Fieldwork is about freezing your ass off and being patient.
Two months ago, I read an email from the Social Science Research Institute list-host looking for participants to join a research team in South Carolina over the holidays. A faculty member in environmental policy was going to lead a team of student researchers in interviewing people in Columbia, SC about the fall 2015 floods. The floods were estimated to have caused a billion in damages, and the governor issued a state of emergency. Though my area of interest and expertise isn’t environmental policy, I sent along an email anyway, interviewed, and was accepted, much to my delight.
So on Sunday, Steve drove me down to Columbia, where we had lunch and walked around the USC campus before he dropped me off at our rented house in Lake Murray. We stopped near the end of a gravel road and emerged into the grassy driveway of a big white house, with the lakeshore behind it. Before we did anything else, we first walked down to the shore, admiring the large towering pine trees along the way and the circle of tree stumps and fire pit. The lake lapped at the shore calmly, and we could walk out on a short wooden pier that was obviously used for fishing and swimming and docking a few small boats. It was beautiful and calm, and I took some deep breaths that made me feel incredibly happy to be there. The inside had four bedrooms, two with a queen and king-sized bed respectively, and two with two twin beds each. The living and dining rooms and kitchens were all open-air. It was a comfortable vacation house equipped for the summer, with the slightly dry and musty smell of an older home.
That evening, gathered around the dinner table over some veggie pasta and a salad that was crowd-sourced, we all introduced ourselves. Betsy is our faculty lead, who has done research around natural disaster policy for a long time. She got her own PhD at Duke years ago, and then came back to teach. I found myself in the position of the oldest student, with four other students – two sophomores and two freshmen undergraduates. Four of us were women, and one of us was a man. We talked about what we were interested in getting out of the experience, and what the fieldwork conducted before Christmas had already revealed. We were working with a primarily African American population who had experienced extreme flooding in October. Poring over a map, we learned about how the flooding and serious damage happened in spots, with some apartment complexes so badly damaged that residents still can’t get in. We learned about the informed consent form we would present, the survey we would guide participants through on the computer or on the iPad, and the interview that we would record using audio recorders.
We’ve been here for four days now. In the morning, we get up early around 7 am and leave our beach house by 8 am to drive across town to our Research Mobile. We spend the half-an hour commute telling stories, switching back and forth between radio channels, and learning more about each other. When we get to the Research Mobile, it is usually unforgivingly cold. South Carolina usually has warm winters, but yesterday had a balmy high of 43. The Research Mobile is a product of the Social Science Research Institute, a large Winnebago that has been refitted. Two sections push out on each side of the Winnebago, for a total of four small interview rooms. The remaining spaces are two large tables and two comfy leather couches. On the outside, it says Researching Human Experience, with a some dark blue silhouettes of people. When we arrive, we set up the iPads and the laptops we use for the surveying and interviewing, and crank up the temperature as well as set the space heaters to blasting at full speed. Betsy actually bought us some gloves and socks so we could get warmer! Mornings are typically quiet, with few visitors. We pass the time by making extra folders, uploading audio files from the last day’s interviews, reading, or sharing stories. For a bathroom, we visit the library a block away or the gas station on the either side. There are coffee runs to Chick-Fil-A, which is across the street.
During the day, we greet guests who come in looking expectant and unsure of what to do. We usher them inside, offer them snacks and water, and guide them through the survey on an iPad, and then interview them in one of the cubicles, which are sound-resistant. A digital audio recorder sit between us as we listen to their stories – people who lost chickens and pets in the flood, who didn’t realize it was going to be such a big flood, who still haven’t been able to go back to their apartments, who have mildew and bug infestations in their homes and don’t know how FEMA rejected their claim. Their stories are intimidating, but they seem happy to discuss their trial with someone. The $10 gift card for Walmart helps things a bit too. It’s hard for some to dissect terms like “100-year floodplain” or to say whether the city needs to do a better job on “floodplain zoning”. There are even some people who have shown up twice with fake IDs to try to get another gift card.
Part of our job earlier on in the week was flyering and outreach – Betsy or someone else with a car drove us out to various parts of town close to houses and neighborhoods affected by the flooding. We would stick flyers on top of mailboxes of houses that had been flooded (Betsy finding the telltale sign of the construction POD set up to receive detritus) and walk into local stores and cafés to ask if we could put it up. I accompanied Betsy to flyer downtown and two different areas; one was more affluent and near man-made lakes whose dams were supposed to be maintained by homeowner’s associations and had failed. We spoke to a woman pushing a stroller across a ruined bridge, with trees that had fallen over the bridge because the water had clawed at the banks and uprooted them. Those houses had cost well over $500,000 to a million, with large footprints and a beautiful view. We also visited another less affluent area with houses right off the Congaree River, one of the two in Columbia, and stuck flyers where we could. I even walked down the pick-up line at a local high school and handed flyers to waiting parents.
One of our crowning achievements while we waited for more people to come was to craft a wind blocker. The first day we were here, the wind was unforgiving, but we looked like we were closed with the door firmly shut. So Betsy made a Target run and got a transparent, plastic shower liner, which we taped to the top and weighed down with rocks at the bottom, taping and stapling them in place. The result was a fairly study piece that blocked the wind from coming in and didn’t move around too much, keeping in our precious warm air. None of us were engineers, but it did boost our self-esteem to make that work. There’s also a funny little tilt toward the end of the Winnebago, and we’re about a degree or two off level, which causes our office chairs to roll down the incline. We giggle about this sometimes. We have a lot of drawing supplies for when people come with children, including Star Wars and Dora the Explorer coloring books, so during a vacant stretch yesterday, I made a large drawing of Vader colored according to the advertised drawing, and now it’s hanging up in our space.
By 6 pm, we clean up the place, take out the trash and organize our supplies. We load back into the cars and nap or listen to music on the way back, thoroughly tired out. We set up a cooking schedule so that nearly everyone has a chance to cook dinner. I made chicken stir-fry for the first night, and in subsequent nights, we enjoyed chicken tortilla soup, salmon with spinach, and even lasagna. I persuaded Betsy to buy cherry pie while we were out with ice cream, which was a fun treat. I try to get some work done and call Steve to share our news for the day, but far too early, it gets to being 10 pm or 11 pm.
I have one more day with the Research Mobile, and then Steve picks me up tomorrow at noon. We’ll get lunch in Columbia and make it back slowly to Greenville to spend the rest of the day. In the spring semester, I’m looking forward to analyzing the data we collected and learning how to qualitatively code these interviews.