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Digital fieldwork, pt. 2: PhD research


Date: 9 November 2020

Despite the challenges and restrictions of 2020, fieldwork has continued within the CoEDL community, highlighting the innovation and ingenuity at the Centre. This series on digital fieldwork gives insight to the challenges, sensitivities and sources for optimism in this research and reflects on the nature of fieldwork, both now and into the future.

The restrictions on travel within and beyond Australia have had a significant impact on the next generation of researchers. Unable to gather the data they need through fieldwork, many PhD students face severe delays in writing their dissertations.

Yet this cohort is equally a source of innovation and optimism. While fieldwork is beyond their physical reach, PhD students at CoEDL have sought to continue their research in new ways. Below, two students reflect on the evolution of their thesis projects and the challenges and opportunities discovered along the way.

Kristina Gallego

Kristina Gallego

“I came to the Philippines—my home country—in February 2020 to do my second major fieldwork,” Kristina recalls. “I was able to conduct a workshop which helped me conceptualise and design a questionnaire I meant to use in the field. A few days after the workshop, the lockdown in Metro Manila was enforced, postponing my fieldwork which was initially scheduled for March.”

In June 2020, Kristina arranged to post basic recording equipment—a video camera, audio recorder, memory cards, a tablet, and an external hard drive—and her questionnaires to her host sister, Baby Anne (B-Anne) Tomas. B-Anne is based in Kristina’s field site, Babuyan Claro, a remote island with a unique multi-lingual landscape in the far-north of the Philippines.

Having previous experience in the field meant Kristina was both well-placed and grateful to be able to continue research in collaboration with the Babuyan Claro community.

“I am lucky enough that I have already made good connections with people on the island, and have developed a trusting relationship with my contacts,” she explains. “My host family is willing to help me with my project, and the project participants already know me and the nature of my project from my previous trips.”

Kristina carefully organised herself and her materials to ensure the collaboration was as easy as possible for B-Anne. While this took time, Kristina reflects on the effort optimistically.

Kristina's host family

“I think that these delays in my project, while severely impacting the progress of my research, also gave me time to think more carefully about the design of my questionnaires. In the past, I often felt I always rushed. But now that I am forced to sit down and think about my data collection more carefully, I am more confident about the quality of the data I have and will have.”

She also continues to consult with B-Anne. “I often tell her to just do what she can,” she notes, not wanting to put pressure on her host sister or the community in Babuyan Claro.

In this respect, Kristina has started taking her own advice.

“I am learning to take a more relaxed approach to my project. It still gives me anxiety, but I appreciate how people are willing to help me out with my research.”


James Gray

James Gray

“I went up to the Northern Territory in mid-February to work with speakers of Pintupi-Luritja in Alice Springs and Papunya. I stayed there until mid-March when it became clear that I would have to leave because of the pandemic.”

With only four weeks of fieldwork to reflect on—“not enough for a dissertation,” he notes—James had to adapt his research in order to continue working on his PhD.

Fortunately, like Kristina, James had a foundation of previous fieldwork to build on. He had established connections with community members during a scoping trip in late 2019 and his weeks in the field in 2020. He maintains these relationships through phone conversations, checking in with the community through this difficult time and gathering data if possible. 

“That isn’t perfect for lots of reasons, but it’s better than nothing at all,” explains James, echoing the concerns Matt Carroll raised in digitally delivering his field methods course, which James audited in 2020. “What makes it difficult is sound quality over the phone, and the loss of everything that comes with face-to-face interaction…. You miss the general benefits of working together in person, and the human connection involved in that kind of joint work.”

With a limited ability to gather new data, James saw an opportunity to explore other resources. The Luritja bible and several books, newspapers and other texts developed for bi-lingual education comprise a unique repository he has used to supplement his research.

“I was lucky,” he reflects, commenting that not many Indigenous languages have these kinds of resources; without them, he believes he would be unable to continue his investigation digitally. “I don’t think internet-based research, for example over Zoom, would be possible…. You would be asking people to use their data, which I don’t want to do. You don’t want to burden the community and people for your research.” 

He adds that in some contexts, digital fieldwork may be more viable, but only “once you’ve established a good relation with a community, or at least a number of speakers, and they understand all about the project.” 

While digital fieldwork continued through 2020, it appears that no amount of innovation and creativity throughout can replace the human-to-human element that facilitates so much research.


If you enjoyed this article, read the other articles in this series here: Digital fieldwork, pt. 1: Field methodsand “Digital fieldwork, pt.3: Forging ahead”.


Image 1: The landscape of Papunya of James Gray's fieldwork site

Image 2: Kristina Gallego and her host family in the Babuyan Claro community

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University