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Digital fieldwork, pt. 3: Forging ahead


Date: 23 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.

Carmel O’Shannessy (ANU) intended to spend 2020 commencing research on her new ARC Future Fellowship project ‘Tracking the language development of Indigenous children in Central Australia’, in collaboration with Tangentyere Council, Red Dust Role Models, Children’s Ground and families from the region. Although working in the Northern Territory was delayed from early 2020 until a few weeks ago, Carmel continued to be productive, both with her Fellowship and in other endeavours.

Perhaps most notably, Carmel and her colleague Maxwell Walma Tasman Japanangka completed work on Kaja-warnu-jangka (or ‘From the Bush’). The film follows two Warlpiri elders—Jerry Patrick Jangala and Henry Cook Jakamarra—living in Lajamanu community in the Northern Territory. It gives the elders a platform to narrate their stories in their own words and weaves together historical and biographical information with understandings of the Warlpiri kinship system, Dreaming stories and the importance of traditional songs and narratives.

Although Carmel and Maxwell finished filming in March, the film collates recordings made over several years. Carmel used the subsequent months to sift through the wealth of material with her colleague, seeing the restrictions of the pandemic as an opportunity in this respect.

“Being in lockdown meant that I was able to work intensively on the film,” she explains. “The film was completed in May, so Jangala and Jakamarra, their families and community members have been able to enjoy it together.”

Behind the scenes of filming

CoEDL and the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics launched Kaja-warnu-jangka online to an audience including people from Warlpiri communities, and from across Australia and overseas. One viewer commented “What amazing lives these men have had and how gracious and optimistic they are in spite of hardships. It’s so important that their stories are known.” 

The film is available for viewing here.

During this time, Carmel has also been serving as chair of a fieldwork working group in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University. In October, the group ran a seminar series reflecting on fieldwork practices, how they might evolve and discussing how researchers might adapt and redesign aspects of their research to make it viable in the instance of further restrictions. The group also set up a website to collate resources for researchers who might need to adapt their research methods.

“It’s inspiring to see how researchers have overcome the difficulties of not being able to work with their colleagues in person, through combinations of creativity, trust, patience and resilience. But the seminars also show that each situation presents unique challenges, and there are many aspects of working side-by-side with someone that technology can’t stand in for.” 

In this vein, Carmel had been contemplating how to adapt her own research in light of the restrictions on fieldwork for her Future Fellowship. 

“The most difficult aspect of this is not the delay itself, but not knowing when or how we should plan to continue,” she says.

Carmel notes that “keeping in touch by phone and email has been important” in planning for future research, evoking the emphasis on communication and connection many of her CoEDL colleagues share.

She has also been finding ways to forge ahead with the work of research. Commencing online collaboration with senior researchers at the Tangentyere Council was a possibility, but Carmel is now in Alice Springs and working with her research partners in person. The team is well placed to continue work, having spent the months of lockdown preparing the organisational and methodological foundations of the project, from revising budgets to honing language skills and contingency plans. Carmel, who was recently awarded the Australian National University’s Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research, is adopting a model that allows her to spend extended time in the Northern Territory, aiming to avoid challenges of needing to cross borders that may close at short notice. She confirms that, 

“Online options can be great, but in person is better!”


Read part one of this series, “Digital fieldwork, pt. 1: Field methods” and "Digital fieldwork, pt. 2: PhD research" here


Image 1: Carmel O'Shannessy recording Jerry Jangla 

Image 2: Maxwell Walma Tasman Japanangka filming Jerry Jangala

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