when field work is just pants

Going away on research field-work requires more than selecting and packing specialised kit – various bits of technology, each designed for a particular task. It also needs a very specific kind of domestic organisation. Sorting out what might seem to be the trivial life details before heading off to do research somewhere other than home can actually take quite a bit of thinking time. Well, at least that’s what I find.

Take food for instance. Do you really do need those very special tea bags, or can you do without them for a while? Should you take scroggin* – hearty little bags of nibbles that will keep you going just in case your domicile for the night has inconsiderately closed the kitchen by the time you arrive? Should you take your favorite brand of muesli so you can avoid the kind of breakfast more suited to a day’s hard labour in a salt mine than a few hours conducting interviews? Do you need to book dinner with a friend on at least one night so you’re not left with room service Caesar salad and endless reruns of American crime programmes? These are important considerations. Getting gastronomic decisions wrong can make field-work miserable.

However, it’s not food that keeps me awake before going on field-work. No, it’s laundry. I have a laundry obsession. I can spend days thinking about whether I will take enough underwear to last the distance or wash things out along the way. It’s not that doing laundry in the bathroom would interfere with sorting out the notes and images that I’ve produced during the field-work day. It’s about whether this would be adequate laundry. Will the clothes actually be clean and dry enough? Am I prepared to launder in a sink with an invariably leaking plug using artfully named and impenetrably wrapped non-lathering soap which won’t rinse out? Well maybe. But maybe not.

I could send things out of course. Hotel laundries will launder for you at a cost. But this does assume that the hotel laundry reads the labels on the garments and makes the appropriate decisions about water temperature and drying. You see, sending out laundry is always a risk.

I vividly remember being on an ‘educational trade mission’ (no, I’m not going to explain that) to the Indian subcontinent (no I’m not going to say where). It was quite an extensive trip and I was away so long that either washing in the bathroom sink or sending garments out was inevitable. I couldn’t possibly have carried enough spare clothes to last the trip unless I had, with jaunty postcolonial irony, hired a couple of smallish camels to haul all the cases that would have been necessary. The hotel where our delegation was based was an apparently reputable international chain (no, I’m not going to say which although I probably should) and so I made the decision one morning to send my laundry out. When I came back late that evening it was scrupulously wrapped in plastic and hung in the wardrobe. I had a strong sense of satisfaction. I was all replenished and ready for the next couple of weeks. On ripping open the parcel with smug anticipation I was almost felled by some kind of malodourous petroleum product. I guessed it was a form of dry-cleaning fluid, but certainly not one that I knew. I had dry-cleaned knickers that reeked of something you might find on a garage floor. All of the items, mainly underwear it must be said, were literally un-wearable. They had to be binned. But because I had sent almost all of my smalls out to be laundered, and we were on a very busy programme, I had no time to buy any alternatives. I was reduced to nightly laundering and daily wearing of undergarments that were always damp. Great in a humid climate.

So you can now understand, given this evidence, my enhanced laundry paranoia and my nervousness about handing delicates over to anyone else. While other researchers might fret about the tea bags, or whether to take a little black dress just-in-case, my pre-field-work worrying is always about the desirability and location of the laundry facilities.

My Australian co-researchers know this only too well. When I arrive in their homes they invariably and gently tell me as I enter the front door that they have finished their washing for the week and their machine is available for me to use. And when we are away at conferences or co-writing in an equatorial location somewhere in between the north and south, they know we must have an apartment with a washing machine – and a clothes-horse to hang things on.

So it’s going to come as no surprise to them – and now to you – to know that the very first thing I do when I get back home from field-work is the laundry. The suitcase is literally unpacked into the washing machine. While other people might get home anxious to organise their notes and begin writing out some key points so that they don’t forget anything, I’m sorting piles of clothing into black, coloured and white. Post field-work the thing I most look forward to is seeing clean garments hung out, in carefully coded and thematised groups, on the line.

* scroggin – alternatively known as trail mix and beloved of ramblers, canoeists and other outdoor types.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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7 Responses to when field work is just pants

  1. I am delighted to discover that I am not alone in this. The washing concern, the need to wash it properly myself and the ordered hanging out of laundry on the line. Now I have a Kindle I don’t need to fret about books but I do still take an enormous suitcase full of smalls.


  2. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Firstly, Thanks for making me hungry 🙂 – I just “consumed” my sandwich which was supposed to be scheduled until later on.
    I really liked this post, the first 2 paragraphs kind of gave me/us a notion that you are talking from a bad experience or two. Never expected it to be laundry-related though!

    In a different life I worked in a tourism agency, it was one of the big names in the region and known for exceptional service. One of the things that emerged often from the customers’ experience surveys was the attentive to details by the agency; laundry being one of the issues that we took care of by ensuring the hotel asked some details about the garments, any reported sensitivity issues with certain detergents, how would they like the clothes to be hanged, etc… Apparently it paid off and people kept booking with us a lot.

    * I laughed a lot at “carefully coded and thematised …”


    • On my last extended trip to the US, I made a point of saving all my quarters and then researching where the nearest laundromat to the hotel was as I moved from city to city. Fortunately, coin-op laundries are plentiful in the US. Sometimes it meant a taxi ride with big laundry bags in tow, but I packed a book and was usually able to have everything washed and dried within a couple of hours. It was also nice to have a change of scenery from the sterile anonymity of most hotels.


  3. Shubhashnee Subryan says:

    Ah there is nothing more comforting than clean, pressed pants!!!! Then the laundry which must be done no matter where in the world I am and yes ‘coded and thematised”. Oh I forget to mention the ironing ritual which must be done as soon as possible just to know clean clothes are readily available. I can definitely identify with that.


  4. Deborah says:

    For me it’s toilet rolls. I always carry a ‘spare’ or two. Others have mocked but I was unusually popular once in the only cafe in the middle of the Syrian desert … Ha!


  5. Sharonnz says:

    Double cursed – laundry AND toilet rolls 😉 .


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