Encountering the weird and wonderful in research

Matt Varco, Geography & Environment, University of Manchester (2020 Cohort)

The wizard tuts slightly upon hearing that I am carrying no cash. Thalers, the silver coinage of the Holy Roman Empire, were his preferred currency, but he was prepared to accept Euros too – both of them backed as they are by a strong central authority. Reluctantly, he produces a device that will read my bright orange ‘Zauberkarte’. Punching in the amount (€4,50), he invites me to wave my card to complete the magic transaction. The ‘Special Spices’, in an attractive glass vial with a cork stopper, are now mine! I had intended to use them in cooking, but the fairytale-like circumstances in which I acquired them were making me want to scatter them or bury them, like Jack with his magic beans. I leave the merchant’s tent and head for the exit of the citadel, past several more stalls and caravansaries where others were bartering their wares. The air is thick with the smoke from an oak bonfire in the middle of the fortress, a selection of game is being spit-roasted over hot coals, and I have to try not to flinch at the dull thuds and metallic clash of archery and sword combat. For all I knew this really was the Mark Brandenburg, 1122 AD.

Although it is easy to sneer at a horde of grown adults role-playing as druids and knights for the day, there was nonetheless something quite beautiful and uplifting about collectively maintaining this fantasy. This was the annual Gauklerfest (‘jester festival!’) at the Zitadelle Spandau, the medieval encampment turned Prussian fortress turned political prison, now a tourist site, and it was the first day of my fieldwork trip to Berlin. The date was 3rd October – the Day of German Unity – and given my interest in the politics of memory, a time-travelling visit to early modern Europe seemed an appropriate way to kick off the trip.

I was supposed to be in Berlin much earlier than this but was delayed due to administrative problems. However, this was one of those moments of serendipity that makes you glad things panned out the way they did. One of the moments when you realise that the thing you thought was an obstacle along your route to your goal is actually part of the route itself (characteristically, the German language has a word for this phenomenon, Anstoß; meaning ‘obstacle’ but also ‘impetus’, the thing that trips you up but at once also drives you forward.) What previously felt like a technical error started to feel part of a generative new direction, and my latecoming to the field actually launched a new line of enquiry.

Max Weber uses the term ‘disenchantment’ (Entzauberung) to describe the changing character of modern, industrial, secular societies, where myth and wonder fall by the wayside of Enlightenment conceptions of historical progress. Seeing my wizard-merchant refuse to break character when I introduced my Monzo card into the mix, but rather to narrate this encounter as one between a ‘magic card’ and a ‘magic reader’, really raised the idea of (re)enchantment as a guiding principle for this stint of research.

I was at this event primarily to look for traces of overlap from medievalist and neo-pagan groups with the radical right, following a hunch of mine that this kind of event presents opportunities for alliances to be forged between advocates for a return to a pure and uncorrupted medieval past, all under the cover of an ‘apolitical’ hobby community. This did not appear to be the case, and I was left wondering whether I had been too dogmatic in my hypotheses about extreme-right interest in the Middle Ages (although in hindsight, other evidence of this relationship presented itself during the trip), but also whether my research design was even capable of making sense of such an encounter. Was I prepared to grapple with this feeling of delay/distraction intermingled with surprise/delight, with the Anstoß-effect of the unexpected encounter?

During my research methods MSc, we were once offered the metaphor that our research design should work like a self-assembly wheelbarrow: ‘make sure all the pieces are arranged correctly, and then tighten’. This is perhaps an extreme example, overemphasising ‘rigidity’ and ‘sound foundations’ as if your PhD was simply a technical exercise in following instructions, but even the more flexible and ‘iterative’ approaches to research design still assume a degree of systematicity in terms of your orientation towards the field. Neither of these philosophies, in my view, can account for the emergent and thoroughly unpredictable quality of most research settings and of most research methods. Even with the most tightly assembled ‘research design’, the unforeseen, the unpredictable, and the unrepresentable will always encroach into the neat boundaries of our work. (I wonder if even the metaphor of ‘research design’ encourages you to think of yourself as some kind of architect of knowledge, surveying your project in the blue-and-white abstract space of the building blueprint). What other images, terms or vocabularies could more accurately capture the felt experience of doing research? Craft, experiment, adventure, voyage, flânerie, forager, scavenger, parasite, mole, co-producer, steering, excavator, detective, curator, antennae, attunement, conduction – these are all terms that have crossed my mind since.

For me, the agency of the research process itself to transgress the geographical, disciplinary and methodological boundaries that we attempt to draw up around it (with good reason, to meet progression deadlines, to appease supervisory or institutional pressure) needs to be a much bigger part of the conversation in research methods circles. Trying to keep complexity and contingency at bay while the landscape shifts beneath your feet has, for me at least, been a great source of stress and anxiety. Conversely, accommodating myself to this contingency, and even embracing it as part of the process, has been a hugely liberating feeling. Certainly, the picture will look different once fieldwork ends and the brutal exercise of culling, cutting, and chopping (otherwise known as data analysis) begins. But for now I am attempting to ignore ‘the plan’ and embrace ‘the enchanted’.

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