'Open' Doctoral Research: Work-in-Progress
Stephen M. Lyon, University of Kent, Canterbury

village.gif (68956 bytes)Introduction
This paper was originally written from the village of Bhalot in northern Punjab, Pakistan in Spring 1999. Hence it is written in the present tense. At the time of writing I was conducting doctoral research on social organisation, economy and development in an agricultural village. I made two pilot surveys prior to coming for extended field work in December of 1998.In this paper I discuss the use of the internet and the world wide web in active field research. I look at some of the technical and ethical dilemmas of publishing semi-analysed or pre-analysed information and weigh that against the advantages in increased feedback and enforced rigour. The goal is not only about making field work more transparent (accessible to others) but also about producing more reliable data. The misunderstandings, misdirections, and outright mistakes may be opened to the scrutiny of others.

I am trying to do 'open' research. By this I mean that the process of how I get the data, as well as some of the data itself, is made available to others via the world wide web as I collect it. I also welcome the participation of other researchers and make a concerted effort to share my goals with informants. This does not mean there is no discretion and no information that is secret. Rather, information which is sure to eventually find its way into publication is made available in a rougher format. My research also involves thinking about how information technologies, particularly the internet and the world wide web, can be integrated in a serious and helpful way in extended ethnographic research. Finally, I attempt to maximise my use of electronic media to aid in data collection and storage in such a way that access to this data is simplified.

I set up a skeletal web site before leaving England and maintained it directly from the village. I used the www in interviews with individuals here and kept track of their reactions. I also videotaped events, interviews, songs and stories and played them back to individuals to get more information. Similarly, I recorded conversations, interviews, stories and songs in order both to improve my language skills and solicit additional information. Although in some ways I remain in my 'own world' to a greater extent than some anthropologists would approve, it has thus far proven its usefulness in several ways. It has increased feedback with external academics and non-academics, facilitated greater understanding of my role in the village and allowed me to be less selective in data collection and less systematic about data storage on a daily basis.

The ongoing web site is essentially a collection of text documents with some audio/video material. I have made available edited field notes. I write a header indicating the date, time of day, place and persons for every field note entry and an abstract for almost ever entry. The field notes file that I make available however is intentionally not a personal diary (though personal comments slip in). My real personal diary is not for publication and indeed will probably never be. To compensate for that I write a weekly update which resembles a personal diary in which I include how I feel about much of what happens in addition to a brief summary of the highlights of the week. I have tried to write monthly reports focusing on the ways I do research and some of the major topics. I have included a section in the web site for recorded music and some photographs as well as local writing (sadly local writing has not been tremendously forthcoming). As the research progressed I have found that there are things that simply did not fit into any of my preconceived categories and so they are simply linked to the front page in a list with particular themes. These include things like kinship terms, census information and photos.

Reflexivity and Open Ethnography
My doctoral research is an experiment in 'open' ethnography. I intended, from the onset of my PhD to have an ongoing web site while I was in the field. I wanted this for several reasons. First, I like the idea of sharing knowledge in such a way that mistakes can be made visible. Second, I like data and the world wide web and cd-rom are ideal for including large amounts of data that can be organised in usable and non-cluttering ways. Third, while I prefer single-authored ethnographies in publication, and intend to do my own that way, dialogue and feedback from others is invaluable. Creating a website enabled me to include my informants more directly in the process.

Anthropologists often share their mistakes in conversation but it is less common to see them appear in publication. Mistakes are unavoidable. The mistakes or problems of others are very helpful for the rest of us-- and reviewing our own mistakes is vital. I am neither better nor worse than other doctoral candidates so there is no reason to hide what I am doing. If I do it wrong then so be it. I do not really believe there is one 'right' way to do field work. Not all ways are good but there are a variety of ways one could do field work. Exposure has allowed others to critique what I am doing both face to face and through email (thanks to the web site). I am surprised at the number of comments I have received on what I am doing. Naturally I must reserve the final right to say and analyse things in a way that makes sense to me, but critical comment enable new ways of looking at things.

