I am fascinated by theory. That may seem a strange way to answer the question of why fieldwork is so important to my research. But that love for theory is not a retreat from the empirical, but a mode of engaging with the world. Theory is worldly. I continue to read across a wealth of postcolonial and latterly so-called decolonial thought. And – like many of my generation, and those before and since – my efforts to write and teach geography are shaped by prior and ongoing revolutions in geographic thought and shifts to the structure and composition of geography and geographers. But my reading (and writing) of theory remains in continual dialogue with my fieldwork, extending over more than three decades; from Mozambique and elsewhere in Southern Africa, then to Portugal and its borderlands with Spain, to the Persian Gulf cities of Abu Dhabi and Doha, plus Cambodia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Myanmar. The theories and fields are entangled. Theory has a geography – it comes from somewhere. And fieldwork means immersion in different contexts where theory has been formed or is transformed. This may sound rather abstract. But fieldwork sharpens theory. This is often quite protracted and subtle. Fieldwork makes for better theory. Or to put it another way, fieldwork tempers theory. I think something similar is experienced by many other geographers. It gives our discipline an edge.
The recent book that I co-authored Securityscapes: dispatches from Cambodia, Iraq and Mozambique (University of Georgia Press, Athens GA, 2022), as it is a distillation of many years of research, in multiple sites. It reflects a prolonged arc of scholarship and reflection and I am proud of that.
It was long in the making. I had first been in Mozambique as a doctoral student at the start of the 1990s. I returned there 20 years on with the co-author of the book, Till F Paasche (Soran University, Kurdistan Region, Iraq) whose own doctorate I served as a co-advisor for (with Richard Yarwood at the University of Plymouth). Till and I didn’t know at the time that our research would yield one of the ‘dispatches’ in the book. But we began experimenting with a method of ‘transects’ – a mobile ethnography, initially through the Mozambican capital city of Maputo. We then adapted this method in Phenom Penh and Iraqi Kurdistan. For more about the book and our development of and reflections on the methods, this podcast may be of interest. Since, I have also adopted the transect method in Mecca and Yangon, in the latter case with another former graduate student (Jasnea Sarma, University of Zurich).
The idea of a transect is an old one, used in biological sciences and geography. We are mindful of that history, but our transects are also informed by other literatures on walking methods and mobile ethnography and an array of work in political and urban geography and area studies.
Beyond the case studies and the connections between them, we hope the book will be of wider methodological interest and in this sense may be helpful to and encourage others to experiment with the transects as a mode of fieldwork encounter and a narrative strategy.
Perhaps one way to answer this is to admit that I think that, over time, as I grow older, I have become less worried about my lack of competence. As I think back to the early years, I recall that I was concerned that my research was not rigorous enough or lacked depth. This led to doubts about what I was doing and on what authority/basis I was making claims. Whilst my research has stark limits, I am less worried about these with time. This is because I have come to see those limits as structures to be negotiated and themselves the basis for reflection and discussion. This recognition does not preclude critical writing. Indeed, a nuanced sense of limits and how these reflect who writes what, from where, and the basis on which they claim authority or bear witness is vital.
My advice is simple. To read very widely and across languages and disciplines, domains and genres. Geography has the advantage of being a very open subject. This means that insights from wider readings are welcomed and can find a home in geography. This is part of what makes geography so rich with potential.
Professor James D Sidaway
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20 May 2020
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