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Fieldwork: ‘being there’

See ethnography in action. Here, Hedda is doing fieldwork in mining-affected communities in New South Wales.
Today I’m going on field work. When I started this project I purposefully chose my field site to be one that is close enough to home so that I can manage my family commitments plus being an embedded anthropologist. Today the kids are off to school and we’ll be heading home with friends before soccer, which means I have the whole day to be in the field. Whilst getting the boys ready for their day I’m thinking about what I need to do and what the purpose of this trip is. Before I go I need to pack some of the essential items. I always bring my laptop, phone and charges.
I need to bring maps of the mine site today and my notebook and my audio recorder are essential for my field of notes and recording of voice memos and conversations. I also need to bring some snacks to keep me going. I’m always worried I’ve forgotten something. So one last scan of the room before I leave. I have a car but today I will be taking my motorbike. I prefer to take the bike when I can.
Not only does it make the journey more enjoyable, it also lets me be more present in the landscape, smell and use my senses to be a greater part of the environment and I can get to places that car would not be able to take me. My field work really starts the moment I leave home.
I am heading north along the Pacific Highway and then onto the historic Buckets Way. Gloucester is about one and a half hour ride from home. The ride up is always beautiful but also a reminder of the issues that my research is all about. Gloucester is a hot spot for extractive tensions. Over the past 10 to 15 years the community has been trapped in a tension between those who would like to see extractive projects bring economic opportunities to the area and those who are concerned about the environmental, social and health impacts such projects will bring. The two main extractive industries having coal mining and coal seam gas extraction with AGL Yancoal and Gloucester Resources Limited or GRL.
The three main companies that have worked or proposed projects in the area. The most recent tensions have surrounded the question of GRL’s Rocky Hill coal mine which was proposed for the valley south of Gloucester, only 5 km from the centre of the township and less than a kilometre away from its nearest neighbours. In early 2019, Judge Brian Preston of The Land and Environment Court dismissed the company’s application which had been referred to the court after it was rejected by the NSW Government. Only a few weeks ago GRL announced that it would not appeal the judge’s decision. Today I have arranged to meet with five people who were to be significantly impacted by the proposed mine and who fought the proposal.
The first people that I am to meet on this trip are Tina and Ed. Tina and Ed have been outspoken activists against the mine and against a previously proposed AGL gas project. I had heard rumours that now that Rocky Hill was rejected Tina and Ed were planning to sell their property and move away from Gloucester. I was curious about what was happening and how they were feeling now after GRL had announced the no appeal. For Tina and Ed, the past 12 years have been an emotional time during which they have not only fought the proposed Rocky Hill coal mine which was to be situated only a few paddocks away from their home but also AGL’s coal seam gas project.
A key concern for them was the social and health impacts that the project would have on them as one of the mines nearest neighbours. The proposed mine would change the landscape they look out on from that of agricultural fields to an open cut mine. The man had promised that the impact would be reduced by building so-called amenity walls. But for Tina and Ed this would not reduce impact but rather be an impact in its own right. They were however not only concerned about the changes the mine would make to their life but also how it would change Gloucester as a place.
As many others in the area, they drew on their knowledge of other mining effected areas such as the Hunter when reflecting on this. Through this process they have lost a lot of trust in the politicians and the planning process, articulating a feeling they share with many in the activist circles that the government cared more about the economy than the environment. It’s the scenic value of the place that we don’t particularly want to lose. This is within three hours of Sydney. You don’t want this place with coal mines everywhere. I mean look what they’ve done with the Hunter. I think this is where you look to for political leadership.
They’re actually trying to get this stuff figured out but it’s all about economy and jobs at the moment. It’s not about environment.
How does that make you feel? Not good. Not good. It won’t overly affect Tina and I because we’re getting too old stupid now but
it’s our children that it’s going to affect. And
I know - I’m like most farmers, I want to leave this country in a better condition than I found it in.
And I think most farmers are the same. They don’t like to see their country degraded.
