Conveying the Complexity of the Field: the Lessons from SEI that got me Through

Josie reflects on her Honours Research Fellowship with SEI and experiences translating data into words.

In the last blog I wrote for SEI I had just come back from doing fieldwork in Indonesia and in the middle of my Honours year. When I now reflect back on Honours, I first remember that my time doing fieldwork in Indonesia was challenging, to say the least. Alongside two Indonesian researchers, I had spent two months trawling coffee farms in search of the many farmers who had been randomly selected to participate in our surveys. In rain, hail or shine we wound our way up steep farm paths and through bustling villages in the hope of reaching our target of 200 respondents. We were slowed by my lumbering Indonesian and the days were long and hot. Although these small discomforts were dissolved by the friendly faces and hospitable offerings that greeted us nearly everywhere that we went, the experience was, overall, quite a steep learning curve.

 Throughout those two months of fieldwork, I was consoled by the certainty that things would be much more straightforward once I had finished collecting my data. What I had not anticipated was that the work could get a whole lot more challenging in the subsequent parts of the thesis writing process.

In choosing to do an Honours year you are buckling yourself in for an intensive year of learning how to do research. When I signed up for Honours I was aware this was the objective, but I just had no idea about how dense the process of carving out a research project could be, or how vast the leap was from poor research to high-quality research. In time I came to realise that the space between the two was about so much more than the just quality, or quantity, of data. The thinking and writing that follows greatly determine the kind of work you will produce.

My return to the crisp surrounds of the SEI office brought waves of relief, and with ease, I folded back into the familiar routines of my SEI family; the tittering jokes, trips to the tearoom and lunches together. But between these moments of enjoyment, as the challenge of what faced me began to dawn, my sense of ease soon shifted into a quiet panic. I found myself staring at my computer blankly as the hours trickled away. I had collected all the data I needed, and I had thousands of words to explore and analyze that data, and yet I had no idea how or where to begin.

My experiences in the field were a jumble of stories and faces, anecdotes and jokes. They were people showing me their coffee trees and processing machines and making me cup after cup of thick, sweet coffee. How could I be expected to turn the rich and contradictory range of accounts that I had encountered into something cohesive and analytical? How was I going to go back address the simple research questions I had devised before fieldwork while doing justice to the complexity of what I had encountered in the field? The objective of my study was to evaluate the developmental and environmental impacts of a specific kind of coffee certification. Even after seeing this certification on the ground and speaking to those organising and participating in it I had no idea what kind of evaluation I would give to this scheme, let alone how to make a strong, cohesive argument for this evaluation over 20,000 words.

These are the challenges that majority of Honours students face towards the end of their research. However, I was lucky to have the support and guidance of the team at SEI. One morning while trudging up the stairs to my dreaded (non)work space I found myself astride Professor David Schlosberg, who in his pleasant fashion struck up a conversation. I knew this was my chance. Surely David, the highly respected academic that he was, could bestow on me the wisdom that would make the impossible task ahead of me seem more possible. I asked him something to the effect of, “David, how the hell am I supposed to do this?”

David sighed, and I could tell he knew exactly how I was feeling. He explained to me that writing a thesis requires you to zoom in on and tease out the complex, messy, contradictory loops of experience you have encountered, while also presenting a broader more cohesive picture of how they fit together. This simple explanation completely shifted the way I was looking at my project. Of course, it didn’t make the work itself any easier, but to have the process explained in such accessible terms made the task of writing seen more manageable.

The following week Michelle St Anne organised a Young Researchers event with history academic Frances Flanagan. Frances also gave us an invaluable piece of advice, which, while similar to David’s, came from a slightly different angle. She explained that a thesis is not expected to be a singular straight line drawn from the data and through the discussion. According to Frances, a well-written piece of research should weave through the nuance and intricacy of the examined phenomena, while also exploring the researcher’s positionality in examining it. The lines you are drawing should squiggle and loop around the things you, as the researcher, found to be important and think require emphasis. Believing that you could access and then perfectly convey some kind of objective truth is a sure-fire way to write a thesis that is reductive and flawed.

The advice that I received from David and Frances greatly reduced the dread of having to distil my experience in the field into clunky conclusions. It made me realise there was scope for incorporating the voices of people I met and working with my own bias and perspective at different points in the research process. Hearing their perspectives gave me the kick up the butt that I needed to start writing my thesis. My good fortune of having these insights to draw from was just one of the many perks that came with being one of the 2016 Honours Fellows. At so many points my Honours experience was enhanced by the support that SEI offered me throughout the year, and I do wonder if I would have reached the end without all of their help. Thankyou SEI, I am truly appreciative!

Josie Wright is a 2016 SEI Honours Research Fellow. Josie completed Honours in Geography at the University of Sydney in 2016 and was awarded First-class Honours. Josie is interested in issues of food security and environmentally sustainable development. In 2015 she completed a semester abroad in Jakarta, Indonesia and had since been assisting research into coffee certification in Flores, Bali, and Java. Josie’s Honours thesis examined coffee farming as a tool for rural development in Indonesia.