about   |   writing   |   archives

Processing Field Study Experiences

Monterey: morning walks

They’ll be tears before bedtime.

After six weeks on the road, clocking up over 5,000 land-miles in China alone, it’s time to head home. Flight UA 877 touches down LAX 10:20 tomorrow morning.

Every journey includes a moment of realisation that this small but significant life-event is over – a moment that might be marked by the jangle of a key ring outside a front door; or the familiar embrace of a loved one.

The intensity of the experience, our highly collaborative – all under the same roof style of working is designed to rapidly bond ~10 relative strangers into a compelling, effective field research team. Assistants and guides are carefully screened to bring on board people with enough confidence to hustle, enough humility to know how to listen, with an intellectual honesty that keeps ideas flowing. There’s no room for freeloaders. As the time in the field progresses team members start to reveal their emotional selves, discussions about home, life, love and death can all make a look in. And the background is a study where (often) we’re processing extraordinary stories teased out of ‘ordinary people’ – our study participants.

For many of our assistants (and I’m referring to years of field studies, not just the most recent, eh crew) the shared journey ends up being a significant rite of passage: we generally hire young, on occasion teens; and with the ground rules in place give people the direction and resources they need to outperform. There’s nothing like sleep deprivation, a moral baseline, and a common purpose to warm the soul and deliver the data.

Monterey: morning walks

So it’s no surprise that the parting of ways, the goodbyes, a group photo, hugs, and for at least one in the group – eyes welling with tears. Which in itself is a natural enough expression, but one which can intensify what happens next – the decompression into ‘civilian life’. It takes time and a considerable amount of emotional energy to re-calibrate to normality: the daily commute; bills to pay; laundry; restocking the fridge; projects that should take a week but that stretch for months; renewing friendships; re-discovering why loved ones are so dearly loved.

One of the risks of intensive field studies is that of emotional burn-out – where, with the common purpose and context removed the motivation is gone. And if your research fix includes a continuos stream of adrenalin hits (hei) the come-down is all the more difficult.

Modern day corporate life doesn’t exactly help the traveling researcher – try being in the field for more than a few months a year and focussing on the job at hand when that job is under threat from the latest in a series of re-organisations and the people who you need to have your back are 10 time zone away (no not talking about now, just take your pick from any of the last 8 years gone by). Networks trump skills when it comes to getting ahead in the corporate hierarchy, and networks need nurturing.

Spent the last three days on a company retreat in Monterey, morning walks on the Pacific coast beach a decompression of sorts, before heading back in the LA studio.

Warm thanks to the China/Malaysia/Indonesia ground crews for pulling it all together these past 6 weeks: Panthea; KK; Anita; Echo; Hilda; Lorriane; Robbie & Didi.

Four hours to sun-up.

Zzz’s then taxi then flight then taxi then home.