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What is Field Research: Definition, Methods, Examples and Advantages

Field Research

What is Field Research?

Field research is defined as a qualitative method of data collection that aims to observe, interact and understand people while they are in a natural environment. For example, nature conservationists observe behavior of animals in their natural surroundings and the way they react to certain scenarios. In the same way, social scientists conducting field research may conduct interviews or observe people from a distance to understand how they behave in a social environment and how they react to situations around them.

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Field research encompasses a diverse range of social research methods including direct observation, limited participation, analysis of documents and other information, informal interviews, surveys etc. Although field research is generally characterized as qualitative research, it often involves multiple aspects of quantitative research in it.

Field research typically begins in a specific setting although the end objective of the study is to observe and analyze the specific behavior of a subject in that setting. The cause and effect of a certain behavior, though, is tough to analyze due to presence of multiple variables in a natural environment. Most of the data collection is based not entirely on cause and effect but mostly on correlation. While field research looks for correlation, the small sample size makes it difficult to establish a causal relationship between two or more variables.

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Methods of Field Research

Field research is typically conducted in 5 distinctive methods. They are:

  • Direct Observation

In this method, the data is collected via an observational method or subjects in a natural environment. In this method, the behavior or outcome of situation is not interfered in any way by the researcher. The advantage of direct observation is that it offers contextual data on people management , situations, interactions and the surroundings. This method of field research is widely used in a public setting or environment but not in a private environment as it raises an ethical dilemma.

  • Participant Observation

In this method of field research, the researcher is deeply involved in the research process, not just purely as an observer, but also as a participant. This method too is conducted in a natural environment but the only difference is the researcher gets involved in the discussions and can mould the direction of the discussions. In this method, researchers live in a comfortable environment with the participants of the research design , to make them comfortable and open up to in-depth discussions.

  • Ethnography

Ethnography is an expanded observation of social research and social perspective and the cultural values of an  entire social setting. In ethnography, entire communities are observed objectively. For example,  if a researcher would like to understand how an Amazon tribe lives their life and operates, he/she may chose to observe them or live amongst them and silently observe their day-to-day behavior.

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  • Qualitative Interviews

Qualitative interviews are close-ended questions that are asked directly to the research subjects. The qualitative interviews could be either informal and conversational, semi-structured, standardized and open-ended or a mix of all the above three. This provides a wealth of data to the researcher that they can sort through. This also helps collect relational data. This method of field research can use a mix of one-on-one interviews, focus groups and text analysis .

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A case study research is an in-depth analysis of a person, situation or event. This method may look difficult to operate, however, it is one of the simplest ways of conducting research as it involves a deep dive and thorough understanding the data collection methods and inferring the data.

Steps in Conducting Field Research

Due to the nature of field research, the magnitude of timelines and costs involved, field research can be very tough to plan, implement and measure. Some basic steps in the management of field research are:

  • Build the Right Team: To be able to conduct field research, having the right team is important. The role of the researcher and any ancillary team members is very important and defining the tasks they have to carry out with defined relevant milestones is important. It is important that the upper management too is vested in the field research for its success.
  • Recruiting People for the Study: The success of the field research depends on the people that the study is being conducted on. Using sampling methods , it is important to derive the people that will be a part of the study.
  • Data Collection Methodology: As spoken in length about above, data collection methods for field research are varied. They could be a mix of surveys, interviews, case studies and observation. All these methods have to be chalked out and the milestones for each method too have to be chalked out at the outset. For example, in the case of a survey, the survey design is important that it is created and tested even before the research begins.
  • Site Visit: A site visit is important to the success of the field research and it is always conducted outside of traditional locations and in the actual natural environment of the respondent/s. Hence, planning a site visit alongwith the methods of data collection is important.
  • Data Analysis: Analysis of the data that is collected is important to validate the premise of the field research and  decide the outcome of the field research.
  • Communicating Results: Once the data is analyzed, it is important to communicate the results to the stakeholders of the research so that it could be actioned upon.

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Field Research Notes

Keeping an ethnographic record is very important in conducting field research. Field notes make up one of the most important aspects of the ethnographic record. The process of field notes begins as the researcher is involved in the observational research process that is to be written down later.

Types of Field Research Notes

The four different kinds of field notes are:

  • Job Notes: This method of taking notes is while the researcher is in the study. This could be in close proximity and in open sight with the subject in study. The notes here are short, concise and in condensed form that can be built on by the researcher later. Most researchers do not prefer this method though due to the fear of feeling that the respondent may not take them seriously.
  • Field Notes Proper: These notes are to be expanded on immediately after the completion of events. The notes have to be detailed and the words have to be as close to possible as the subject being studied.
  • Methodological Notes: These notes contain methods on the research methods used by the researcher, any new proposed research methods and the way to monitor their progress. Methodological notes can be kept with field notes or filed separately but they find their way to the end report of a study.
  • Journals and Diaries: This method of field notes is an insight into the life of the researcher. This tracks all aspects of the researchers life and helps eliminate the Halo effect or any research bias that may have cropped up during the field research.

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Reasons to Conduct Field Research

Field research has been commonly used in the 20th century in the social sciences. But in general, it takes a lot of time to conduct and complete, is expensive and in a lot of cases invasive. So why then is this commonly used and is preferred by researchers to validate data? We look at 4 major reasons:

  • Overcoming lack of data: Field research resolves the major issue of gaps in data. Very often, there is limited to no data about a topic in study, especially in a specific environment analysis . The research problem might be known or suspected but there is no way to validate this without primary research and data. Conducting field research helps not only plug-in gaps in data but collect supporting material and hence is a preferred research method of researchers.
  • Understanding context of the study: In many cases, the data collected is adequate but field research is still conducted. This helps gain insight into the existing data. For example, if the data states that horses from a stable farm generally win races because the horses are pedigreed and the stable owner hires the best jockeys. But conducting field research can throw light into other factors that influence the success like quality of fodder and care provided and conducive weather conditions.
  • Increasing the quality of data: Since this research method uses more than one tool to collect data, the data is of higher quality. Inferences can be made from the data collected and can be statistically analyzed via the triangulation of data.
  • Collecting ancillary data: Field research puts the researchers in a position of localized thinking which opens them new lines of thinking. This can help collect data that the study didn’t account to collect.

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Examples of Field Research

Some examples of field research are:

  • Decipher social metrics in a slum Purely by using observational methods and in-depth interviews, researchers can be part of a community to understand the social metrics and social hierarchy of a slum. This study can also understand the financial independence and day-to-day operational nuances of a slum. The analysis of this data can provide an insight into how different a slum is from structured societies.
  • U nderstand the impact of sports on a child’s development This method of field research takes multiple years to conduct and the sample size can be very large. The data analysis of this research provides insights into how the kids of different geographical locations and backgrounds respond to sports and the impact of sports on their all round development.
  • Study animal migration patterns Field research is used extensively to study flora and fauna. A major use case is scientists monitoring and studying animal migration patterns with the change of seasons. Field research helps collect data across years and that helps draw conclusions about how to safely expedite the safe passage of animals.

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Advantages of Field Research

The advantages of field research are:

  • It is conducted in a real-world and natural environment where there is no tampering of variables and the environment is not doctored.
  • Due to the study being conducted in a comfortable environment, data can be collected even about ancillary topics.
  • The researcher gains a deep understanding into the research subjects due to the proximity to them and hence the research is extensive, thorough and accurate.

Disadvantages of Field Research

The disadvantages of field research are:

  • The studies are expensive and time-consuming and can take years to complete.
  • It is very difficult for the researcher to distance themselves from a bias in the research study.
  • The notes have to be exactly what the researcher says but the nomenclature is very tough to follow.
  • It is an interpretive method and this is subjective and entirely dependent on the ability of the researcher.
  • In this method, it is impossible to control external variables and this constantly alters the nature of the research.

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Article Contents

Introduction, what is fieldwork, purpose of fieldwork, physical safety, mental wellbeing and affect, ethical considerations, remote fieldwork, concluding thoughts, acknowledgments, funder information.