The amount of ethnographic data that sits and rots in cardboard boxes and file cabinets is saddening. Few anthropologists find a venue for the mass of the data they have produced during their field work and rarely find the time to process it all themselves. Publishing some data is problematic as the data may be of a sensitive nature1. Even when the 'sensitivity' level of the data is minimal, however, there are problems with using other people's field notes. I write my notes aware that they are to be made public, so I tend to include a little more information than is strictly necessary for myself. Reading through the late Pr. Paul Stirling's field notes online one quickly realises the difficulty of making sense of someone else's idiosyncratic shorthand and sloppy abbreviations. It took me several days to figure out that 'M.' in many of Professor Stirling's notes referred to his wife Margaret and not Mohammed. This abbreviation makes absolute sense if one happens to live with 'M.' but for the rest of us it is merely confusing. In addition to being a little more careful about writing my field notes (though admittedly I am not that careful) I am taking advantage of other projects developed in the last ten years at the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing at the University of Kent. The APFT Content Codes System provides a means of coding the content of field notes to render them more easily searchable and usable by other anthropologists (or indeed anyone interested). Ultimately having the field notes on line will allow users to simply type in a query and receive back a reasonable summary report on that query. So for example you could ask, 'Are the disputes in this Punjabi village very violent?' and you would receive a report summarising all of the reported disputes in my field notes and a crude analysis trying to answer the question. This is useful for me as well. I have an answer to that question but the report writer and semi-automated analysis may contradict me-- thus raising a point that perhaps should be more fully investigated. If my memory and my field notes do not come to the same conclusions then I need to understand why. Did something happen part way through my field work that caused me to reinterpret the data I was collecting? Did I collect data from different villages that skewed the field notes to reflect something different than what was common in the village I lived in? And so on. The idea is not to let the computer do my thinking for me but to use the computer to help point out areas that need further elaboration and/or investigation.

My strategies for conducting this kind of research and disseminating it come out of the growing body of 'on-line' ethnographic literature. At the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing at the University of Kent, for instance, important emphasis has been placed on making ethnographic materials available on the web. Much of it is not intended to be treated as 'finished' but rather as work-in-progress, the idea being to generate discussion. The website that I have most obviously attempted to pattern my website after is that of the late Paul Stirling. His '45 Years in a Turkish Village' provides almost the entirety of his available field notes, hundreds of photographs, his PhD dissertation and his classic book, A Turkish Village. I do not have the depth of information that he made available after 50 years of research but I acknowledge the influence. Michael Fischer and David Zeitlyn, also at CSAC and UKC, both publish active 'in-progress' research activities in addition to more completed works on the www2 . Zeitlyn's website on the Mambila of west Africa includes fun ethnographic things like riddles and a spider divination simulation. It also includes the more expected items like genealogies and what is certainly the most complete bibliography on the Mambila that I have ever come across (though admittedly I am not an Africanist). It is not possible to review all the available online literature here; I mention the websites which have most directly impacted on how I do my own research. Much of the impetus for this kind of publication has been as teaching aids, yet it also offers researchers an opportunity to examine each other's work and offer critiques on works-in-progress. This may have major implications for academics in countries like India and Pakistan, where internet facilities are superb but access to literature and international conferences are inadequate.

Sharing data

Increased feedback from outside the village.
Increased feedback within the village.

