Finn Sivert Nielsen Anthropologist
Home Search Contact På norsk

I n    t h e    f i e l d

Fieldwork in the Soviet Union

All in all, I have spent some 18-20 months in the Soviet Union and Russia. The most intensive periods were two 6-month stays, in the spring of 1978 and 1983, both times on a government exchange scholarship, under the benevolent supervision of Professor Rudolf Ferdinandovich Its at the State University of Leningrad. During the first of these long stays the idea of fieldwork in the Soviet Union was conceived, and I took the first, hesitant steps. When I arrived for my second long visit, everything was lined up and ready for the hyper-intensive fieldwork I was headed for.

Fieldwork in the Soviet Union had to take place in secret. You might harm people seriously if your fieldnotes went astray. Only your very closest friends knew what you were doing. Such research necessarily involves many ethical complications, particularly when you develop close relationships to some informants. In the original version of the monograph I included a general description of my informant group, and a (circumstances considered) rather good quantitative description of its sociological profile. But it took 16 years before I managed to formulate the central dilemmas that my role as a fieldworker involved me in. One subset of these dilemmas is touched on in a memorial page to Father Pavel Adelgeim – a remarkable priest I got to meet a couple of times, thanks to the generous intercession of a friend in town. Our first meeting is descibed in the monograph.

I have written a number of empirically informed articles and essays based on my Soviet era field data, among them a sociological portrait of the singer Vladimir Vysotski, a discussion of Russian attitudes to the West, an exploration of Russian understandings of "culture", a description of a wedding in a Dagestani village, an analysis of informal intellectual networks during and after Soviet times, a translation of parts of a great Russian novel.

Fieldwork in the United States

Since I am half American, I have in a sense been doing fieldwork in the USA my entire life. More specifically, I did systematic field studies in San Francisco for twelve months in 1989-1990, using a method close to that developed in Leningrad (minus the secrecy). As in the Soviet Union, but in another flavor, this fieldwork involved me in such fundamental ethical and personal dilemmas that I ended up abandoning it. I struggled valiently to find a form that allowed me to tell the truth about things that happened without risk of harming anyone. A short description of two contrasting events in my two field localities is perhaps the closest I have come to achieving this goal. The description may be read in two ways: Either as two disconnected events. Or as two disconnected events deeply embedded in context. Though the outcome of this fieldwork was meager in academic terms, a number of draft chapters, sections and discussions from a not yet realized monograph may be examined here.

Handbook of fieldwork

In talks with colleages and fellow students I found that during late-night parties, stories were told about what people had actually experienced during fieldwork, which were never alluded to in print. So a group of us took off down to student and friend Per Liltved's cabin on Trom°ya (a largish island close to the southern tip of Norway), where we conducted a long, somewhat inebriated, and unusually creative seminar which we audio-taped in its entire two-day length. We talked about turning it into a methods book about "existential fieldwork". When I moved to Troms°, in 1994, I had the opportunity to realize this plan, and when my handbook of fieldwork was published in 1996, it contained both longer and shorter exerpts from the seminar discussions. Several students in Troms° also contributed their experiences. The book places strong emphasis on the practical sides of fieldwork and their emotional and moral correllates. I assert, perhaps most fundamentally, that ethical dilemmas are unavoidable in fieldwork, they are part of its essential core, and this is a fact we suppress at our own peril.

Fieldwork technique

In December 1999 I moved from Troms° to Copenhagen, from a department where ethnically motivated conflicts between Saami and Norwegian students were fresh in memory and the word "methods" still gave off a hot odor of politics; to a department with an established tradition for training their students in methods. During the nine years I worked in Copenhagen, I learned a lot about a more professional attitude to field-based projects – about project design, specific methodological tools, and how to teach "qualitative methods" more generally. I got to participate in the planning and teaching of a whole-semester's intensive course in qualitative methods, designed by Michael A. Whyte. The course not only trained students in how they, practically and methodologically, could construct and carry out a field project, but also confronted them with all the "dirty" questions of informant consent, anonymization, informant feedback / payback, emotional issues, etc. from day one. I was lucky and got to teach this course four times (three times with Michael) and I learned a lot from this experience, both about methods and pedagogics. (But I stand by the conclusions of my handbook.) A number of student papers from the qualitiatve methods course have been published here!

Quantitative methods

I have done one purely quantitative field study, – about garbage distribution in a coastal area South of Oslo. During my stays in Leningrad I also learned a bit about the (often quantitative) methods that were used by soviet ethno-sociologists, and reflected over the fact that methodologies also have their histories, and are shaped by the limitations under which they evolve.