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Field Research: A Graduate Student's Guide

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Ezgi Irgil, Anne-Kathrin Kreft, Myunghee Lee, Charmaine N Willis, Kelebogile Zvobgo, Field Research: A Graduate Student's Guide, International Studies Review , Volume 23, Issue 4, December 2021, Pages 1495–1517, https://doi.org/10.1093/isr/viab023

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What is field research? Is it just for qualitative scholars? Must it be done in a foreign country? How much time in the field is “enough”? A lack of disciplinary consensus on what constitutes “field research” or “fieldwork” has left graduate students in political science underinformed and thus underequipped to leverage site-intensive research to address issues of interest and urgency across the subfields. Uneven training in Ph.D. programs has also left early-career researchers underprepared for the logistics of fieldwork, from developing networks and effective sampling strategies to building respondents’ trust, and related issues of funding, physical safety, mental health, research ethics, and crisis response. Based on the experience of five junior scholars, this paper offers answers to questions that graduate students puzzle over, often without the benefit of others’ “lessons learned.” This practical guide engages theory and praxis, in support of an epistemologically and methodologically pluralistic discipline.

¿Qué es la investigación de campo? ¿Es solo para académicos cualitativos? ¿Debe realizarse en un país extranjero? ¿Cuánto tiempo en el terreno es “suficiente”? La falta de consenso disciplinario con respecto a qué constituye la “investigación de campo” o el “trabajo de campo” ha causado que los estudiantes de posgrado en ciencias políticas estén poco informados y, por lo tanto, capacitados de manera insuficiente para aprovechar la investigación exhaustiva en el sitio con el objetivo de abordar los asuntos urgentes y de interés en los subcampos. La capacitación desigual en los programas de doctorado también ha provocado que los investigadores en las primeras etapas de su carrera estén poco preparados para la logística del trabajo de campo, desde desarrollar redes y estrategias de muestreo efectivas hasta generar la confianza de las personas que facilitan la información, y las cuestiones relacionadas con la financiación, la seguridad física, la salud mental, la ética de la investigación y la respuesta a las situaciones de crisis. Con base en la experiencia de cinco académicos novatos, este artículo ofrece respuestas a las preguntas que desconciertan a los estudiantes de posgrado, a menudo, sin el beneficio de las “lecciones aprendidas” de otras personas. Esta guía práctica incluye teoría y praxis, en apoyo de una disciplina pluralista desde el punto de vista epistemológico y metodológico.

En quoi consiste la recherche de terain ? Est-elle uniquement réservée aux chercheurs qualitatifs ? Doit-elle être effectuée dans un pays étranger ? Combien de temps faut-il passer sur le terrain pour que ce soit « suffisant » ? Le manque de consensus disciplinaire sur ce qui constitue une « recherche de terrain » ou un « travail de terrain » a laissé les étudiants diplômés en sciences politiques sous-informés et donc sous-équipés pour tirer parti des recherches de terrain intensives afin d'aborder les questions d'intérêt et d'urgence dans les sous-domaines. L'inégalité de formation des programmes de doctorat a mené à une préparation insuffisante des chercheurs en début de carrière à la logistique du travail de terrain, qu'il s'agisse du développement de réseaux et de stratégies d’échantillonnage efficaces, de l'acquisition de la confiance des personnes interrogées ou des questions de financement, de sécurité physique, de santé mentale, d’éthique de recherche et de réponse aux crises qui y sont associées. Cet article s'appuie sur l'expérience de cinq jeunes chercheurs pour proposer des réponses aux questions que les étudiants diplômés se posent, souvent sans bénéficier des « enseignements tirés » par les autres. Ce guide pratique engage théorie et pratique en soutien à une discipline épistémologiquement et méthodologiquement pluraliste.

Days before embarking on her first field research trip, a Ph.D. student worries about whether she will be able to collect the qualitative data that she needs for her dissertation. Despite sending dozens of emails, she has received only a handful of responses to her interview requests. She wonders if she will be able to gain more traction in-country. Meanwhile, in the midst of drafting her thesis proposal, an M.A. student speculates about the feasibility of his project, given a modest budget. Thousands of miles away from home, a postdoc is concerned about their safety, as protests erupt outside their window and state security forces descend into the streets.

These anecdotes provide a small glimpse into the concerns of early-career researchers undertaking significant projects with a field research component. Many of these fieldwork-related concerns arise from an unfortunate shortage in curricular offerings for qualitative and mixed-method research in political science graduate programs ( Emmons and Moravcsik 2020 ), 1 as well as the scarcity of instructional materials for qualitative and mixed-method research, relative to those available for quantitative research ( Elman, Kapiszewski, and Kirilova 2015 ; Kapiszewski, MacLean, and Read 2015 ; Mosley 2013 ). A recent survey among the leading United States Political Science programs in Comparative Politics and International Relations found that among graduate students who have carried out international fieldwork, 62 percent had not received any formal fieldwork training and only 20 percent felt very or mostly prepared for their fieldwork ( Schwartz and Cronin-Furman 2020 , 7–8). This shortfall in training and instruction means that many young researchers are underprepared for the logistics of fieldwork, from developing networks and effective sampling strategies to building respondents’ trust. In addition, there is a notable lack of preparation around issues of funding, physical safety, mental health, research ethics, and crisis response. This is troubling, as field research is highly valued and, in some parts of the field, it is all but expected, for instance in comparative politics.

Beyond subfield-specific expectations, research that leverages multiple types of data and methods, including fieldwork, is one of the ways that scholars throughout the discipline can more fully answer questions of interest and urgency. Indeed, multimethod work, a critical means by which scholars can parse and evaluate causal pathways, is on the rise ( Weller and Barnes 2016 ). The growing appearance of multimethod research in leading journals and university presses makes adequate training and preparation all the more significant ( Seawright 2016 ; Nexon 2019 ).

We are five political scientists interested in providing graduate students and other early-career researchers helpful resources for field research that we lacked when we first began our work. Each of us has recently completed or will soon complete a Ph.D. at a United States or Swedish university, though we come from many different national backgrounds. We have conducted field research in our home countries and abroad. From Colombia and Guatemala to the United States, from Europe to Turkey, and throughout East and Southeast Asia, we have spanned the globe to investigate civil society activism and transitional justice in post-violence societies, conflict-related sexual violence, social movements, authoritarianism and contentious politics, and the everyday politics and interactions between refugees and host-country citizens.

While some of us have studied in departments that offer strong training in field research methods, most of us have had to self-teach, learning through trial and error. Some of us have also been fortunate to participate in short courses and workshops hosted by universities such as the Consortium for Qualitative Research Methods and interdisciplinary institutions such as the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Recognizing that these opportunities are not available to or feasible for all, and hoping to ease the concerns of our more junior colleagues, we decided to compile our experiences and recommendations for first-time field researchers.

Our experiences in the field differ in several key respects, from the time we spent in the field to the locations we visited, and how we conducted our research. The diversity of our experiences, we hope, will help us reach and assist the broadest possible swath of graduate students interested in field research. Some of us have spent as little as ten days in a given country or as much as several months, in some instances visiting a given field site location just once and in other instances returning several times. At times, we have been able to plan weeks and months in advance. Other times, we have quickly arranged focus groups and impromptu interviews. Other times still, we have completed interviews virtually, when research participants were in remote locations or when we ourselves were unable to travel, of note during the coronavirus pandemic. We have worked in countries where we are fluent or have professional proficiency in the language, and in countries where we have relied on interpreters. We have worked in settings with precarious security as well as in locations that feel as comfortable as home. Our guide is not intended to be prescriptive or exhaustive. What we offer is a set of experience-based suggestions to be implemented as deemed relevant and appropriate by the researcher and their advisor(s).

In terms of the types of research and data sources and collection, we have conducted archival research, interviews, focus groups, and ethnographies with diplomats, bureaucrats, military personnel, ex-combatants, civil society advocates, survivors of political violence, refugees, and ordinary citizens. We have grappled with ethical dilemmas, chief among them how to get useful data for our research projects in ways that exceed the minimal standards of human subjects’ research evaluation panels. Relatedly, we have contemplated how to use our platforms to give back to the individuals and communities who have so generously lent us their time and knowledge, and shared with us their personal and sometimes harrowing stories.

Our target audience is first and foremost graduate students and early-career researchers who are interested in possibly conducting fieldwork but who either (1) do not know the full potential or value of fieldwork, (2) know the potential and value of fieldwork but think that it is excessively cost-prohibitive or otherwise infeasible, or (3) who have the interest, the will, and the means but not necessarily the know-how. We also hope that this resource will be of value to graduate programs, as they endeavor to better support students interested in or already conducting field research. Further, we target instructional faculty and graduate advisors (and other institutional gatekeepers like journal and book reviewers), to show that fieldwork does not have to be year-long, to give just one example. Instead, the length of time spent in the field is a function of the aims and scope of a given project. We also seek to formalize and normalize the idea of remote field research, whether conducted because of security concerns in conflict zones, for instance, or because of health and safety concerns, like the Covid-19 pandemic. Accordingly, researchers in the field for shorter stints or who conduct fieldwork remotely should not be penalized.