Increased feedback from outside the village.
My primary field site is the village of Bhalot. It is approximately one hour from Islamabad and Rawalpindi in northern Punjab, Pakistan. Proximity to two major urban centres has made it possible for me to visit other anthropologists. I have met with some Pakistani anthropologists as well as some foreign ones. I have accompanied four other anthropologists to their field sites in order to get some idea of how their field work methods differ from my own. I have had the pleasure of the visit of eight foreign and Pakistani anthropologists in the village. Some of them stayed several days, others merely came for a few hours. All of them have provided valuable insights for me. Watching the data that other people come up with simply because of their own interests has been fascinating and valuable. During my first month in the village, Dr. Lukas Werth, an anthropologist working on sufis and their followers, came and spent a few days in the village. I learned a great deal from listening to him speak to villagers about his own research interests. I do not want to write a thesis about Islam in the village but I have pursued the topic because, thanks to him, I saw things from a different angle - one that was compatible and even necessary to my own study. Another anthropologist, Dr. Anjum Alvi, suggested certain things about the role of magic and superstitions which lead me to investigate an area that I would probably have overlooked. For people who intend to spend 18 months to 2 years in the field perhaps all of these things simply come up on their own. I have planned a relatively short field work time (total time in the field should be roughly 1 year). I knew this was a short time to begin with so I came with very clear notions of what I wanted to do (most of which I have not done). However I knew I would not have the luxury of wasting my time. Sharing my field site and my data with available academics has proven to be a positive way of dealing with this. I find I often do not agree with the ways other anthropologists analyse the data but as they focus on different areas it helps to prod me in new directions.

In my preparation for field work I intended to be rather brief in my analysis of religion. I had long conversations with anthropologists in England who had worked in Islamic societies and thought this reasonable. Paul Stirling's Turkish study does not dwell in detail on the religious aspect of the village and I had hoped that I too might be able to bypass religion. I knew it was a factor and I intended to examine it as a background feature but had no intention of long religious conversations. Speaking to Dr. Werth and Dr. Alvi made me realise the extent to which religious relationships are an expression of the things I am very much interested in. The division in the village between Wahabis and Barelvis (a division within the Sunni community) can be mapped onto material and political divisions within the village. I am fascinated by the local politics and alliances of the area. Thanks to the encouragement and patience of outside anthropologists, I forced myself to look more deeply into areas of social life that I initially considered irrelevant to these issues, but which I now think are central to them 4. Moreover, Pakistan is not Turkey and what Paul Stirling found relevant in Turkey is not an absolute guide for me working 50 years on in South Asia.

A more recent dialogue with a sociologist caused me to reexamine my questionnaire. The criticisms he had of how I conducted the questionnaire and what purpose it served have helped clarify what I hope to get out of it. This sociologist is someone I have never met but he kindly took the time to contact me about our common points of interest (and common problems). Others might make similar sorts of comments once I get back to England but by then it will be too late to change the way things are done. In the end I did not end up changing the questionnaire, but I was forced to clarify and justify my methods.

Sharing my data with non-academics has proven equally fruitful. Villagers are curious about why a gora (a generic term for white men) has come to live in their village for one year. They are used to visitors but not used to visitors who stay for such a long time nor one from a European university. How to explain what I am doing and what I am investigating has not proven easy. In the beginning I tended to tell them what I was researching at the moment (agricultural techniques, Islamic ritual, marriage selection etc). They would then give me all the information I could cope with on that subject. I tried telling them that I was interested in every aspect of their lives and then they tried to include me in things they thought were the most important. I found this less satisfying since often what one person thinks is terribly important is quite boring. On one occasion I waited in the heat for a man to return home so I could then watch an ox turn a Persian wheel for several hours because I was assured this was the critical and fundamental aspect to Punjabi agriculture. It was indeed very picturesque and great fun once it started but I found the time devoted to benefit gained ratio a little on the dissatisfying side.

Collage.gif (24597 bytes)Increased feedback within the village.
Since February I have had the benefit of my weekly updates and monthly reports to share with those villagers who can read English. They in turn help to spread the information to others. It seems to have helped them to understand several things about my presence: 1. I am not a development worker come to hand out large sums of money, 2. I am pretty much interested in everything but I am most interested in how landlords manage to control this village, 3. I write down more of what they say and do than they realised. I have tried to be quite obvious about writing down what people tell me and what they do but they never fail to be surprised when I show them my edited notes, updates and reports. The first reaction is usually to laugh and exclaim something about how in depth my study is. I have not yet had any problems with someone being upset with what I have made public on the web site or in people being more careful in front of me.

