between geographical knowledge and risk taking. They were reflective of a possessive attitude towards the Arctic and a purely extractive endeavour.

These Oxford men wanted to connect not only with the Arctic environment, but with history as well. Their travels allowed them to walk in the foot-steps of famous explorers before them with whom they explicitly aligned themselves. In her 2012 book, Antarctica as Cultural Critique, Elena Glasberg captured this mechanism when she aptly referred to such exploration as part of “a patriarchal paternity, a legacy of connecting marks between successive individual explorers” (page 22). The Oxford men achieved this through enactments of material ruins they encountered and by reading the landscape as an active archive, connecting traces to the travel narratives of explorers like Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and Martin Conway.

If I go to the field, I will not be planting any flags, but I will inevitably leave traces of my own, material or otherwise. In the same ways as the explorers I am researching, I will treat the field as an active archive which I will read, in part, through the diaries and accounts of others. While my aims may be subversive, I will still walk in the footsteps of explorers who others might name as ‘great men’. This merits methodological contemplation.

“Polar laurels” still hold considerable currency in polar research, not least for geographers for whom fieldwork remains almost like a rite of passage. It still implies status for you as the knowing subject, and having ‘been to the Arctic’ may change the way potential collaborators in your research see or engage with you. Yet fieldwork cannot be justified with reference to “polar laurels” or the status of having been to the Arctic alone. This comes too close to buying into problematic attitudes of the past.

There is much to be gained from visiting the field as historical researchers. The affective qualities of landscapes and communities may inspire our geographical imaginations and add depth to our analyses and understandings. You might experience something unexpected which points to significant gaps in the textual records or which pushes you in new directions. Most notably, without assuming an inherent lack of mobility on the part of others (under normal circumstances, that is), the field is also a place where meaningful social relations are formed and collaborations are strengthened. For me, this enforced period of reflection before I can travel means added time to develop further contacts in the field and to aspire to meaningful and purposeful exchanges.

Amidst all the horror and uncertainty associated with a global pandemic, for me, this has created a moment for pause to consider and appreciate the many points and technologies, other people and other spaces, which may bring me in touch with the field in meaningful ways. This is a luxury afforded by the fact that my livelihood is not immediately threatened, my family is safe, and I have ready access to healthcare. As we seek new and creative ways of researching Arctic fields from home, it remains necessary to be mindful that the stresses we are all currently experiencing are not evenly distributed.


Image: Home-based working space, Cambridge. Photograph by J.M. Bruun, 11 May 2020.