We note that several excellent resources on fieldwork such as the bibliography compiled by Advancing Conflict Research (2020) catalogue an impressive list of articles addressing questions such as ethics, safety, mental health, reflexivity, and methods. Further resources can be found about the positionality of the researcher in the field while engaging vulnerable communities, such as in the research field of migration ( Jacobsen and Landau 2003 ; Carling, Bivand Erdal, and Ezzati 2014 ; Nowicka and Cieslik 2014 ; Zapata-Barrero and Yalaz 2019 ). However, little has been written beyond conflict-affected contexts, fragile settings, and vulnerable communities. Moreover, as we consulted different texts and resources, we found no comprehensive guide to fieldwork explicitly written with graduate students in mind. It is this gap that we aim to fill.

In this paper, we address five general categories of questions that graduate students puzzle over, often without the benefit of others’ “lessons learned.” First, What is field research? Is it just for qualitative scholars? Must it be conducted in a foreign country? How much time in the field is “enough”? Second, What is the purpose of fieldwork? When does it make sense to travel to a field site to collect data? How can fieldwork data be used? Third, What are the nuts and bolts? How does one get ready and how can one optimize limited time and financial resources? Fourth, How does one conduct fieldwork safely? What should a researcher do to keep themselves, research assistants, and research subjects safe? What measures should they take to protect their mental health? Fifth, How does one conduct ethical, beneficent field research?

Finally, the Covid-19 pandemic has impressed upon the discipline the volatility of research projects centered around in-person fieldwork. Lockdowns and closed borders left researchers sequestered at home and unable to travel, forced others to cut short any trips already begun, and unexpectedly confined others still to their fieldwork sites. Other factors that may necessitate a (spontaneous) readjustment of planned field research include natural disasters, a deteriorating security situation in the field site, researcher illness, and unexpected changes in personal circumstances. We, therefore, conclude with a section on the promise and potential pitfalls of remote (or virtual) fieldwork. Throughout this guide, we engage theory and praxis to support an epistemologically and methodologically pluralistic discipline.

The concept of “fieldwork” is not well defined in political science. While several symposia discuss the “nuts and bolts” of conducting research in the field within the pages of political science journals, few ever define it ( Ortbals and Rincker 2009 ; Hsueh, Jensenius, and Newsome 2014 ). Defining the concept of fieldwork is important because assumptions about what it is and what it is not underpin any suggestions for conducting it. A lack of disciplinary consensus about what constitutes “fieldwork,” we believe, explains the lack of a unified definition. Below, we discuss three areas of current disagreement about what “fieldwork” is, including the purpose of fieldwork, where it occurs, and how long it should be. We follow this by offering our definition of fieldwork.

First, we find that many in the discipline view fieldwork as squarely in the domain of qualitative research, whether interpretivist or positivist. However, field research can also serve quantitative projects—for example, by providing crucial context, supporting triangulation, or illustrating causal mechanisms. For instance, Kreft (2019) elaborated her theory of women's civil society mobilization in response to conflict-related sexual violence based on interviews she carried out in Colombia. She then examined cross-national patterns through statistical analysis. Conversely, Willis's research on the United States military in East Asia began with quantitative data collection and analysis of protest events before turning to fieldwork to understand why protests occurred in some instances but not others. Researchers can also find quantifiable data in the field that is otherwise unavailable to them at home ( Read 2006 ; Chambers-Ju 2014 ; Jensenius 2014 ). Accordingly, fieldwork is not in the domain of any particular epistemology or methodology as its purpose is to acquire data for further information.

Second, comparative politics and international relations scholars often opine that fieldwork requires leaving the country in which one's institution is based. Instead, we propose that what matters most is the nature of the research project, not the locale. For instance, some of us in the international relations subfield have interviewed representatives of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), whose headquarters are generally located in Global North countries. For someone pursuing a Ph.D. in the United States and writing on transnational advocacy networks, interviews with INGO representatives in New York certainly count as fieldwork ( Zvobgo 2020 ). Similarly, a graduate student who returns to her home country to interview refugees and native citizens is conducting a field study as much as a researcher for whom the context is wholly foreign. Such interviews can provide necessary insights and information that would not have been gained otherwise—one of the key reasons researchers conduct fieldwork in the first place. In other instances, conducting any in-person research is simply not possible, due to financial constraints, safety concerns, or other reasons. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many researchers to shift their face-to-face research plans to remote data collection, either over the phone or virtually ( Howlett 2021 , 2). For some research projects, gathering data through remote methods may yield the same if not similar information than in-person research ( Howlett 2021 , 3–4). As Howlett (2021 , 11) notes, digital platforms may offer researchers the ability to “embed ourselves in other contexts from a distance” and glimpse into our subjects’ lives in ways similar to in-person research. By adopting a broader definition of fieldwork, researchers can be more flexible in getting access to data sources and interacting with research subjects.

Third, there is a tendency, especially among comparativists, to only count fieldwork that spans the better part of a year; even “surgical strike” field research entails one to three months, according to some scholars ( Ortbals and Rincker 2009 ; Weiss, Hicken, and Kuhonta 2017 ). The emphasis on spending as much time as possible in the field is likely due to ethnographic research traditions, reflected in classics such as James Scott's Weapons of the Weak , which entail year-long stints of research. However, we suggest that the appropriate amount of time in the field should be assessed on a project-by-project basis. Some studies require the researcher to be in the field for long periods; others do not. For example, Willis's research on the discourse around the United States’ military presence in overseas host communities has required months in the field. By contrast, Kreft only needed ten days in New York to carry out interviews with diplomats and United Nations staff, in a context with which she already had some familiarity from a prior internship. Likewise, Zvobgo spent a couple of weeks in her field research sites, conducting interviews with directors and managers of prominent human rights nongovernmental organizations. This population is not so large as to require a whole month or even a few months. This has also been the case for Irgil, as she had spent one month in the field site conducting interviews with ordinary citizens. The goal of the project was to acquire information on citizens’ perceptions of refugees. As we discuss in the next section, when deciding how long to spend in the field, scholars must consider the information their project requires and consider the practicalities of fieldwork, notably cost.

Thus, we highlight three essential points in fieldwork and offer a definition accordingly: fieldwork involves acquiring information, using any set of appropriate data collection techniques, for qualitative, quantitative, or experimental analysis through embedded research whose location and duration is dependent on the project. We argue that adopting such a definition of “fieldwork” is necessary to include the multitude of forms fieldwork can take, including remote methods, whose value and challenges the Covid-19 pandemic has impressed upon the discipline.

When does a researcher need to conduct fieldwork? Fieldwork can be effective for (1) data collection, (2) theory building, and (3) theory testing. First, when a researcher is interested in a research topic, yet they could not find an available and/or reliable data source for the topic, fieldwork could provide the researcher with plenty of options. Some research agendas can require researchers to visit archives to review historical documents. For example, Greitens (2016) visited national archives in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States to find historical documents about the development of coercive institutions in past authoritarian governments for her book, Dictators and Their Secret Police . Also, newly declassified archival documents can open new possibilities for researchers to examine restricted topics. To illustrate, thanks to the newly released archival records of the Chinese Communist Party's communications, and exchange of visits with the European communist world, Sarotte (2012) was able to study the Party's decision to crack down on Tiananmen protesters, which had previously been deemed as an unstudiable topic due to the limited data.

Other research agendas can require researchers to conduct (semistructured) in-depth interviews to understand human behavior or a situation more closely, for example, by revealing the meanings of concepts for people and showing how people perceive the world. For example, O'Brien and Li (2005) conducted in-depth interviews with activists, elites, and villagers to understand how these actors interact with each other and what are the outcomes of the interaction in contentious movements in rural China. Through research, they revealed that protests have deeply influenced all these actors’ minds, a fact not directly observable without in-depth interviews.

