Fieldwork diaries volume 1: Foraying into the social science world

The last few months I’ve started doing my social fieldwork down in Brixham which has consisted of me interviewing fishermen and other relevant stakeholders in the industry. It’s my first time doing this sort of thing and it has certainly been an eye opening experience so far! Social science is a whole other ball game compared to the data crunching, statistical modelling work I’ve been doing over the past few years, so it’s been both a refreshing change whilst also a challenging learning curve. Overall I’m really enjoying the experience – I’m learning loads of new things and insights about UK fisheries that quite frankly you’d never learn from a textbook, I’m meeting some really lovely people, and also managing to get some pretty cool information (I hope at least!) at the same time. Sure there have been a few ‘interesting’ moments shall we say, but overall I’m loving getting out of the office, into the ‘real world’ and pretending to be a social scientist.

As I enjoy a list, here are some initial things I’ve realised so far:

1. Turns out interviewing is actually kind of hard

I mean, I never thought it was going to be easy, but interviewing definitely requires very specific skills that I’m still trying to get better at. A few things spring to mind, for instance being able to know when to get people to expand on topics if you think they have more to share, getting people to even open up in the first place, being able to prompt but not in too much of a leading way, and being able to subtly stop people talking for the sake of not letting them get fatigued after the first few questions! It’s a bit trickier than it seems.

2. You find yourself clutching cakes and looking desperate whilst walking around a fish quay, and inwardly at times question your life choices

Some fishermen I’ve been introduced to via others or had their contact details given to me to ring up. But I’m increasingly finding that the best way to find people to interview is to walk round the quayside and just say hello and offer cake. It was pretty daunting at first (and to be honest I still find it so) but actually on the whole most people are pretty alright with you once you’ve explained who you are (and convinced them you aren’t some ‘greenie’ with a hidden agenda…)

3. Paper diaries become your best friend

I thought I was like, so over paper diaries. I mean I have an online calendar that links with all my gadgets. Turns out they’re pretty useless when you are on the phone to someone with no computer and only a pen, but need to plan when you’re going to fit them in with the other people you already have lined up. Paper diaries for the win.

4. Ditto dictaphone

If I lose this then my field notes alone really aren’t going to help that much (Note to self: improve on this). Writing and taking notes whilst trying to conduct an interview is quite hard!

5. You start to become obsessed with boats and where they are and when they’ll be back

I clutch my vessel list for approximately 50% of my time whilst I’m down in Brixham, frantically checking what boats are at the quay and who I can try to interview next. And forget facebook stalking, it’s all about tracking boats on It doesn’t help that every time I speak to a fishermen they add a new boat to the list of people I should talk to.

6. Finding a good café is like hitting the jackpot

A café where you can interview people, where fishermen hang out (and so you can sneakily creep up on them and ask for an interview), where you can work and transcribe interviews and also have a secret toilet cry when things get stressful is a god send. The best give you free tea too.

7. Persistence and ‘ballsiness’ are attributes that will serve you well in this game…

Some people are trickier to interview than others. Or to pin down in general. On constant repeat in my head: keep at it girl, one day you will speak to all the fishermen in the land and discover all of life’s mysteries and then you can go home and eat cake and have a gin.

8. For a fisheries ecologist working in a seaside town, you are extremely vulnerable to spending all your money on buying seaside whimsical items

I have already bought mermaid postcards, a decorative glittery whale and fish tea towels (and no I certainly have not given my number to the shop owner to call me when the new shellfish design comes in).

9. Your phone contact list becomes full of numbers from a demographic that you never really thought you would get familiar with

Middle aged men were never a demographic I thought much about. But now, well. It’s a different story

10. The ability to forward plan is extremely useful

The fact that fishermen go to sea for often days at a time means that being able to have enough other people to interview in the days others won’t be around is pretty much essential if you are to actually get round to interviewing anybody. I failed at this at the start but I think am now getting better (of course I owe it all to my magical PAPER diary).

11. Getting out and talking to people about your research is actually pretty fun

Not everyone agrees with what I’m doing, and why, but it’s certainly interesting and fun to talk about my work with people who are actually in the industry upon which my research is based. Sure it’s been a bit frustrating at times, but I think generally I’m pretty lucky to get to go and do this. Plus I’ve convinced some of the guys to take me out on their boats, so double win!

So there we have it. Currently I’m just off halfway in terms of people I need to interview. Which is ok, I think. Could have done a little better perhaps but it’s going in the right direction. Hats off to the social scientists who do this regularly – I’m rapidly learning a whole different kind of skill set that I guess you don’t really get to develop when you sit at a computer looking at a statistical model all day. Who knows what else I’ll learn, hopefully something about not spending all your money on frivolous items and buying multiple cups of tea for anyone who faintly looks like a fisherman….

Stay tuned for the next instalment!


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