I'm planning fieldwork in Sierra Leone in the Autumn 2010, but will be going there for pre-fieldwork exploration already this coming August. My question is: What is the most important thing you would focus on, while being there "not really on fieldwork". I guess themes could include:
1) Getting a sense of language and language barrieres / learning language
2) Reflecting on what my role as a foreign ethnographer would be, and what possibilities that are opened up by this
3) Making contacts with future informants
4) Gathering preliminary data, to fuel research questions.
5) Getting a sense of the practical possibilities and constraints (transport, accommodation, budgets, health etc.)
6) Preparing for potential ethical dilemmas
7) Reflecting on the analytical purpose of studying this field
List is not exhaustive and in random order. I think all the points are important, but of course also very dependent on each other. However, I am interested in how to prioritize between them, and what will prove most valuable in the long run. I want this to be a general debate, about how to tackle visits to the field site, before the actual fieldwork, and - on a meta level - if that distinction is useful at all.
It would be great if fieldwork could indeed be so neatly distinguished, having a certain precise place and time to begin and end. It would surely make sense having the distinction between proper fieldwork and pre-fieldwork. Well, all experience is part of fieldwork! What you'll feel, see and smell there is as important as the moment you have to leave the site when it comes to performing fieldwork. Be ready to include all these moments when describing the experience and reflecting on your choices.
(An interesting point is when you leave the site and have to say goodbye to everyone you worked, lived, (loved?) with. Taking into account the new shifts in anthropological fieldwork, where the ethnographed start producing, reading and reflecting on the works and ethnographies related to them, using that scientific discourse to legitimate their cultural identities and social movements, what will the role of the anthropologist be? Will you be fair to them, thus performing 'action' or 'applied anthropology' by producing knowledge on support of minorities' claims for social justice and equality, or will you simply narrate what you perceived as 'reality', ignoring the globalised socio-political issues that surround the people you've studied? But this is a matter for another discussion. A discussion you must have in the end of your fieldwork...)
Before leaving to Sierre Leone this August, have in mind what do you want to research, what questions will you be trying to answer. Research often begins with everyday issues you find intriguing and wish to explore. After the initial reading you'll find yourself with a minimal knowledge of the issue. You'll have developed a strategy of how to conduct fieldwork. Of course that once you get there, you can expect a whole lot of challenges you couldn't foresee (still, it is a good idea to have this pre-fieldwork visit to the site).
However, an important aspect of fieldwork you must take into account is that it can change your research goals and question. Being there can change you and your entire research! I've seen more often than i could expect from many of my friends and colleagues.
So, working on your research questions (before travelling there) will help you know what to look for when it comes the practical possibilities and constraints. Everything else kind of falls after that... (i'm being quite light on these, but knowing what you want to work on is definitely a very important aspect for preparing yourself for fieldwork of any kind)
What do you mean, specifically, by "Reflecting on the analytical purpose of studying this field"?