Finally, data collection through fieldwork should not be confined to qualitative data ( Jensenius 2014 ). While some quantitative datasets can be easily compiled or accessed through use of the internet or contact with data-collection agencies, other datasets can only be built or obtained through relationships with “gatekeepers” such as government officials, and thus require researchers to visit the field ( Jensenius 2014 ). Researchers can even collect their own quantitative datasets by launching surveys or quantifying data contained in archives. In a nutshell, fieldwork will allow researchers to use different techniques to collect and access original/primary data sources, whether these are qualitative, quantitative, or experimental in nature, and regardless of the intended method of analysis. 2

But fieldwork is not just for data collection as such. Researchers can accomplish two other fundamental elements of the research process: theory building and theory testing. When a researcher finds a case where existing theories about a phenomenon do not provide plausible explanations, they can build a theory through fieldwork ( Geddes 2003 ). Lee's experience provides a good example. When studying the rise of a protest movement in South Korea for her dissertation, Lee applied commonly discussed social movement theories, grievances, political opportunity, resource mobilization, and repression, to explain the movement's eruption and found that these theories do not offer a convincing explanation for the protest movement. She then moved on to fieldwork and conducted interviews with the movement participants to understand their motivations. Finally, through those interviews, she offered an alternative theory that the protest participants’ collective identity shaped during the authoritarian past played a unifying factor and eventually led them to participate in the movement. Her example shows that theorization can take place through careful review and rigorous inference during fieldwork.

Moreover, researchers can test their theory through fieldwork. Quantitative observational data has limitations in revealing causal mechanisms ( Esarey 2017 ). Therefore, many political scientists turn their attention to conducting field experiments or lab-in-the-field experiments to reveal causality ( Druckman et al. 2006 ; Beath, Christia, and Enikolopov 2013 ; Finseraas and Kotsadam 2017 ), or to leveraging in-depth insights or historical records gained through qualitative or archival research in process-tracing ( Collier 2011 ; Ricks and Liu 2018 ). Surveys and survey experiments may also be useful tools to substantiate a theoretical story or test a theory ( Marston 2020 ). Of course, for most Ph.D. students, especially those not affiliated with more extensive research projects, some of these options will be financially prohibitive.

A central concern for graduate students, especially those working with a small budget and limited time, is optimizing time in the field and integrating remote work. We offer three pieces of advice: have a plan, build in flexibility, and be strategic, focusing on collecting data that are unavailable at home. We also discuss working with local translators or research assistants. Before we turn to these more practical issues arising during fieldwork, we address a no less important issue: funding.

The challenge of securing funds is often overlooked in discussions of what constitutes field research. Months- or year-long in-person research can be cost-prohibitive, something academic gatekeepers must consider when evaluating “what counts” and “what is enough.” Unlike their predecessors, many graduate students today have a significant amount of debt and little savings. 3 Additionally, if researchers are not able to procure funding, they have to pay out of pocket and possibly take on more debt. Not only is in-person fieldwork costly, but researchers may also have to forego working while they are in the field, making long stretches in the field infeasible for some.

For researchers whose fieldwork involves travelling to another location, procuring funding via grants, fellowships, or other sources is a necessity, regardless of how long one plans to be in the field. A good mantra for applying for research funding is “apply early and often” ( Kelsky 2015 , 110). Funding applications take a considerable amount of time to prepare, from writing research statements to requesting letters of recommendation. Even adapting one's materials for different applications takes time. Not only is the application process itself time-consuming, but the time between applying for and receiving funds, if successful, can be quite long, from several months to a year. For example, after defending her prospectus in May 2019, Willis began applying to funding sources for her dissertation, all of which had deadlines between June and September. She received notifications between November and January; however, funds from her successful applications were not available until March and April, almost a year later. 4 Accordingly, we recommend applying for funding as early as possible; this not only increases one's chances of hitting the ground running in the field, but the application process can also help clarify the goals and parameters of one's research.

Graduate students should also apply often for funding opportunities. There are different types of funding for fieldwork: some are larger, more competitive grants such as the National Science Foundation Political Science Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant in the United States, others, including sources through one's own institution, are smaller. Some countries, like Sweden, boast a plethora of smaller funding agencies that disburse grants of 20,000–30,0000 Swedish Kronor (approx. 2,500–3,500 U.S. dollars) to Ph.D. students in the social sciences. Listings of potential funding sources are often found on various websites including those belonging to universities, professional organizations (such as the American Political Science Association or the European Consortium for Political Research), and governmental institutions dealing with foreign affairs. Once you have identified fellowships and grants for which you and your project are a good match, we highly recommend soliciting information and advice from colleagues who have successfully applied for them. This can include asking them to share their applications with you, and if possible, to have them, another colleague or set of colleagues read through your project description and research plan (especially for bigger awards) to ensure that you have made the best possible case for why you should be selected. While both large and small pots of funding are worth applying for, many researchers end up funding their fieldwork through several small grants or fellowships. One small award may not be sufficient to fund the entirety of one's fieldwork, but several may. For example, Willis's fieldwork in Japan and South Korea was supported through fellowships within each country. Similarly, Irgil was able to conduct her fieldwork abroad through two different and relatively smaller grants by applying to them each year.

Of course, situations vary in different countries with respect to what kinds of grants from what kinds of funders are available. An essential part of preparing for fieldwork is researching the funding landscape well in advance, even as early as the start of the Ph.D. We encourage first-time field researchers to be aware that universities and departments may themselves not be aware of the full range of possible funds available, so it is always a good idea to do your own research and watch research-related social media channels. The amount of funding needed thereby depends on the nature of one's project and how long one intends to be in the field. As we elaborate in the next section, scholars should think carefully about their project goals, the data required to meet those goals, and the requisite time to attain them. For some projects, even a couple of weeks in the field is sufficient to get the needed information.

Preparing to Enter “the field”

It is important to prepare for the field as much as possible. What kind of preparations do researchers need? For someone conducting interviews with NGO representatives, this might involve identifying the largest possible pool of potential respondents, securing their contact information, sending them study invitation letters, finding a mutually agreeable time to meet, and pulling together short biographies for each interviewee in order to use your time together most effectively. If you plan to travel to conduct interviews, you should reach out to potential respondents roughly four to six weeks prior to your arrival. For individuals who do not respond, you can follow up one to two weeks before you arrive and, if needed, once more when you are there. This is still no guarantee for success, of course. For Kreft, contacting potential interviewees in Colombia initially proved more challenging than anticipated, as many of the people she targeted did not respond to her emails. It turned out that many Colombians have a preference for communicating via phone or, in particular, WhatsApp. Some of those who responded to her emails sent in advance of her field trip asked her to simply be in touch once she was in the country, to set up appointments on short notice. This made planning and arranging her interview schedule more complicated. Therefore, a general piece of advice is to research your target population's preferred communication channels and mediums in the field site if email requests yield no or few responses.

In general, we note for the reader that contacting potential research participants should come after one has designed an interview questionnaire (plus an informed consent protocol) and sought and received, where applicable, approval from institutional review boards (IRBs) or other ethical review procedures in place (both at one's home institution/in the country of the home institution as well as in the country where one plans to conduct research if travelling abroad). The most obvious advantage of having the interview questionnaire in place and having secured all necessary institutional approvals before you start contacting potential interviewees is that you have a clearer idea of the universe of individuals you would like to interview, and for what purpose. Therefore, it is better to start sooner rather than later and be mindful of “high seasons,” when institutional and ethical review boards are receiving, processing, and making decisions on numerous proposals. It may take a few months for them to issue approvals.

On the subject of ethics and review panels, we encourage you to consider talking openly and honestly with your supervisors and/or funders about the situations where a written consent form may not be suitable and might need to be replaced with “verbal consent.” For instance, doing fieldwork in politically unstable contexts, highly scrutinized environments, or vulnerable communities, like refugees, might create obstacles for the interviewees as well as the researcher. The literature discusses the dilemma in offering the interviewees anonymity and requesting signed written consent in addition to the emphasis on total confidentiality ( Jacobsen and Landau 2003 ; Mackenzie, McDowell, and Pittaway 2007 ; Saunders, Kitzinger, and Kitzinger 2015 ). Therefore, in those situations, the researcher might need to take the initiative on how to act while doing the interviews as rigorously as possible. In her fieldwork, Irgil faced this situation as the political context of Turkey did not guarantee that there would not be any adverse consequences for interviewees on both sides of her story: citizens of Turkey and Syrian refugees. Consequently, she took hand-written notes and asked interviewees for their verbal consent in a safe interview atmosphere. This is something respondents greatly appreciated ( Irgil 2020 ).

