Down the Rabbit Hole…
… is the name of the first chapter of one of my all time favourite books, Alice in Wonderland, written by Charles Dodgson – better known under his pseudonym Lewis Carroll – in 1865. It tells the story of young Alice who during a rather boring day in the countryside spots a white rabbit and decides to jump after it and follow it down the rabbit hole. The world she encounters there is a world full of riddles, contradictions and ambiguities – a wonderland, where nothing compares to the world Alice thinks she knows so well. To go„down the rabbit hole“ can therefore refer to the experience of throwing yourself into a world unknown, to begin an adventure. In my case I want to take this analogy further to describe my very own experiences during conducting research in the course of my PhD project in South Africa.
Every ethnographic informed research starts with an explorative phase in which you already have certain ideas in mind concerning your subject, but during which you are still open to let the world around you guide you to explore ideas and connections you could have never thought of while comfortably sitting at your desk at home, theoretically designing your perfect project draft. In this respect doing fieldwork then is a lot like following the white rabbit. But before you try to run after it you’ll have to make sure you know what your white rabbit actually is. And this is probably the hardest part.
My white rabbit comes in multiple appearances: I am following people, places, documents and institutions that in some way or another are related to counselling services in the field of domestic violence. While on one day I am staying at a women’s shelter, another day I find myself observing the procedures at the Domestic Violence Court or talking to social workers in a hospital. On other occasions I might interview representatives of transnational organizations like Oxfam or the Salvation Army when in the next minute I am taking part in a gender training organized for European embassy members.
In general I enjoy the versatility and multi-sitedness that comes with my project very much, but sometimes this makes it very difficult to keep track and to not lose sight of my white rabbit. This is also accompanied by the constant fear of not being at the right place and of missing important opportunities which might be taking place at this very minute, just somewhere else.
So just like the white rabbit with his waistcoat-pocket watch, I am always too late, never in the place where I think I ought to be, always a step behind. Luckily this is a feeling I have pretty much gotten used to by now and I don’t stress about it too much anymore. And so I’ll do it just the way the king so artfully recommended:
»`Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, `and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’«
Alice in Wonderland, Chapter XII