One of anthropology’s greatest strengths is committing to holistic research that emphasizes personal experiences. Due to this approach, anthropology provides researchers with the unique position to contribute evaluations to the field of science that can span and encompass macro and micro-level data. While this approach undoubtedly contributes to rich, meaningful analyses, anthropology as a discipline overlooks how field study affects researchers—or worse, considers researchers’ reactions while in the field trivial compared to their potential future contributions.
As a doctoral candidate currently conducting research, I find myself regularly checking in with other students and anthropologists to affirm that I am not alone in feeling like I am sinking in an ever-tumultuous world as I complete fieldwork. I cannot deny the power of anthropological research in the quest for robust and crucial knowledge, but neither can I deny the impact such work has on the individual in the field. Incorporating a holistic approach requires a breadth of scope that can often be overwhelming in itself. When this is compounded with the emotional work that accompanies the immersion of the researcher into the very personal matters of participants, I sometimes start to feel like I am being dragged under in the expansive sea of fieldwork. Global concerns combined with research concerns can make it feel difficult to stay afloat. Waves of information collide over me as a researcher, and if precautions are not taken, my mental health may start to erode and collapse like cliffs along a shoreline.
Part of the issue lies with the essence of what it means to be both a researcher and a human simultaneously. I must stay vigilant in my efforts to conduct myself ethically and to ensure I cause no harm to those brave and kind enough to invite me into their lives. So often in anthropology, I find myself embedded in research situations where hardship, marginalization, and suffering take place—each a wave poised to crash into me as I am invested in the lives of my participants. Further, being a researcher does not mean that I stop being a person, that I magically refrain from being an individual with my own concerns and troubles. As such, fieldwork is a turbulent sea with an endless potential for storms on the horizons. Even if I could somehow enjoy a perfect research experience, I still must face the reality of living in a world of uncertainty. War, illness, climate change, inequity, economic and governmental instability; the loss or denial of basic human rights: each represents a potential wave that can appear at any point, disrupting my mental health. Anthropological fieldwork has, and always will, be embedded within a complicated, messy world. But who can navigate such waters unscathed? And how do I protect myself from the often seemingly endless barrage of waves dragging me under?
The answer is deceptively obvious: I treat my mental health the same way I treat my equipment in the field. No anthropologist would be taken aback by a researcher’s desire to prepare the necessary tools for fieldwork prior to starting research. Nobody would scoff at the idea of having notebooks, recorders, or laptops ready for the field. So, too, should be the case for my efforts to care for my mental health. This simple idea, the notion that I should treat myself and my mind as valuable research tools, is perhaps the best piece of advice given to me as a student preparing to enter the field. If I need to take notes, I bring pens; if I need to endure research that will wear on me mentally, I prepare for that as well. In whatever way that preparation manifests, whether therapy or self-care techniques, taking steps to protect myself while in the field is responsible and necessary. I must remember that I am never truly alone. When the waves start to overwhelm me, I can reach out for that life preserver—it is available, and it is effective. I find the method that works for me, prioritize it, and protect myself. No one needs to drown during fieldwork to be an anthropologist.