Ethical considerations, of course, also affect the research design itself, with ramifications for fieldwork. When Kreft began developing her Ph.D. proposal to study women's political and civil society mobilization in response to conflict-related sexual violence, she initially aimed to recruit interviewees from the universe of victims of this violence, to examine variation among those who did and those who did not mobilize politically. As a result of deeper engagement with the literature on researching conflict-related sexual violence, conversations with senior colleagues who had interviewed victims, and critical self-reflection of her status as a researcher (with no background in psychology or social work), she decided to change focus and shift toward representatives of civil society organizations and victims’ associations. This constituted a major reconfiguration of her research design, from one geared toward identifying the factors that drive mobilization of victims toward using insights from interviews to understand better how those mobilize perceive and “make sense” of conflict-related sexual violence. Needless to say, this required alterations to research strategies and interview guides, including reassessing her planned fieldwork. Kreft's primary consideration was not to cause harm to her research participants, particularly in the form of re-traumatization. She opted to speak only with those women who on account of their work are used to speaking about conflict-related sexual violence. In no instance did she inquire about interviewees’ personal experiences with sexual violence, although several brought this up on their own during the interviews.

Finally, if you are conducting research in another country where you have less-than-professional fluency in the language, pre-fieldwork planning should include hiring a translator or research assistant, for example, through an online hiring platform like Upwork, or a local university. Your national embassy or consulate is another option; many diplomatic offices have lists of individuals who they have previously contracted. More generally, establishing contact with a local university can be beneficial, either in the form of a visiting researcher arrangement, which grants access to research groups and facilities like libraries or informally contacting individual researchers. The latter may have valuable insights into the local context, contacts to potential research participants, and they may even be able to recommend translators or research assistants. Kreft, for example, hired local research assistants recommended by researchers at a Bogotá-based university and remunerated them equivalent to the salary they would have received as graduate research assistants at the university, while also covering necessary travel expenses. Irgil, on the other hand, established contacts with native citizens and Syrian gatekeepers, who are shop owners in the area where she conducted her research because she had the opportunity to visit the fieldwork site multiple times.

Depending on the research agenda, researchers may visit national archives, local government offices, etc. Before visiting, researchers should contact these facilities and make sure the materials that they need are accessible. For example, Lee visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Archives to find the United States’ strategic evaluations on South Korea's dictator in the 1980s. Before her visit, she contacted librarians in the archives, telling them her visit plans and her research purpose. Librarians made suggestions on which categories she should start to review based on her research goal, and thus she was able to make a list of categories of the materials she needed, saving her a lot of her time.

Accessibility of and access to certain facilities/libraries can differ depending on locations/countries and types of facilities. Facilities in authoritarian countries might not be easily accessible to foreign researchers. Within democratic countries, some facilities are more restrictive than others. Situations like the pandemic or national holidays can also restrict accessibility. Therefore, researchers are well advised to do preliminary research on whether a certain facility opens during the time they visit and is accessible to researchers regardless of their citizenship status. Moreover, researchers must contact the staff of facilities to know whether identity verification is needed and if so, what kind of documents (photo I.D. or passport) should be exhibited.

Adapting to the Reality of the Field

Researchers need to be flexible because you may meet people you did not make appointments with, come across opportunities you did not expect, or stumble upon new ideas about collecting data in the field. These happenings will enrich your field experience and will ultimately be beneficial for your research. Similarly, researchers should not be discouraged by interviews that do not go according to plan; they present an opportunity to pursue relevant people who can provide an alternative path to your work. Note that planning ahead does not preclude fortuitous encounters or epiphanies. Rather, it provides a structure for them to happen.

If your fieldwork entails travelling abroad, you will also be able to recruit more interviewees once you arrive at your research site. In fact, you may have greater success in-country; not everyone is willing to respond to a cold email from an unknown researcher in a foreign country. In Irgil's fieldwork, she contacted store owners that are known in the area and who know the community. This eased her process of introduction into the community and recruiting interviewees. For Zvobgo, she had fewer than a dozen interviews scheduled when she travelled to Guatemala to study civil society activism and transitional justice since the internal armed conflict. But she was able to recruit additional participants in-country. Interviewees with whom she built a rapport connected her to other NGOs, government offices, and the United Nations country office, sometimes even making the call and scheduling interviews for her. Through snowball sampling, she was able to triple the number of participants. Likewise, snowball sampling was central to Kreft's recruitment of interview partners. Several of her interviewees connected her to highly relevant individuals she would never have been able to identify and contact based on web searches alone.

While in the field, you may nonetheless encounter obstacles that necessitate adjustments to your original plans. Once Kreft had arrived in Colombia, for example, it transpired quickly that carrying out in-person interviews in more remote/rural areas was near impossible given her means, as these were not easily accessible by bus/coach, further complicated by a complex security situation. Instead, she adjusted her research design and shifted her focus to the big cities, where most of the major civil society organizations are based. She complemented the in-person interviews carried out there with a smaller number of phone interviews with civil society activists in rural areas, and she was also able to meet a few activists operating in rural or otherwise inaccessible areas as they were visiting the major cities. The resulting focus on urban settings changed the kinds of generalizations she was able to make based on her fieldwork data and produced a somewhat different study than initially anticipated.

This also has been the case for Irgil, despite her prior arrangements with the Syrian gatekeepers, which required adjustments as in the case of Kreft. Irgil acquired research clearance one year before, during the interviews with native citizens, conducting the interviews with Syrian refugees. She also had her questionnaire ready based on the previously collected data and the media search she had conducted for over a year before travelling to the field site. As she was able to visit the field site multiple times, two months before conducting interviews with Syrian refugees, she developed a schedule with the Syrian gatekeepers and informants. Yet, once she was in the field, influenced by Turkey's recent political events and the policy of increasing control over Syrian refugees, half of the previously agreed informants changed their minds or did not want to participate in interviews. As Irgil was following the policies and the news related to Syrian refugees in Turkey closely, this did not come as that big of a surprise but challenged the previously developed strategy to recruit interviewees. Thus, she changed the strategy of finding interviewees in the field site, such as asking people, almost one by one, whether they would like to participate in the interview. Eventually, she could not find willing Syrian women refugees as she had planned, which resulted in a male-dominant sample. As researchers encounter such situations, it is essential to remind oneself that not everything can go according to plan, that “different” does not equate to “worse,” but that it is important to consider what changes to fieldwork data collection and sampling imply for the study's overall findings and the contribution it makes to the literature.

We should note that conducting interviews is very taxing—especially when opportunities multiply, as in Zvobgo's case. Depending on the project, each interview can take an hour, if not two or more. Hence, you should make a reasonable schedule: we recommend no more than two interviews per day. You do not want to have to cut off an interview because you need to rush to another one, whether the interviews are in-person or remote. And you do not want to be too exhausted to have a robust engagement with your respondent who is generously lending you their time. Limiting the number of interviews per day is also important to ensure that you can write comprehensive and meaningful fieldnotes, which becomes even more essential where it is not possible to audio-record your interviews. Also, be sure to remember to eat, stay hydrated, and try to get enough sleep.

Finally, whether to provide gifts or payments to the subject also requires adapting to the reality of the field. You must think about payments beforehand when you apply for IRB approval (or whatever other ethical review processes may be in place) since these applications usually contain questions about payments. Obviously, the first step is to carefully evaluate whether the gifts and payments provided can harm the subject or are likely to unduly affect the responses they will give in response to your questions. If that is not the case, you have to make payment decisions based on your budget, field situation, and difficulties in recruitment. Usually, payment of respondents is more common in survey research, whereas it is less common in interviews and focus groups.

Nevertheless, payment practices vary depending on the field and the target group. In some cases, it may become a custom to provide small gifts or payments when interviewing a certain group. In other cases, interviewees might be offended if they are provided with money. Therefore, knowing past practices and field situations is important. For example, Lee provided small coffee gift cards to one group while she did not to the other based on previous practices of other researchers. That is, for a particular group, it has become a custom for interviewers to pay interviewees. Sometimes, you may want to reimburse your subject's interview costs such as travel expenses and provide beverages and snacks during the conduct of research, as Kreft did when conducting focus groups in Colombia. To express your gratitude to your respondents, you can prepare small gifts such as your university memorabilia (e.g., notebooks and pens). Since past practices about payments can affect your interactions and interviews with a target group, you want to seek advice from your colleagues and other researchers who had experiences interacting with the target group. If you cannot find researchers who have this knowledge, you can search for published works on the target population to find if the authors share their interview experiences. You may also consider contacting the authors for advice before your interviews.

