Visualizing the Field

by David Brown


This contribution aims to reflect briefly on some of the questions and challenges that arise when researchers prepare for ethnographic field-research (Hammersley and Atkinson 2007). My general research focuses on the intersection(s) of visual culture, protest, and football fans. My field research (in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina) still lies ahead, and therefore this reflection is very much “in the moment”, and aims to provide some thoughts on the experience of preparing beyond the fundamental material requirements, such as a camera, notebook and a bunch of pens. As to the subject of my research, I am looking at the general atmosphere of a protest (such as the 2014 Bosnian uprising) and considering the cultural life of its material objects and metaphors. The aim is thus to provide an ethnography of the visual culture of protest in contemporary Tuzla, and looking for where and why it crosses over with the visual repertoires of football fans.

There are two key points I am considering in this preparation. The first is identifying the object of research. Here the question posing itself is what am I following? In his seminal essay on multi-sited ethnography, George Marcus outlines a few general “objects” that ethnographic researchers tend to follow: people, things, metaphor, story, or life/biography (1995, 106-110). “Things” generally denote a material object, such as a flair or banner, and the “metaphor” would include symbols, such as the red star. In my case, both of these will (most likely) be central. Flairs, banner, and the red star were (and are) present in the 2014 protests, in the stadium, and, in the case of the star, in the crest of the Tuzla football team, FK Sloboda Tuzla. There is, of course, also overlap between all these proposed categories. Considering my case, where the concept “everyday life” is crucial, I am also interested in following people and their biographies, as these inevitably interact with meaning and choices. I thus expect to draw on all of these to greater and lesser degrees, so as to access the meanings of the object or the metaphors and in turn contextualize them. In any case, the objective with this approach is to see how something circulates in a given context, and where and what meanings are attached as a result (and how these meanings shift as a result).

In turn, this has important implications for what kinds of questions to pose as guides for the inquiry, and to any potential interlocutors. This is also a guide for collecting “artefacts”, in my case audio-visual documentation of the sites and sounds of protest and the stadium. With a clear (but always flexible) sense of what dimensions of the field you are following, it is easier to know that to look for, and then to prioritize information and knowledge you obtain. The second point to consider is how to visualize the field.

This visualizing is most likely an exercise in (self)reflection that will never see the light of day. Yet it indicates what preferences the researcher has at a particular moment. It can also help in identifying what exactly you want to “observe” in the field – i.e. your “object” (see above). But perhaps most importantly, the visualizing exercise is a way to make some early reflections on what your field is, and how you think you will capture it. There is, to the best of my knowledge no specific literature on this, but perhaps there also does not need to be, as the question guiding this process is fairly simple: what do you expect to find in your field? What does it look like (literally, in the abstract)? In my view, there are then two main elements to this process: the straight descriptive part and the analytical, questioning part. The description being what you think (or know) the places look like, and how they feel, sound, etc. The analysis is then why this could be relevant, and what it (potentially) means.

In other words, this exercise entails writing out your expectations and knowledge of the field in advance. This is important for the ethnographer who will spend a serious amount of time living in their field, and for a methodology that can come under critique for a lack of distance (see for example Pearson Geoffrey and Twohig John 2006). Reflection is one of the key elements of overcoming the lack of distance, and it starts before entering the field. Writing a visualization engages the researcher with their own prejudice(s). This way, in describing what things look like and perhaps some history, etc., the researcher starts the process of analyzing their gained knowledge and information in the context of their own natural biases and cultural lens. In turn, you detect your assumptions, document your knowledge, and create a record useful for later comparisons in order to, in part, see what you learned. It not only gives the researcher a certain distance (in being able to slip in and out of the field), but it also limits the burden of prejudice.

Part of the challenge of ethnographic field work is being comfortable with letting the field guide your research, as opposed to working with a clear, testable hypothesis. This is most daunting in the preparation, where it may feel like you should be ready for everything and nothing at the same time. Yet visualizing the field and considering what things you want to follow and where these physically and symbolically operate, can help prepare a starting point. Of course, it may all fall apart in the first interview, but that too, is part of the inquiry.


  • Hammersley, Martin and Atkinson, Paul (2007 3rd ed.). Ethnography: principles in Practice. New York. Routledge.
  • Marcus, George E. 1995. “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 24(1995): 95-117.
  • Pearson, Geoffrey and Twohig, John (2006 2nd ed.). “Ethnography through the looking-glass” in Hall and Jefferson (eds.) Resistance through Rituals Youth subcultures in post-war Britain. New York. Routledge.
  • Title picture: “Brainstorming” (Photographer: Madalina Seghete. Flickr. Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0).

Since 2009 David Brown has lived, researched, and worked in Southeastern Europe. Currently his research is on social movements and football fan culture, with an emphasis on the question of fan-labor. He received his B.A in political science from the University of Southern Maine, and his M.A. in East European studies from University of Bologna. Now he is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Southeast European Studies in Graz, … more


Brown, David: “Visualizing the Field”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (31.05.2016); URL:

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