Considerations for working in a foreign field
As an undergraduate student my summer job was as a crew member on board various luxury superyachts in the Mediterranean. When pondering initial dissertation ideas I was inspired by Philip Crang’s (1994) paper on conducting ethnographic research in his place of work. Encouraged by the possibility of combining casual employment with geographical research, I knew right away that I wanted to study the luxury superyachting industry. I discussed my research aims and objectives with the crew before arriving to the yacht, and openly discussed my observations once on board. This overt approach with the crew was essential in order to establish trust and in ensuring participation (see Spence 2014; and also Chapter 7). Working full time, being continuously mobile, and often out of reach of shore led to many practical challenges that ultimately shaped my research along the way.
Conducting ethnographic research in my place of work meant that significant costs, typical of conducting research in a foreign field (including accommodation, travel, and insurance), were taken care of. Travelling with a British passport enabled the free movement between nation states in Europe without visas. That said, before leaving I had to ensure that I had plenty of time left on my passport to avoid any difficulties with various port authorities.
Securing employment on board in order to conduct my research relied upon on having up-to-date sea survival, firefighting and medical certificates. I already held a valid sea survival certificate and so avoided the significant upfront costs that would have otherwise hampered my research. The yacht is a highly regulated working environment and in addition to sea survival training the crew had weekly emergency drills. Being away from the rapid response of terrestrial emergency services made conducting research at sea at bit more precarious. My risk assessment completed months beforehand were testament to this.
On board we were fortunate enough to have good internet access, so I was able to keep in regular contact with friends and family via email and Skype. In the field I purchased a pay-as-you go SIM card to use in an old mobile so that I had multiple low-cost ways of keeping in contact at sea and ashore. Email became invaluable for keeping an open line of communication with my dissertation supervisor. Despite being hundreds of miles away and bobbing around at sea, regular contact enabled me to keep my research on track.
Working full or part time and conducting research at the same time is not the easiest option. I had to be disciplined with my free time and ensure that I was making good progress. Having said that, I took full advantage of being in amazing locations, with a fantastic group of people from all over the world. Research can and should be hard work, but with the right project and appropriate pre-planning it can and should be a lot of fun too.
Emma Spence is a PhD student in the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University. Emma’s research focuses upon elite and superrich mobility in the context of the luxury superyachting industry. She has published articles on this topic in the journals Area and Mobilities.