Over all I believe villagers are very proud to have an anthropologist in their village and are very pleased to have a web site devoted to them. A better understanding of why I am in the village has tended to make people more helpful. They understand that I am human and that while I get bored and tired of some things they do, I am thoroughly enjoying my stay here. It is very important to villagers that I be happy and enjoy myself. I tell them this regularly but seeing it on the web site has somehow made it more real for them. A small number of men have taken it upon themselves to make sure that I get to see everything of importance in the life of a north Punjabi villager and my notes have helped them to identify where the gaps in my education are.

Lest I give the wrong impression, it is only a minority interested in reading my notes, updates or reports. Most people are not very interested in hearing lengthy descriptions of what I am researching. Once I have told people that I am studying aspects of their lives then that's enough for them and they change the subject. So I have not magically found myself in a village of amateur anthropologists who have a passion for looking at social organisation and relations.

The local man who I would say is something of an amateur anthropologist and who follows my web site the most closely is Malik Amiruddin. He is not actually a villager. He is married to a woman from the village but is a Gujar from the nearby city of Taxila. His interest in computers and the www predates my arrival by some time. His first reaction when it all became live was that it seemed very detailed but that all the interesting bits were cut out. He tried to persuade me to let him have access to the complete unedited notes. I have no doubt that I can trust him but as a principle I refused. His own family scandals would surely not be news to him but I must honour my assurances of confidentiality and I am not up to re-editing my notes to eliminate all non-Malik references. He has been very helpful in the areas that he finds the most interesting: Gujars and Gujarism, agriculture, cousin disputes. When he reads a comment on one of these topics that he finds skewed or inadequate I invariably end up having a long and instructive conversation about it. Most recently we spent an evening discussing the history of a neighbouring caste (which is somewhat disputed). He provided a valuable alternative history. He is always willing to speak, so I could get these stories from him without the web site. However, the presence of the web reports makes him feel more included in the research and hence a more active informant. Not everyone who reads the reports has something to say about them. Sometimes they merely correct small details ('So and so is not 65-- he's only 57,' etc). Sometimes they read the first few sentences and then take away the paper copy I give them to read later and we never discuss it. In spite of the lack of comment from some people, sharing the reports with my informants who can read English is one way of offering them the chance to have a more active input if they choose.

Using electronic media for data collection-- tools for feedback
I use the internet in interviews and conversations. I play back video tape taken in the village and other places. I play back audio recordings of stories, songs and conversations. This allows me to introduce new things to villagers and observe their reactions as well as show them things they are very familiar with and ask them to elaborate on those things.

WWW in Interviews
Audio/Video Playback

WWW in interviews
I was curious how people in a farming village in the Punjab would respond to access to the world wide web. Would they be interested in it all? What sorts of topics would they want to search for? How much credibility would they give information gathered from the www? I must admit that the experiment has not been entirely satisfactory for various reasons. Initially there was a great deal of interest because the first web site we looked at was the Semi-Arid Sustainable Development Project which made Bhalot its pilot village. There are photographs from the village along with some video clips. People enjoyed this immensely and it remains one of the first things they tell visitors about when speaking about me ('Our village is on the internet. We have one of the most famous villages in the Punjab.'). Interest was not restricted to the literate villagers though most of my web searches were done with literate men (I have never done a web search with a woman).

I let this activity slide after the first few weeks because I found I was mostly getting the same requests over and over from the same people. After people had seen their village on the web they wanted to search for luxury goods: perfume, cars, jewellery, watches. Then they wanted to see what information was available on illicit sites: alcohol, guns, women. The latter category is tricky because everyone who wanted to do these searches was also adamant that I not do illicit searches with anyone else. In particular, I was asked to never search illicit subjects for unmarried men. Unmarried men were deemed too immature and irresponsible to handle the abundance of pornography available on the web. I should add here that no one was very interested in these illicit sites once they saw them. I was unwilling to distribute my credit card number, even for a 'free trial' of any of these sites, so what we got was of rather low interest, even to men from a very gender segregated society. Over the following months I no longer initiated web searches with people (though I continued to show them my own web site and others that I thought would be of interest to them). Gradually men have begun taking an interest in searching the www again. This may be due to some recent Pakistani visitors returning from the States who actively use the www. I have done several searches on specific topics (watch prices, specific make and model of car, international news of Benazir Bhutto's conviction). The landlord's family, for the most part, find the internet very interesting but have thus far not shown any interest in surfing the net themselves. The non-landlord villagers are very curious but only for short periods of time. The one topic that received numerous requests for internet information was the recent Kashmir crisis. Many people in the village do not trust the information they receive from the television news reports-- especially as it is often contradicted in the Urdu daily papers. News from The Times and other British newspapers was deemed to be significantly more credible than locally available news.

