The meaning of crisis: reflections on doing fieldwork in Lebanon

By Viviane Hamans

Almost anyone who has been ‘in the field’, will confirm that at some point, crisis is part of the process. The amounts of time that I worried about whether I was on the right track or that I ‘for sure’ still didn’t have enough data to say something valid about my topic, are quite significant. What seems to be adding to that feeling of being in crisis, is that our way of doing research is changing, due to the circumstances we find ourselves in. The whole world seems to be in crisis, and how are we supposed to do deal with that?

Doing fieldwork and research during the Covid-19 epidemic was definitely not what I imagined myself doing when I prepared for my masters. While I managed to find my way to Lebanon, a lot of my peers were restricted to travel and did their fieldwork online. The crisis had different implications for me personally, compared to my peers, and for the data I collected. Understanding and accepting that crisis is part of the process, that it is part of our reality now, and that it can even enrich the actual research, has helped me tremendously. There is meaning in crisis and if anyone is capable of understanding that, it is us anthropologists.

Due to the measurements and restrictions that were installed in the Netherlands from early 2020 on,  my expectation was that most of the preparation for my fieldwork had to be done from home. After all, working from home was now the new reality.  At the same time, I also knew where I wanted to go: Lebanon. I had already travelled frequently between Amsterdam and Beirut to acquire the local language (most difficult goal I have ever set for myself, honestly) and to build up a local network. However, on August 4th 2020, just before the start of the academic year, Beirut was hit by a devastating explosion. I decided to take the flight to Beirut and started volunteering for an NGO that was handing out food and clothes packages and helped renovating buildings in the city. Meanwhile, I followed the Fieldwork Design lectures online (like everybody else) but under more difficult circumstances as my peers. The overall chaos in Lebanon severed over time, and not only put Beirut more than often in darkness, but subjected me to miss classes because of a lack of electricity and internet.

However, I realized that it was actually the Covid-19 crisis that allowed me to be there. Because of the nationwide lockdown, schools and universities physically closed and all lectures were continued online. This made it possible for me to prepare for my fieldwork on a distance while building up my knowledge on the crisis in Lebanon and building up my network in the field. It were my experiences during handing out food packages and understanding where this need was coming from, that led me to theorize about sustainable development and food security. It were these exact experiences, when I got into contact with the daily life crises that people were going through, that determined how my research would carry on.

By the time I was ready to go ‘into the field’ I chose Tripoli (North-Lebanon) as my destination from January on. Throughout my visits I learned that the city represents a paradox; once one of the most prosperous cities in the Mediterranean region, with a rich history of trade, agriculture and artisanal products, now she is nationally the poorest and most neglected city, with high poverty and food insecurity rates. The majority of Tripoli’s population experiences food insecurity, though there is an absolute abundancy of food and rich food culture everywhere you go.

While the whole country (or may I even say: world) was again in lockdown in early 2021, Tripolitans resisted the imposed measurements and unlocked the city, since they couldn’t accept any more decline in living conditions. They took matter into their own hands and created a bubble of relative freedom compared to the rest of the country. The government didn’t respond to that and technically I was free to go wherever I wanted. As a result of widespread stigmatization of the city, many of my Lebanese friends discouraged me to go to Tripoli (what do you want to do there, people are just poor, there is nothing interesting). However, because of the deep crisis this city was going through due its high poverty and food insecurity rates, Tripoli appeared to me as a place of possibilities to help me understand local responses to food insecurity.

At this point I was yet to understand what crisis means in this context. Although I expected limitations in doing fieldwork due to the pandemic, it was mostly the overall social insecurity that has played a significant part in this research. Some of my informants left the country, which limited me in my observations and sometimes interviews were cancelled due to societal unrest, roadblocks and demonstrations. Although police and army didn’t enforce the lockdown on us, I was still not always able to step outside. In January heavy riots broke out near to where I was living and I was bound to stay inside or being picked up by someone to avoid the violent clashes.

Having to deal with insecurity is an inherent part of the social reality in Lebanon and thus became part of my research. Overcoming practical limitations with the help of others, by taking me out with their cars when I couldn’t leave the house alone, has had an enabling character, more than a limiting one. Looking back at it, it were these moments, when we were driving around and discussing the meaning of the events, and the consequences it has for their lives and their projects that turned out to be very meaningful moments to grasp the meaning of the topics that I was interested in. It helped me understand the circumstances people are living in and surviving in. Furthermore, it helped me understand the value of cooperation, solidarity and having a strong network. All values that came back as discussion topics that eventually led to parts of my data.

Eventually my data showed that I didn’t only learn how people (and to some extent myself) are adapting to these difficult circumstances, I also learned that this crisis-context is now determining every point of view. With respect to the local social reality that I was interested in, it turned out that the crisis-context serves as a sort of lens of how my informants understand the world. I wasn’t only doing research in that context, that context became my data. The concepts I selected, and wanted to understand in their local meaning, all got their local meaning because of the crisis-context.

I can now say that I have found ways in how to direct my research in an enabling matter and I hope to showcase that not every crisis or difficulty means that you are limited. My network here has showed me that dealing with, and overcoming crisis happens in various ways. Use the crisis that you find yourself in and try to bend it in a way that it enables you to reach a goal. Whether that is the idea of creating food security for yourself and your community, doing fieldwork in very difficult circumstances or when you go through that inevitable personal crisis and you question your abilities to become an anthropologist. Possibilities are everywhere, it depends on your point of view, your strategy and your ability to build meaningful relationships with the people around you. That, I guess, is what anthropology is all about.

Link to my thesis in the VU thesis library: https://www.ubvu.vu.nl/pub/fulltext/scripties/26_2640325_0.pdf

Girl walking in the streets of Beirut, two weeks after the explosion. Picture taken by author.

Enjoying my time during participant observation ‘in the field’ of olive trees and organic vegetables. Tripoli, Lebanon.

Viviane Hamans studied Cultural and Social Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and is currently employed as freelance anthropologist.

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