Researching Strategically

Distinguishing between things that can only be done in person at a particular site and things that can be accomplished later at home is vital. Prioritize the former over the latter. Lee's fieldwork experience serves as a good example. She studied a conservative protest movement called the Taegeukgi Rally in South Korea. She planned to conduct interviews with the rally participants to examine their motivations for participating. But she only had one month in South Korea. So, she focused on things that could only be done in the field: she went to the rally sites, she observed how protests proceeded, which tactics and chants were used, and she met participants and had some casual conversations with them. Then, she used the contacts she made while attending the rallies to create a social network to solicit interviews from ordinary protesters, her target population. She was able to recruit twenty-five interviewees through good rapport with the people she met. The actual interviews proceeded via phone after she returned to the United States. In a nutshell, we advise you not to be obsessed with finishing interviews in the field. Sometimes, it is more beneficial to use your time in the field to build relationships and networks.

Working With Assistants and Translators

A final consideration on logistics is working with research assistants or translators; it affects how you can carry out interviews, focus groups, etc. To what extent constant back-and-forth translation is necessary or advisable depends on the researcher's skills in the interview language and considerations about time and efficiency. For example, Kreft soon realized that she was generally able to follow along quite well during her interviews in Colombia. In order to avoid precious time being lost to translation, she had her research assistant follow the interview guide Kreft had developed, and interjected follow-up questions in Spanish or English (then to be translated) as they arose.

Irgil's and Zvobgo's interviews went a little differently. Irgil's Syrian refugee interviewees in Turkey were native Arabic speakers, and Zvobgo's interviewees in Guatemala were native Spanish speakers. Both Irgil and Zvobgo worked with research assistants. In Irgil's case, her assistant was a Syrian man, who was outside of the area. Meanwhile, Zvobgo's assistant was an undergraduate from her home institution with a Spanish language background. Irgil and Zvobgo began preparing their assistants a couple of months before entering the field, over Skype for Irgil and in-person for Zvobgo. They offered their assistants readings and other resources to provide them with the necessary background to work well. Both Irgil and Zvobgo's research assistants joined them in the interviews and actually did most of the speaking, introducing the principal investigator, explaining the research, and then asking the questions. In Zvobgo's case, interviewee responses were relayed via a professional interpreter whom she had also hired. After every interview, Irgil and Zvobgo and their respective assistants discussed the answers of the interviewees, potential improvements in phrasing, and elaborated on their hand-written interview notes. As a backup, Zvobgo, with the consent of her respondents, had accompanying audio recordings.

Researchers may carry out fieldwork in a country that is considerably less safe than what they are used to, a setting affected by conflict violence or high crime rates, for instance. Feelings of insecurity can be compounded by linguistic barriers, cultural particularities, and being far away from friends and family. Insecurity is also often gendered, differentially affecting women and raising the specter of unwanted sexual advances, street harassment, or even sexual assault ( Gifford and Hall-Clifford 2008 ; Mügge 2013 ). In a recent survey of Political Science graduate students in the United States, about half of those who had done fieldwork internationally reported having encountered safety issues in the field, (54 percent female, 47 percent male), and only 21 percent agreed that their Ph.D. programs had prepared them to carry out their fieldwork safely ( Schwartz and Cronin-Furman 2020 , 8–9).

Preventative measures scholars may adopt in an unsafe context may involve, at their most fundamental, adjustments to everyday routines and habits, restricting one's movements temporally and spatially. Reliance on gatekeepers may also necessitate adopting new strategies, such as a less vehement and cold rejection of unwanted sexual advances than one ordinarily would exhibit, as Mügge (2013) illustratively discusses. At the same time, a competitive academic job market, imperatives to collect novel and useful data, and harmful discourses surrounding dangerous fieldwork also, problematically, shape incentives for junior researchers to relax their own standards of what constitutes acceptable risk ( Gallien 2021 ).

Others have carefully collected a range of safety precautions that field researchers in fragile or conflict-affected settings may take before and during fieldwork ( Hilhorst et al. 2016 ). Therefore, we are more concise in our discussion of recommendations, focusing on the specific situations of graduate students. Apart from ensuring that supervisors and university administrators have the researcher's contact information in the field (and possibly also that of a local contact person), researchers can register with their country's embassy or foreign office and any crisis monitoring and prevention systems it has in place. That way, they will be informed of any possible unfolding emergencies and the authorities have a record of them being in the country.

It may also be advisable to set up more individualized safety protocols with one or two trusted individuals, such as friends, supervisors, or colleagues at home or in the fieldwork setting itself. The latter option makes sense in particular if one has an official affiliation with a local institution for the duration of the fieldwork, which is often advisable. Still, we would also recommend establishing relationships with local researchers in the absence of a formal affiliation. To keep others informed of her whereabouts, Kreft, for instance, made arrangements with her supervisors to be in touch via email at regular intervals to report on progress and wellbeing. This kept her supervisors in the loop, while an interruption in communication would have alerted them early if something were wrong. In addition, she announced planned trips to other parts of the country and granted her supervisors and a colleague at her home institution emergency reading access to her digital calendar. To most of her interviews, she was moreover accompanied by her local research assistant/translator. If the nature of the research, ethical considerations, and the safety situation allow, it might also be possible to bring a local friend along to interviews as an “assistant,” purely for safety reasons. This option needs to be carefully considered already in the planning stage and should, particularly in settings of fragility or if carrying out research on politically exposed individuals, be noted in any ethical and institutional review processes where these are required. Adequate compensation for such an assistant should be ensured. It may also be advisable to put in place an emergency plan, that is, choose emergency contacts back home and “in the field,” know whom to contact if something happens, and know how to get to the nearest hospital or clinic.

We would be remiss if we did not mention that, when in an unfamiliar context, one's safety radar may be misguided, so it is essential to listen to people who know the context. For example, locals can give advice on which means of transport are safe and which are not, a question that is of the utmost importance when traveling to appointments. For example, Kreft was warned that in Colombia regular taxis are often unsafe, especially if waved down in the streets, and that to get to her interviews safely, she should rely on a ride-share service. In one instance, a Colombian friend suggested that when there was no alternative to a regular taxi, Kreft should book through the app and share the order details, including the taxi registration number or license plate, with a friend. Likewise, sharing one's cell phone location with a trusted friend while traveling or when one feels unsafe may be a viable option. Finally, it is prudent to heed the safety recommendations and travel advisories provided by state authorities and embassies to determine when and where it is safe to travel. Especially if researchers have a responsibility not only for themselves but also for research assistants and research participants, safety must be a top priority.

This does not mean that a researcher should be careless in a context they know either. Of course, conducting fieldwork in a context that is known to the researcher offers many advantages. However, one should be prepared to encounter unwanted events too. For instance, Irgil has conducted fieldwork in her country of origin in a city she knows very well. Therefore, access to the site, moving around the site, and blending in has not been a problem; she also has the advantage of speaking the native language. Yet, she took notes of the streets she walked in, as she often returned from the field site after dark and thought she might get confused after a tiring day. She also established a closer relationship with two or three store owners in different parts of the field site if she needed something urgent, like running out of battery. Above all, one should always be aware of one's surroundings and use common sense. If something feels unsafe, chances are it is.

Fieldwork may negatively affect the researcher's mental health and mental wellbeing regardless of where one's “field” is, whether related to concerns about crime and insecurity, linguistic barriers, social isolation, or the practicalities of identifying, contacting and interviewing research participants. Coping with these different sources of stress can be both mentally and physically exhausting. Then there are the things you may hear, see and learn during the research itself, such as gruesome accounts of violence and suffering conveyed in interviews or archival documents one peruses. Kreft and Zvobgo have spoken with women victims of conflict-related sexual violence, who sometimes displayed strong emotions of pain and anger during the interviews. Likewise, Irgil and Willis have spoken with members of other vulnerable populations such as refugees and former sex workers ( Willis 2020 ).

