The Idle Ethnographer picks up a spade

The Idle Ethnographer is back in the field. I am doing some follow-up, and some new, interviews with maritime people in Bulgaria. Most of the previous ones were done 4-5 years ago, just before the effects of the 2008-9 financial crisis could be felt on the market for maritime labour.  I don’t have anything up to date online – here’s a timely reminder to do some! – but you can look up a summary hereon my old Warwick e-portfolio page, if you’re interested.  Or email me – I’d be thrilled to find fellow maritime sociologists.

Since then, the situation in maritime employment has changed quite a lot, so there are many things to talk about: the former state fleet was privatised in 2008; the “maritime bubble” burst, shipping prices fell by half; the demand for seafaring labour is now much less than before 2008 – combined with the effect of being a EU member state, the result is that Bulgarian seafarers find it much harder to get a job. (what is wrong with the EU? oddly enough, it is the good social and employment protection of EU-citizens which drives global firms away towards less well protected labour markets such as that of the Philippines or China).

As I said – lots of large-scale, uncontrollable global changes. It is also interesting to see what has happened to the young seafarers who were just starting out back in 2008; and to the old ones who were close to retirement. Unfortunately, this is a very short visit – just 11 days, and it’s not enough to set up proper fieldwork, even using the “snow-ball” method. Not to mention that I’m also staying with my family and “negotiating” (I hate that word!) different roles as a daughter and researcher doesn’t come easy.

In case you wonder, for my previous study I did 52 interviews, of which 40 in-depth, and this took me altogether 10 months of fieldwork. I also collected loads of other written data, anything I could lay my hands on. This time, I’ve been here for a week and have only just managed 2 proper interviews and planed 3 more. I won’t have time for more, unless I’m very lucky and interviewees “find me”. When I was teaching sociological research methods, students always wanted to know how many interviews they should do. I never know what to say. Five interviews isn’t much at all, even when they last 3-4 hours each. They do, however, give an initial glimpse, if one finds respondents with sufficiently different viewpoints and talks to them, to make sure their viewpoint has come across in good detail and nothing is misrepresented.  In fact, even just one very rich interview gives you endless threads, directions and insights into the structure of the problem you’re studying, the prevalent vocabulary, the typical viewpoints… – provided you are already versed in its precise social context – that it could sometimes be a sound beginning for research. The same goes for two, three, five interviews. And there is no upper bound. The thing is, even my four dozens interviews with seafarers surely missed some important types of experiences, career trajectory types, opinions and logics – and some of the interviews were more view-changing than others.  I didn’t stop because I ran out of interesting people or stories. I stopped because at one point I got overwhelmed with more data than I can physically and mentally process – and I thought it was important to make the best use of what I had, rather than waste it (and also I simply ran out of time).

This is not mass scale, representative research – yet, if read and thought about attentively, it is much more than just pub conversations with random seafarers. As one interviewee described it after a long evening in the pub – “So, you’re trying to “make sense of” (“осмислиш”) what goes on on the labour market by talking to many seafarers to see different viewpoints and formulate my own”. He nailed it. That’s exactly what qualitative sociologists are doing, I replied with relief, as we were walking under the midnight breeze, trying not to trip over the broken pavement in the dark streets of the living estate in my seaside town (my two interviewees were kind enough to walk me home). I was glad not to be misunderstood about how exactly I get my “data” and what i do with them, especially in the light of the ongoing crisis of Bulgarian empirical sociology sparked by leaked and hotly disputed polling results last week… (see this news article here about the pollster war).

It’s still too early to be making any public substantive conclusions. Suffice to say, Richard Sennett would probably find very similar things, if he could speak Bulgarian.  Instead, here are some random field truisms. You may laugh and think that there’s something fishy about my methodology, but I assure you that there is a grain of truth in all of these statements.

– Careful with gatekeepers: they keep the gates in both directions.

– My empirical work would be much worse, or not possible at all, if I were a teetotal sociologist.

– There is no painless way of recruiting respondents: I am bound to inconvenience them. The only thing I can do is make it interesting for them, as well.

– Nothing is what it looks like. What seems like work isn’t, and what seems like leisure, isn’t. A six-hour visit to the pub totally was work (parents who call 11 times in the meantime have trouble with this concept). Typing away at the computer for 10 hours a day inevitably involves far more procrastination than work.

– I wonder whether it should instead be termed “fieldplay” or “fieldexploration”. “Fieldwork” makes me imagine a spade.

– The success of all anthropological fieldwork hangs on unexpected chances and impertinent phone calls (you’re hearing this from someone with a mild phone-phobia…). One such phone call landed me a lecture at  a university in Plovdiv, which will take place tomorrow… and which I now have to go and prepare!

– I’m reminded that it really does help to show that I know all the basic maritime terminology. The conversation is never levelled, but at least I don’t need to be explained words such as bulker, winch, draught-survey or ship chandler, or why something terrible must have happened it a captain’s mate spots his captain measuring the ballast.

– By all means try, but never try too hard, to pay for your beer – instead, offer to buy a beer next time. And never, ever, refuse home-made crumpets.

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