I guess it’s unproductive if it’s degraded anyway. One of the observations I have made through spending time with people in the community is that most of them are not long term activists or people who would put their bodies on the frontline for a cause. Whether it is for or against a development. For those like Tina and Ed who live at what I call the coal frontier, it is the feeling of not having a voice, of not being heard, that have brought forward their activist voice. As Ed explained he used to be a conservative voter but he experienced a paradigm shift in his own values, ethics and practice.
After his saw upfront how close to extractive industries and government can be and himself experiencing being disempowered. There’s that paradigm shift about what you believe in. As I said to you - I think I’ve said to you before you know when we came up here I was very much a conservative voter, and voted conservative all my life. I never even really thought about it. But once we got into what they were doing here because this directly affected us
and realizing that the governments they were just doing what ever they needed to to support the big end of town and were not there for the people. They were there for the money.
I think you know the paradigm shift starts then and you think well hang on a second what are these people up to. I don’t understand this at all. So was that being on the land that changed that? Or was it - Oh no I think was the direct result of activism because these two projects directly affected us. We we’re right in the forefront of it. Not as much as some of the people over at Forbesdale but see the the Forbesdale people they were all on rural residential blocks. So they weren’t bigger than - I think the biggest one over there was 10 acres. So it wasn’t a rural block.
So I think it all changed.
You know particularly - you probably have heard about the five worlds rule that
came into play with the Walk Ivory pilot which was - we caught out AGL putting in holes
that needed full EIS. At Walk Ivory? Where
did you say? Walk Ivory.
And the rules stated clearly if they were to put in one of these holes and they clearly needed a full EIS to do it. Because they contravened the SEP. There was
out at that time because of the location of the holes. Now they all went in - when they found out that we were on to them about it, they went into complete shutdown mode and nothing happened for about seven or eight months until they worked out how to get round the SEP and they changed the SEP. Because the original rule was you couldn’t drill pilot holes that were within two kilometres of an existing hole and if it did you needed a full EIS to do it.
So a hole less than two kilometres within an existing hole needed an EIS? A Full EIS to put it in. If it was outside the two kilometres they wouldn’t need it because then it would be part of an exploration operation. So we called them out on the Walk Ivory pilot. We said you can’t drill those holes there because you’re within two kilometres of an existing hole. “Oh oh gee, you got us on that one”. So eventually the government
came out and said: Well what we’re gonna do is we’re going to find - they had four holes that they were doing and so the concent - the epicentre of those holes was within two kilometres of an existing hole.
So what they said is: Well what we’re going to do is we’re going to say that we’ll
change that to make
that they can put holes within five kilometres. So what they could do is they could drag one of the holes they could put way over here. So what they do - effectively done then is move the epicentre of the holes out here.
So then they comply with the two kilometer - the five K - the 2 K rule. So after nine months of - AGL told them this is how you get around it. And that’s what the government legislated. Oh well we’ll allow you to put this extra hole in. We’ll change that boundary so the boundaries now out here. So the epicentre will go up here and you’ll get - you’ll go over the two kilometre mark. Not a problem. All solved and you dont need a full EIS.
As an ethnogropher, being present in the situation and spending time in the field with participants are important. It is not only a matter of what people say. We also used tools of participant observation to contrast what people say with what they do and to gain a deeper perspective on the phenomena we are studying by placing our own bodies in the field. We approach the field openly and holistically and through being there we get to know it. Fieldwork can be slow and repetitive but these very characteristics of ethnographic practice are central to gaining an understanding of the people, place or phenomena we are exploring.
Through the course of my field work in Gloucester, I’ve heard numerous mentions of the knitting nanna’s, a group of environmental activists women. Both those who oppose the mine and those who support it have spoken about the nanna’s. So far I have not had a chance to speak with the nanna’s. So today I’ll venture down to see if I can find them. What is the knitting nana’s really all about? What are we about? We’re about protecting the land, the air and the water for future generations. Nana’s we protect the children that are coming up behind us, because if we just let them dig it up willy nilly there will be nothing.