Prior accounts ( Wood 2006 ; Loyle and Simoni 2017 ; Skjelsbæk 2018 ; Hummel and El Kurd 2020 ; Williamson et al. 2020 ; Schulz and Kreft 2021 ) show that it is natural for sensitive research and fieldwork challenges to affect or even (vicariously) traumatize the researcher. By removing researchers from their regular routines and support networks, fieldwork may also exacerbate existing mental health conditions ( Hummel and El Kurd 2020 ). Nonetheless, mental wellbeing is rarely incorporated into fieldwork courses and guidelines, where these exist at all. But even if you know to anticipate some sort of reaction, you rarely know what that reaction will be until you experience it. When researching sensitive or difficult topics, for example, reactions can include sadness, frustration, anger, fear, helplessness, and flashbacks to personal experiences of violence ( Williamson et al. 2020 ). For example, Kreft responded with episodic feelings of depression and both mental and physical exhaustion. But curiously, these reactions emerged most strongly after she had returned from fieldwork and in particular as she spent extended periods analyzing her interview data, reliving some of the more emotional scenes during the interviews and being confronted with accounts of (sexual) violence against women in a concentrated fashion. This is a crucial reminder that fieldwork does not end when one returns home; the after-effects may linger. Likewise, Zvobgo was physically and mentally drained upon her return from the field. Both Kreft and Zvobgo were unable to concentrate for long periods of time and experienced lower-than-normal levels of productivity for weeks afterward, patterns that formal and informal conversations with other scholars confirm to be common ( Schulz and Kreft 2021 ). Furthermore, the boundaries between “field” and “home” are blurred when conducting remote fieldwork ( Howlett 2021 , 11).

Nor are these adverse reactions limited to cases where the researcher has carried out the interviews themselves. Accounts of violence, pain, and suffering transported in reports, secondary literature, or other sources can evoke similar emotional stress, as Kreft experienced when engaging in a concentrated fashion with additional accounts of conflict-related sexual violence in Colombia and with the feminist literature on sexual and gender-based violence in the comfort of her Swedish office. This could also be applicable to Irgil's fieldwork as she interviewed refugees whose traumas have come out during the interviews or recall specific events triggered by the questions. Likewise, Lee has reviewed primary and secondary materials on North Korean defectors in the national archives and these materials contain violent, intense, emotional narratives.

Fortunately, there are several strategies to cope with and manage such adverse consequences. In a candid and insightful piece, other researchers have discussed the usefulness of distractions, sharing with colleagues, counseling, exercise, and, probably less advisable in the long term, comfort eating and drinking ( Williamson et al. 2020 ; see also Loyle and Simoni 2017 ; Hummel and El Kurd 2020 ). Our experiences largely tally with their observations. In this section, we explore some of these in more detail.

First, in the face of adverse consequences on your mental wellbeing, whether in the field or after your return, it is essential to be patient and generous with yourself. Negative effects on the researcher's mental wellbeing can hit in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. Even if you think that certain reactions are disproportionate or unwarranted at that specific moment, they may simply have been building up over a long time. They are legitimate. Second, the importance of taking breaks and finding distractions, whether that is exercise, socializing with friends, reading a good book, or watching a new series, cannot be overstated. It is easy to fall into a mode of thinking that you constantly have to be productive while you are “in the field,” to maximize your time. But as with all other areas in life, balance is key and rest is necessary. Taking your mind off your research and the research questions you puzzle over is also a good way to more fully soak up and appreciate the context in which you find yourself, in the case of in-person fieldwork, and about which you ultimately write.

Third, we cannot stress enough the importance of investing in social relations. Before going on fieldwork, researchers may want to consult others who have done it before them. Try to find (junior) scholars who have done fieldwork on similar kinds of topics or in the same country or countries you are planning to visit. Utilizing colleagues’ contacts and forging connections using social media are valuable strategies to expand your networks (in fact, this very paper is the result of a social media conversation and several of the authors have never met in person). Having been in the same situation before, most field researchers are, in our experience, generous with their time and advice. Before embarking on her first trip to Colombia, Kreft contacted other researchers in her immediate and extended network and received useful advice on questions such as how to move around Bogotá, whom to speak to, and how to find a research assistant. After completing her fieldwork, she has passed on her experiences to others who contacted her before their first fieldwork trip. Informal networks are, in the absence of more formalized fieldwork preparation, your best friend.

In the field, seeking the company of locals and of other researchers who are also doing fieldwork alleviates anxiety and makes fieldwork more enjoyable. Exchanging experiences, advice and potential interviewee contacts with peers can be extremely beneficial and make the many challenges inherent in fieldwork (on difficult topics) seem more manageable. While researchers conducting remote fieldwork may be physically isolated from other researchers, even connecting with others doing remote fieldwork may be comforting. And even when there are no precise solutions to be found, it is heartening or even cathartic to meet others who are in the same boat and with whom you can talk through your experiences. When Kreft shared some of her fieldwork-related struggles with another researcher she had just met in Bogotá and realized that they were encountering very similar challenges, it was like a weight was lifted off her shoulders. Similarly, peer support can help with readjustment after the fieldwork trip, even if it serves only to reassure you that a post-fieldwork dip in productivity and mental wellbeing is entirely natural. Bear in mind that certain challenges are part of the fieldwork experience and that they do not result from inadequacy on the part of the researcher.

Finally, we would like to stress a point made by Inger Skjelsbæk (2018 , 509) and which has not received sufficient attention: as a discipline, we need to take the question of researcher mental wellbeing more seriously—not only in graduate education, fieldwork preparation, and at conferences, but also in reflecting on how it affects the research process itself: “When strong emotions arise, through reading about, coding, or talking to people who have been impacted by [conflict-related sexual violence] (as victims or perpetrators), it may create a feeling of being unprofessional, nonscientific, and too subjective.”

We contend that this is a challenge not only for research on sensitive issues but also for fieldwork more generally. To what extent is it possible, and desirable, to uphold the image of the objective researcher during fieldwork, when we are at our foundation human beings? And going even further, how do the (anticipated) effects of our research on our wellbeing, and the safety precautions we take ( Gifford and Hall-Clifford 2008 ), affect the kinds of questions we ask, the kinds of places we visit and with whom we speak? How do they affect the methods we use and how we interpret our findings? An honest discussion of affective responses to our research in methods sections seems utopian, as emotionality in the research process continues to be silenced and relegated to the personal, often in gendered ways, which in turn is considered unconnected to the objective and scientific research process ( Jamar and Chappuis 2016 ). But as Gifford and Hall-Clifford (2008 , 26) aptly put it: “Graduate education should acknowledge the reality that fieldwork is scholarly but also intimately personal,” and we contend that the two shape each other. Therefore, we encourage political science as a discipline to reflect on researcher wellbeing and affective responses to fieldwork more carefully, and we see the need for methods courses that embrace a more holistic notion of the subjectivity of the researcher.

Interacting with people in the field is one of the most challenging yet rewarding parts of the work that we do, especially in comparison to impersonal, often tedious wrangling and analysis of quantitative data. Field researchers often make personal connections with their interviewees. Consequently, maintaining boundaries can be a bit tricky. Here, we recommend being honest with everyone with whom you interact without overstating the abilities of a researcher. This appears as a challenge in the field, particularly when you empathize with people and when they share profound parts of their lives with you for your research in addition to being “human subjects” ( Fujii 2012 ). For instance, when Irgil interviewed native citizens about the changes in their neighborhood following the arrival of Syrian refugees, many interviewees questioned what she would offer them in return for their participation. Irgil responded that her primary contribution would be her published work. She also noted, however, that academic papers can take a year, sometimes longer, to go through the peer-reviewed process and, once published, many studies have a limited audience. The Syrian refugees posed similar questions. Irgil responded not only with honesty but also, given this population's vulnerable status, she provided them contact information for NGOs with which they could connect if they needed help or answers to specific questions.

For her part, Zvobgo was very upfront with her interviewees about her role as a researcher: she recognized that she is not someone who is on the frontlines of the fight for human rights and transitional justice like they are. All she could/can do is use her platform to amplify their stories, bringing attention to their vital work through her future peer-reviewed publications. She also committed to sending them copies of the work, as electronic journal articles are often inaccessible due to paywalls and university press books are very expensive, especially for nonprofits. Interviewees were very receptive; some were even moved by the degree of self-awareness and the commitment to do right by them. In some cases, this prompted them to share even more, because they knew that the researcher was really there to listen and learn. This is something that junior scholars, and all scholars really, should always remember. We enter the field to be taught. Likewise, Kreft circulated among her interviewees Spanish-language versions of an academic article and a policy brief based on the fieldwork she had carried out in Colombia.

