NWSSDTP Fieldwork in Chile: September 2018 – September 2019

Richard Smith

Richard Smith, Language Based Area Studies, University of Liverpool, 2018 Cohort

I have just started the third year of my PhD, having spent much of my second year in Chile doing fieldwork. I am studying the role of secondary school and university students in the opposition to the brutal dictatorship that was in power there between 1973 and 1990. During my first year I had identified some archives to explore, but, as the regime’s rule was pitiless, with thousands of people killed or disappeared, tens of thousands imprisoned and tortured, and hundreds of thousands forced into exile, those resisting military rule, and the secondary school students in particular, rarely committed much to paper. 

Where the archives could help me was in the detailed depictions of events contained within the legal challenges to the security force’s actions filed by church groups on behalf of particular individuals, and with those bodies’ systematic monthly reports of human rights abuses and any subsequent investigations; these had formed the evidence base for the truth and reconciliation commissions in Chile. There was, in addition, quite a lot of material on the folk music and other cultural festivals the university students organised during the late 1970s and early 1980s. If, however, I was going to gain any deeper understanding of the youthful opposition, I needed to talk to some of the people who had been involved. This raised a few issues, not the least being that (a), I didn’t know anyone in Chile and (b), I would have to do most of the interviews in Spanish. This article describes how I went about it, and how I returned with twenty-four hours of qualitative interviews with former activists, and interesting documents of various types.

I thought it best do two fieldwork trips to Chile. The first, shorter visit, would focus on archival studies and prepare the ground for a later, five-month spell dedicated to qualitative interviews. I first flew to Santiago towards the end of September 2018. I had arranged to stay in a room in a family house that I’d booked through Airbnb (other websites are available…). I had decided I’d need a small flat with good wi-fi to work in, as it wouldn’t be practical either to rely on wi-fi in cafés and university precincts, or to try to live and work in one room in a shared house for months at a time. Initially, however, I wanted somewhere to stay that had locals on hand to advise me while I worked out where to base myself in the longer term, and, most importantly, where I could afford. This worked pretty well, and within a couple of weeks I had a one-bedroom studio flat in downtown Santiago, near a Metro station but within walking distance of most useful locations. The latter would turn out to be really important when the summer temperatures hit the mid-thirties, and Santiago’s busy, un-airconditioned Metro became really rather uncomfortable to travel on.

I had three priorities for the first three months I’d be in Santiago: get the bulk of the archival studies completed; improve my spoken Spanish; work out how I would secure the interviews I needed. As it turned out, focusing on the first two, helped solve the third. At the first archive I visited, I discussed my research with the archivists, and they were really helpful in helping me identify which of the many boxes of documents concerning the university students’ cultural activism I should tackle first. They also invited me to meetings and events where I could encounter suitable victims subjects. At an event in an art museum in Santiago, I was introduced to my first interviewee. It took a bit of to-ing and fro-ing by WhatsApp, but, before I returned to Liverpool for Christmas 2018, I had my first interview recorded and transcribed. At the same meeting, I was chatting to another potential interviewee, who sounded willing but was heading to the south of Chile for a few months the very next day. I took their contact details but did not feel overly optimistic that I would be remembered when I returned four months later.

Meanwhile, I needed to improve my spoken Spanish. I regularly read Spanish and Latin American novels, textbooks and documents, but it had been a few years since I’d spoken it on a daily basis. During lessons at a Santiago language school, we discussed the reason I was in Chile. It turned out that another teacher at the school had exactly the experience I was looking for, and he became my second interview. I hadn’t counted on conducting any interviews in my first fieldwork visit but completing, transcribing and analysing the first two really helped me refine my approach and technique for the second visit.

On returning to Chile in May 2019, my earlier contact had returned from southern climes, and not only remembered me, but also gave me a great interview and was extremely generous introducing me to friends from that era with differing experiences. With my contact from the language school being similarly helpful, ‘snowballing’ (aka chain sampling, chain-referral sampling or referral sampling) was underway with a vengeance. Later in the process, with gaps starting to reveal themselves in my grid of completed interviews, a conversation with the Chilean Human Rights Commission archive manager opened other possibilities, as had a contact closer to home.

One or Two Things I Learned During Fieldwork

  1. Always, always talk to the archivists. They are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.
  2. Point 1 notwithstanding, take a signed letter of introduction on the university’s headed notepaper, some business cards and photographic identification.
  3. Latin America runs on WhatsApp.
  4. Bearing Point 3 in mind, follow every potential contact up immediately, but you need to be persistent, patient and flexible.
  5. You don’t know where your interviews will come from, so just get on with what you’re doing and take every opportunity to get out and talk to people about why you are there.
  6. Snowballing works well, but not everyone can or will help you build your snowman.
  7. Visit all potential interview locations beforehand.
  8. Point 7 notwithstanding, no matter how carefully you do choose your location, a brass band will turn up and play loudly under your window (✔), a meeting will decide to take its coffee break directly behind your interviewee (✔), a succession of very heavy trucks will drive past, each one crashing into the same pothole (✔), or a group out for a ‘lubricated’ fun evening will take the table right next to you (✔). So, the moment you get back to where you’re staying, write up the interview in note form, and complete the transcription while it is still fresh in your memory.
  9. Securing the next interviews can start to feel like the sole goal of the fieldwork, with a desire to maintain any momentum you develop, but maintain this self-perceived drive in proportion and keep your research aims firmly front of mind.
  10. Building on Point 9, the people who agreed to be interviewed, entrusted me with their stories. When poignant memories and emotions surfaced, it put my research goals in perspective and kept me on track in other ways.

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