Learning to Sit

At LSHTM, research methods are an integral part of the curriculum. Most MSc courses require you to learn at least the fundamentals of statistics, epidemiology, qualitative interviewing. My “Research Design and Analysis” module taught everything from data collection strategies to how to write a logistics plan. But there’s one fundamental skill for which no class ever prepares you—one which can make or break a young researcher.

If you are going to conduct international fieldwork, you’re going to need to learn how to sit.

Sure, at LSHTM, we do plenty of sitting—in classrooms, in the cantine or common room, occasionally at the student pub. But any compulsory sitting is clearly timetabled, and the rest is purely voluntary. If you can’t choose when to sit, you at least know when the sitting will stop.

Fieldwork is different. Often there are objectives you are trying to reach, messages you are conveying through your sitting. Sitting can be harrowing, it can be boring, and either way, it can seem endless.

Sometimes it is the white-knuckled sitting you do on the back of a motorcycle taxi, flying over potted dirt roads, or passing a swaying truck full of mattresses on a tight, two-lane highway. Sometimes it is sympathetic sitting, when you try to convey warmth and sorrow to a grieving informant across the twin barriers of language and culture. You will need to sit patiently through meetings, and while waiting for meetings to begin (often late). You should sit with your colleagues for a drink (or several) to build rapport. And I don’t need to mention all the sitting in front of a computer that is required of any researcher.

Sometimes sitting will be lonely. Sometimes you will wish you could just sit alone. But a fundamental truth about fieldwork, one that is usually obscured by all the promo shots of students hiking through small villages or administering vaccinations to children—is that it’s often not about action.

I am writing this from a rural community mental health program in Nigeria—the third country in which I’ve conducted fieldwork over the last four years. My colleagues and I are sitting (of course) around the conference room table, waiting to leave for a clinic visit that was postponed at the last minute. When we finally do leave, we’ll sit for an hour or two in the backseat of a pick-up truck, in order to sit on a bench for the rest of the day watching a community psychiatric nurse greet patients and fill out paperwork.

If there were a LSHTM camera crew with us today, they would want to catch the moments when we lean over to ask the nurse a question or pick up a pile of patient registers. They would capture the handshakes and greetings, the few standing shots of the day. They would want us visibly doing something. But frankly, they’ll miss out on what’s really important. The non-doing. The listening and observing and taking notes. The questions, quietly asked. The ideas. The laughter. They’ll miss out on all the special things that happen when you just sit long enough to let them.

I’m not saying I’m a good fieldworker, but my time in Nigeria has started to crystallize for me what one might look like. A good fieldworker is humble and patient, gets things done without attracting too much attention. Listens. A good fieldworker can scrawl their dissertation outline on the back of a candy wrapper if need be. They will be resourceful with their time, find variety in all this sitting, learn from it and—most importantly—learn to love it.

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