We will destroy the planet and there’ll be no future for our children’s children, your children, your children’s children and that’s why we’re there and it’s
okay here in Gloucester. We was fighting specific issues initially, we were fighting against the coal seam gas and AGL and we were fighting against Rocky Hill and Gloucester Resources. But it’s bigger than that. It’s simply part of the democratic process. I mean that’s a necessary part of the democratic process. We can’t just all be sheep and sit down and - that’s not how democracy works. People have to have opinions about things and safeguard things and it’s that - and that’s the role of the entire society not just - not just the governing bodies and the companies. I mean it’s a matter for us all to be aware of what’s called what’s happening and what’s proposed.
And therefore - and have our say if we have time to look at it and so forth you know it’s a necessary part. Would you agree with that? I mean we
need to have a democracy and that’s what democracy is about. Whilst I knew that the nanna’s were not only about raising awareness about local environmental concerns and that central to their course it’s a critique against capitalism and greed. During our conversation this morning what really stood out to me was how their action is also a deep critique of the government. So even when the fight came close to your hair you were still really working for the bigger cause? Oh yes definitely because we’ve been asked why are we still here. You know - that the situation in Gloucester is just such a tiny part of what we’re concerned with. Absolutely. The world is so small.
You can’t just saying all about just what happens here. Would you agree guys? Definitely, work is not done. But again its a question of what we’ve tried to do is raise awareness, and explain the situation and particularly here where we’ve got an aging population, some of them are even older than us. They all thought
the government wouldn’t let anything wrong happen. They wouldn’t let anything bad happen. They would look out for our interests and then when you start explaining things and they understand the - well maybe they’re not necessarily our interests that they are looking out for. So it’s part of that education process to raising awareness. Older women are very made invisible in our Australian society. And I just think it’s wonderful that knitting nana’s, it implies that we are older women and it’s been proved that this group is a powerful group. And they’re certainly not invisible because they’re everywhere. And also wise. You know like theoretically as you get older, you should become more wise.
And I think there’s something about that in the nanna’s that these are wise old women. They’ve seen a lot in their life and and they’re a nana. So there’s love. So they care. So there’s both the wisdom and the caring and and its coal seam gas and the obliteration of our environment that they care about. And for me ironically the knitting is symbolic of trying to keep the fabric of our environment together. Oh yes I like that! Every voice matters in the fieldwork but a voice is not a voice in isolation. It is positioned within s economic and spatial relations.
One of the key observations are made from our meeting with the nanna’s this morning, was that none of them live within the proximity of the proposed mine site. This resonates with one of the observations that I have made
through all of my field visits: The activists may fight the same mine but the reasons for their fight are many.

As we have established in the proceeding steps, ethnography is at the centre of what an anthropologist does and how an anthropologist works. Central to ethnography is the practice of fieldwork. When conducting fieldwork, the ethnographer collects data through talking to people, conducting participant observation and becoming immersed in the local social structure and culture. Essentially, fieldwork requires ‘being there’.

Ethnography is a process that consists of getting to know the culture through long-term, intimate fieldwork, collection of rich data that allow the anthropologist to explore the culture or phenomena under investigation in depth, and the interpretation of this data through analysis and theoretical application. Fieldwork can last for months, a year or even years. In Hedda’s case, she is currently working on a long-term fieldwork in mining-affected communities in New South Wales. This project consists of three different case study areas, or fields, of which the township of Gloucester is one of these.

Over the next few steps you will get to come on fieldwork with her to Gloucester.

How does Hedda gather her data?

Watch this video and identify the ways by which Hedda gathers data that inform my analysis of how mining affects local communities. You should find hints that helps you answer this in the footage, the dialogue between me and the participants, and the voice over. What type of data am I collecting?
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