We’re goin’ to the field site, I’m not afraid!

06 January 2022

Myles Bittner

Starting ethnographic fieldwork during a global pandemic was something no amount of academic training could have ever prepared me for. Sitting in lecture after lecture I had an idea about what ethnography “should” look like, but I knew once it was my time to embark on this journey, I would need to pave my own path. As I advanced through my college career, I was excited to finally be getting to the point where my mentors and colleagues were going to support me in my own research agendas. I wrote proposals, grants and countless research designs and was ready to go out into the field.

The field I pictured involved collaborating with current early childhood educators, students, administrators, and families to explore how young children engage in every- day literacy practices. I would be spending time in classrooms observing students’ making sense of the world around them and understanding how they use literacy to navigate educational structures with support from their teachers and community. This immersive experience would create an opportunity for me to follow in the footsteps of so many educational ethnographers that I had long admired. I wanted nothing more than to be completely engrossed by the field, because that is what I expected good ethnography to look like. I spent years working in these settings and aspired to return as a researcher to contribute to a growing perspective that pushes the boundaries on what we view as literacy practices (Bentley & Souto-Manning, 2019; Comber, 2011; Dyson, 2013; Kuby & Rucker, 2020). However, as I started wrapping up my degree requirements as a graduate student and had the space and time to transition into dissertation data collection our world was taken over by Covid-19. Schools shut down, people isolated in their homes and while many early childhood centers remained open as essential services, the last thing they wanted was some outsider coming to do research and possibly bringing the virus along.

I had no choice but to shift to online methods of ethnographic data collection. While many have been doing this work for quite some time (Pink et al., 2016), it was new to me and something I realized I had little training on. Building rapport through video conferences, having limited windows of time with participants that did not allow for informal dialogue and doing this all from my home was not what I expected in fieldwork. What I found in this modified reality is that my academic training taught me to see the field in one very specific way that did not accommodate for this new existence.

Reflecting on this further highlighted how dangerous a singular view truly is to upcoming ethnographers and how it does not make space for those without access to needed resources and spaces. The field that I expected demanded that as ethnographer, I take an extended amount of time away from regular life, possibly leaving behind a steady paying job, family, and any stability I once knew. While this seems idealistic in countless ways, there are many that it also is not even a consideration for.

Ethnography as a researching practice cannot let this singular definition of fieldwork remain as the dominant narrative. While it took a pandemic for these unrealistic expectations to become clear for me, I know many colleagues who feel the same way. I believe it is time we openly discuss the dangers in this mindset, the one that says good ethnography can only happen when we abandon all that we know and give ourselves completely to our respective sites. Good ethnography happens when we as researchers care deeply about our participant communities and are invested in the work being done because it is a part of who we are.

Ethnography as a researching practice cannot let this singular definition of fieldwork remain as the dominant narrative.

I was inspired in this reflection by a story I had long been familiar with during my years teaching. Michael Rosen’s “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” seemed to encapsulate that central idea of gathering the tools and equipment one needs for a long journey only to be frightened by what we see at the end. I have borrowed the format of Rosen’s well-known children’s story to create my own version of what I thought I knew about ethnographic fieldwork.

We’re goin’ to the field site
We’re going to find the big one,
I’m not scared
What a beautiful day!
Oh Look! It’s some locals, ready to chat! Can’t just survey them, Can’t just quantify them,
Can’t just analyze them,
Got to go interview them!

We’re goin’ to the field site We’re going to find the big one, I’m not scared What a beautiful day!
Oh look! It’s a celebratory dance. Can’t just watch it,
Can’t just record it,

Can’t just talk about it, Guess I’ll join in!

We’re goin’ to the field site
We’re going to find the big one,
I’m not scared
What a beautiful day!
Oh look! It’s a longstanding societal system of inequality. Can’t find the cause of it, Can’t wait for others to fix it,
Can’t use money to solve it,
Guess I’ll hear all sides!

We’re goin’ to the field site
We’re going to find the big one,
I’m not scared
What a beautiful day!
Oh look! It’s almost time to leave. Can’t go a global pandemic is starting, Can’t go we’re

supposed to isolate, Can’t go I’m stuck at my desk, Guess I’ll figure something else out…

Uh, oh! It’s dark in here. I don’t know what to do, I’ve got all my tools, I’ve read a lot of books. It’s time to do something!

Hurry back to my computer,
Back to the skills I’ve learned
Back to the theory I know
Run in the house and lock the door. Phew! Ethnography is here.

I’m not afraid!

My goal in exploring the tensions and dissonance experienced in this journey is to highlight how my expectations were nowhere near my reality. I felt that I had learned the tools of the trade and engaged with the literature. However, as I embarked on my moment, I found my planned fieldwork was not possible. Overtime, I found hope in looking beyond my expectations and was supported in my reflection by others who have grappled with similar ideas (Günel et al., 2020; Orellana, 2020). I move forward with the questions of how to continue in my own ethnographic journey and how I stay cognizant of no longer contributing to these unrealistic ideas within ethnographic research. It remains important for ethnographers to think about the ways we talk about fieldwork in order to make space for the lived realities of those navigating the messiness of life. If left to these underlying expectations of what our work should look like, we as a discipline will continue to silo a singular reality and push those unable to access it away.


Bentley, D. & Souto-Manning, M. (2019). Pre-k stories: Playing with authorship and integrating curriculum in early childhood. Teachers College Press.

Comber, B. (2011). Critical literacy in the early years: Emergence and sustenance in an age of accountability. In Larson, J & Marsh, J. (Eds.) Handbook of Research in Early Childhood Literacy.

Dyson, A. H. (2013). Rewriting the basics: Literacy learning in children’s cultures. Teachers College Press.

Günel, G., Varma, S. & Watanabe, C. (2020). A manifesto for patchwork ethnography. Member Voices, Fieldsights, June 9.

Kuby, C. & Rucker, T. (2020). (Re)Thinking children as fully (in)human and literacies as otherwise through (re)etymologizing intervene and inequality. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. 20(1), 13-43.

Pink, S., Horst, H., Postill, J., Hjorth, L., Lewis, T., & Tacchi, J. (2016). Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice. SAGE Publications.

Orellana, M. (2020). Mindful ethnography: Mind, Heart and Activity for Transformative Social Research. Routledge.

Myles Bittner in a PhD Student in the department of Language, Literacy & Culture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research centers around literacy practices and how educators can support engagement with global issues in early childhood education settings.

Featured Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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