Blog: NGOST project case-study site in Spain

October 27, 2020

By Abel Beremenyi

The search for the second case-study site for my comparative research project has been driven by fundamentally different rationalities than the first, in Hungary. Surely, many ethnographic research projects have suffered changes in their design, approach or even feasibility.

Due to my previous research experience with Roma young people in Catalonia, originally, I was convinced that finding the right research site was going to be a question of obtaining the best access conditions through professional and personal networks. I decided not to repeat any previous research sites, and to make the most of the funding opportunity to gain an insight into a - by me - unknown Roma community.

At 30 km from Barcelona, a mid-size city, let’s call it Taulell, hosts a large and very heterogenous Roma community, which began to grow in the 1970s due to rural-urban migration tendencies. One district hosts a large number of Roma families, from different origin and migration trajectories. The rest of the Roma community lives dispersed in other working-class outskirts together with families of Spanish and foreign origin.

Main motivations in the field choice

The field choice was driven by several factors. Firstly, in the preparatory interviews I found out that there were very few ethnically targeted interventions and no Roma-related research activity in this city, as opposed to Barcelona and the metropolitan area. Secondly, its Roma population seems to be less organised in formal representative units or associations, which suggested weak ethnic activity based on ethnicity, but may have implied stronger participation in other-than-ethnic causes. Third, I could collect a general opinion about the inexistence of young Roma people with post-compulsory credentials, whether they were vocational education or academic tracks. Four, among civil society actors and local administration staff I could perceive a clear interest and disposition to collaborate in the research project.

How COVID-19 effects ethnography

The start of the fieldwork coincided with the softening of strict mobility restrictions due to COVID-19 measures, in May 2020. In fact, the exploratory interviews were still conducted through phone calls. It became evident that ordinary fieldwork with participant observation and intensive physical presence among the Roma young people would not be possible in any way. Particularly, because Spanish Roma living in poor neighbourhoods suffered an above average loss of elderly people, meaning that many families were in mourning. In this context of fear from physical contact, closed centres for community meetings (mainly, Evangelical churches), withdrawal of children and young people from school and youth centres, and a general reluctance to speak with unknown persons offered very limited opportunities. Although young people are absolutely happy with using Whatsapp and Messenger for communication, the personal meeting may result necessary for establishing trust and shared sympathy for the project objectives. It does not only effect the quality of unstructured interviews, but also the possibility of contacting further interviewees through snow-ball technic.

Rethinking fieldwork, challenging Covid through collaborative research

These circumstances made me rethink ethnography and prepare a “patchwork ethnography” (Günel, Varma, & Watanabe, 2020), meaning a process designed around short-term, often online, field visits that lead to fragmented but still contrasted and rigorous data and “other innovations that resist the fixity, holism, and certainty” generally required from a coherent ethnographic fieldwork. The abovementioned authors who coined the term “patchwork ethnography” do not only insist on the fragmented physical presence on the research site, but also on the combination of home and field. Also, in the face of the current pandemic, ethnographers are required to face an increased family demand in unusual school timetable adapted to health-related protocols.

To face these challenges and partly due to fortunate circumstances, the Spanish part of the project has luckily included two Roma women as co-researchers, who are expected to contribute further insights, knowledge, experience and critical points of views to the data.

This opportunity has taken the research process into a collaborative approach, with further gains and challenges. Their personal and professional familiarity with Spanish working-class Roma life, and experience in assisting Roma young people in their school-to-work transition will certainly create added value not only to data collection and analysis, but also in the social impact of the expected results.

Reference

Günel, G., Varma, S., & Watanabe, C. (2020). A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography. Member Voices - Society for Cultural Anthropology. Retrieved from https://culanth.org/fieldsights/a-manifesto-for-patchwork-ethnography

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