So while I have not found these www interviews to have been the most productive or valuable use of time in terms of data collection I have found that they provided an excuse for people to come and spend time with me in the very early days when my language skills were grossly inadequate (whereas today they are merely inadequate). It was an immediate way to share some of what I do with people so they could see how some of the data from my research will be used. I will probably never know if it helped to put them more at ease with me or provided more of a barrier in the beginning. At this point I feel comfortable with the villagers I work with most closely and do not think that any mistakes I made in the early weeks have had any lasting impact on our relationship.

Audio/Video recording playback.
Recording events, so far as I can tell, are almost always unproblematic in the village I am working in. I have been asked for religious reasons not to photograph a handful or individuals (which I have respected though these individuals were criticised by others for their stand). I have avoided photographing or videotaping funerals for personal reasons (I do not enjoy videotapes of people crying and suffering), but have had to politely refuse to do this. I have attended several funerals where professional cameramen were brought in to videotape the event3 . I have asked informants to repeat various common actions and display items with brief explanations of their use (like praying, toba, and the tools of a barber's trade etc). I have recorded these with the intention of using them both as aide memoire and to show to others in order to get more than one explanation about these things. Similarly, I intend to use a portion of this material on the web site, in the hope that users of the web site will be able to provide additional information on particular things they see.

Audio recordings of songs and stories are useful for several reasons. They provide me with examples of natural language to try and help me improve my language skills. Although I can easily get Urdu language tapes and even Eastern Punjabi language tapes, I have yet to come across a Potohari Punjabi language tape. By recording these stories I hear typical phrases and accents that I can then try and imitate to help make myself better understood. Furthermore, these recordings have helped me to learn more about such things as the role of shrines and holy men in the area. People come to my room and request particular stories that they know I have recorded. Whether they know the story in advance or not they enjoy listening to the stories repeatedly. While we listen I ask them about the stories. One of the questions I have frequently asked about the stories regarding Holy men is whether people believe literally in the story. Interestingly, the breakdown of people who believe word for word in the story does not correspond to whether or not someone is literate/educated or not.

Dangers and drawbacks to ongoing open ethnography
I am aware, as is my department at the University of Kent, that there are potential risks involved in conducting 'open' ethnography. My data has undergone only a very preliminary processing. I have not yet had the time to put my observations and experiences together properly. Things that may potentially embarrass or harm individuals might slip through in the rush to get things prepared and published on the web site. I do not believe that these dangers are more real for web publication than for other kinds of publication and they are more easily corrected in web publications than hard copy ones. My web site is seen by local people. In the village I show the web site to anyone who asks and I push others into looking so they can be my guide-- if I have put something embarrassing or hurtful up inadvertently then I want to modify or remove it. At this stage I am trying to be more careful about protecting individual's feelings than providing as complete a picture as possible. At a later stage when it is possible to disguise individuals and villages and hamlets more effectively then I can deal with some of the more sensitive material.

A final danger is that perhaps I spend too much time preparing and processing data when I should be collecting/producing more data. I have a simple and a complex answer to this question. The simple one is that I simply cannot cope with 16 hours a day of collecting/producing data. The more complex one is still not so difficult. The break from getting new data has proven invaluable to me. Going over the recent data helps to keep me focused on what is most interesting to me. Going back through all my notes from time to time helps remind me of the things I thought were fascinating at one point and now hardly notice. I am better equipped now to go after particular information than I was in the first few weeks/months. At that time I allowed myself to be guided almost entirely by my hosts and followed their lives as a passive observer/participant. With only a short time left in the field I control my time more strictly and focus on things that I see are missing in my notes. The extra time devoted to making my notes accessible to others has rendered them more accessible to myself as well. The weekly updates, for all their superficial 'lightness', help me anchor events so I can look for them in my notes when I am ready for that topic. The monthly reports have not proven as useful since I have found them to be far more time consuming and demanding of greater thought. As I have said, I try to avoid over analysing at this stage and the monthly reports I find demand slightly more analysis than I am ready for just yet. The way I have gotten around this is quite simple - I do not do the analysis that the monthly reports require. I have opted for more superficial and consequently less beneficial reports in the hopes that I may be able to use these as prompts for papers in the future.

Web publication and 'open' ethnography are two different things. The web makes the kind of 'open' ethnography I am doing possible but does not in any way enforce it. Being transparent and giving access to information as it is being collected carries risks and offers greater opportunities for dialogue both in the field site as well as outside it. In this paper I have argued that making data and methods available for scrutiny should, in the long run, produce better data. It is a slightly different kind of ethnography which provides greater flexibility and input from sources which can not be predicted in advance. Although most of the villagers cannot read English I have tried to keep them informed of what happens to the information. Most people have not chosen to comment on this data or the way it is being presented but enough have that the experiment has been successful.

The risks imagined have thus far not materialised. My physical safety has not been put in jeopardy as a result of anything I have put on the web site nor by the fact that I share information with a wide variety of people. People do not seem to suddenly go quiet on certain topics because they realise I know too much about a family squabble or a bad reputation. Quite the contrary. Once people learn I know a little about a subject they seem eager to fill me in with their version. The time devoted to the computer has not eaten up all my available time and forced me into being a desk bound anthropologist. It has allowed me to devote more time to being with people without worrying about organising my notes since that is done semi-automatically.

The exchange of information I have enjoyed with individuals I already knew, as well as with individuals I have never met, has enriched my research. I can honestly say that the research I am doing would not have been the same without the input of so many individuals. I have not always agreed with them by any means but they have helped me to shift my focus and see things from a different point of view.

I was pleased at the opportunity to advertise a bit about ongoing open ethnography because I would like to see something like what I am doing become the norm in anthropology where it is possible. The ongoing part of setting and maintaining a web site is more of a hassle than I would like but I expect it to get far simpler in the near future. Doing this from a remote jungle with no telephone lines poses more problems as the cost and technologies necessary begin to get prohibitive. In many parts of South Asia, however, computers and internet access arecommonplace. The village I live in does not have a single computer apart from my own but it has several residents who have studied computer operations and are familiar with what I am doing. There are two internet service providers in Taxila (that I know of) and the number in Islamabad and Rawalpindi are expanding every month. I would very much like to follow someone else's progress and enter into some sort of dialogue with other people in the field. Many of the problems that we face will certainly be different but ways of coming up with solutions are as important as actual solutions themselves. If I can follow other people's rationale for why and how they decided on a course of action then it may suggest new ways of looking at my own problems.

All in all, in spite of the added headache and the intrusion into what many anthropologists consider a 'sacred' time, I have no regrets at choosing to disseminate the information while still in the field. The benefit from the added input has contributed enormously to my ability to integrate and move in the direction that is most interesting to me.


1. Almost all anthropologists seem to think their data is of a highly sensitive nature-- while I am dubious of this I recognise that some of it does need to be treated with great care.

2. These and other research projects are accessible from http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk

3. Apologies to my village friends who are very sincere about their religion and would never agree with this analysis. Nevertheless I cannot help but make this association at this point based on what I have seen and heard.

4. Funerals may be an area I am open to criticism for having neglected. There is something very morbid about a video or still camera intruding into people's most private moments after they have lost a loved one and I have made the decision that since this is not a primary focus of my thesis I will not do this. If it were a primary part of my thesis then I would probably do it as I know that obtaining the permission of family members is often relatively easy. However, people focus on what they find the most interesting and significant aspects of a group rather than merely on those things they have access too.