As researchers from the Global North, we recognize a possible power differential between us and our research subjects, and certainly an imbalance in power between the countries where we have been trained and some of the countries where we have done and continue to do field research, particularly in politically dynamic contexts ( Knott 2019 ). This is why we are so concerned with being open and transparent with everyone with whom we come into contact in the field and why we are committed to giving back to those who so generously lend us their time and knowledge. Knott (2019 , 148) summarizes this as “Reflexive openness is a form of transparency that is methodologically and ethically superior to providing access to data in its raw form, at least for qualitative data.”

We also recognize that academics, including in the social sciences and especially those hailing from countries in the Global North, have a long and troubled history of exploiting their power over others for the sake of their research—including failing to be upfront about their research goals, misrepresenting the on-the-ground realities of their field research sites (including remote fieldwork), and publishing essentializing, paternalistic, and damaging views and analyses of the people there. No one should build their career on the backs of others, least of all in a field concerned with the possession and exercise of power. Thus, it is highly crucial to acknowledge the power hierarchies between the researcher and the interviewees, and to reflect on them both in the field and beyond the field upon return.

A major challenge to conducting fieldwork is when researchers’ carefully planned designs do not go as planned due to unforeseen events outside of our control, such as pandemics, natural disasters, deteriorating security situations in the field, or even the researcher falling ill. As the Covid-19 pandemic has made painfully clear, researchers may face situations where in-person research is simply not possible. In some cases, researchers may be barred entry to their fieldwork site; in others, the ethical implications of entering the field greatly outweigh the importance of fieldwork. Such barriers to conducting in-person research require us to reconsider conventional notions of what constitutes fieldwork. Researchers may need to shift their data collection methods, for example, conducting interviews remotely instead of in person. Even while researchers are in the field, they may still need to carry out part of their interviews or surveys virtually or by phone. For example, Kreft (2020) carried out a small number of interviews remotely while she was based in Bogotá, because some of the women's civil society activists with whom she intended to speak were based in parts of the country that were difficult and/or dangerous to access.

Remote field research, which we define as the collection of data over the internet or over the phone where in-person fieldwork is not possible due to security, health or other risks, comes with its own sets of challenges. For one, there may be certain populations that researchers cannot reach remotely due to a lack of internet connectivity or technology such as cellphones and computers. In such instances, there will be a sampling bias toward individuals and groups that do have these resources, a point worth noting when scholars interpret their research findings. In the case of virtual research, the risk of online surveillance, hacking, or wiretapping may also produce reluctance on the part of interviewees to discuss sensitive issues that may compromise their safety. Researchers need to carefully consider how the use of digital technology may increase the risk to research participants and what changes to the research design and any interview guides this necessitates. In general, it is imperative that researchers reflect on how they can ethically use digital technology in their fieldwork ( Van Baalen 2018 ). Remote interviews may also be challenging to arrange for researchers who have not made connections in person with people in their community of interest.

Some of the serendipitous happenings we discussed earlier may also be less likely and snowball sampling more difficult. For example, in phone or virtual interviews, it is harder to build good rapport and trust with interviewees as compared to face-to-face interviews. Accordingly, researchers should be more careful in communicating with interviewees and creating a comfortable interview environment. Especially when dealing with sensitive topics, researchers may have to make several phone calls and sometimes have to open themselves to establishing trust with interviewees. Also, researchers must be careful in protecting interviewees in phone or virtual interviews when they deal with sensitive topics of countries interviewees reside in.

The inability to physically visit one's community of interest may also encourage scholars to critically reflect on how much time in the field is essential to completing their research and to consider creative, alternative means for accessing information to complete their projects. While data collection techniques such as face-to-face interviews and archival work in the field may be ideal in normal times, there exist other data sources that can provide comparably useful information. For example, in her research on the role of framing in the United States base politics, Willis found that social media accounts and websites yielded information useful to her project. Many archives across the world have also been digitized. Researchers may also consider crowdsourcing data from the field among their networks, as fellow academics tend to collect much more data in the field than they ever use in their published works. They may also elect to hire someone, perhaps a graduate student, in a city or a country where they cannot travel and have the individual access, scan, and send archival materials. This final suggestion may prove generally useful to researchers with limited time and financial resources.

Remote qualitative data collection techniques, while they will likely never be “the gold-standard,” also pose several advantages. These techniques may help researchers avoid some of the issues mentioned previously. Remote interviews, for example, are less time-consuming in terms of travel to the interview site ( Archibald et al. 2019 ). The implication is that researchers may have less fatigue from conducting interviews and/or may be able to conduct more interviews. For example, while Willis had little energy to do anything else after an in-person interview (or two) in a given day, she had much more energy after completing remote interviews. Second, remote fieldwork also helps researchers avoid potentially dangerous situations in the field mentioned previously. Lastly, remote fieldwork generally presents fewer financial barriers than in-person research ( Archibald et al. 2019 ). In that sense, considering remote qualitative data collection, a type of “fieldwork” may make fieldwork more accessible to a greater number of scholars.

Many of the substantive, methodological and practical challenges that arise during fieldwork can be anticipated. Proper preparation can help you hit the ground running once you enter your fieldwork destination, whether in-person or virtually. Nonetheless, there is no such thing as being perfectly prepared for the field. Some things will simply be beyond your control, and especially as a newcomer to field research, and you should be prepared for things to not go as planned. New questions will arise, interview participants may cancel appointments, and you might not get the answers you expected. Be ready to make adjustments to research plans, interview guides, or questionnaires. And, be mindful of your affective reactions to the overall fieldwork situation and be gentle with yourself.

We recommend approaching fieldwork as a learning experience as much as, or perhaps even more than, a data collection effort. This also applies to your research topic. While it is prudent always to exercise a healthy amount of skepticism about what people tell you and why, the participants in your research will likely have unique perspectives and knowledge that will challenge yours. Be an attentive listener and remember that they are experts of their own experiences.

We encourage more institutions to offer courses that cover field research preparation and planning, practical advice on safety and wellbeing, and discussion of ethics. Specifically, we align with Schwartz and Cronin-Furman's (2020 , 3) contention “that treating fieldwork preparation as the methodology will improve individual scholars’ experiences and research.” In this article, we outline a set of issue areas in which we think formal preparation is necessary, but we note that our discussion is by no means exhaustive. Formal fieldwork preparation should also extend beyond what we have covered in this article, such as issues of data security and preparing for nonqualitative fieldwork methods. We also note that field research is one area that has yet to be comprehensively addressed in conversations on diversity and equity in the political science discipline and the broader academic profession. In a recent article, Brielle Harbin (2021) begins to fill this gap by sharing her experiences conducting in-person election surveys as a Black woman in a conservative and predominantly white region of the United States and the challenges that she encountered. Beyond race and gender, citizenship, immigration status, one's Ph.D. institution and distance to the field also affect who is able to do what type of field research, where, and for how long. Future research should explore these and related questions in greater detail because limits on who is able to conduct field research constrict the sociological imagination of our field.

While Emmons and Moravcsik (2020) focus on leading Political Science Ph.D. programs in the United States, these trends likely obtain, both in lower ranked institutions in the broader United States as well as in graduate education throughout North America and Europe.

As all the authors have carried out qualitative fieldwork, this is the primary focus of this guide. This does not, however, mean that we exclude quantitative or experimental data collection from our definition of fieldwork.

There is great variation in graduate students’ financial situations, even in the Global North. For example, while higher education is tax-funded in most countries in Europe and Ph.D. students in countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland receive a comparatively generous full-time salary, healthcare and contributions to pension schemes, Ph.D. programs in other contexts like the United States and the United Kingdom have (high) enrollment fees and rely on scholarships, stipends, or departmental duties like teaching to (partially) offset these, while again others, such as Germany, are commonly financed by part-time (50 percent) employment at the university with tasks substantively unrelated to the dissertation. These different preconditions leave many Ph.D. students struggling financially and even incurring debt, while others are in a more comfortable financial position. Likewise, Ph.D. programs around the globe differ in structure, such as required coursework, duration and supervision relationships. Naturally, all of these factors have a bearing on the extent to which fieldwork is feasible. We acknowledge unequal preconditions across institutions and contexts, and trust that those Ph.D. students interested in pursuing fieldwork are best able to assess the structural and institutional context in which they operate and what this implies for how, when, and how long to carry out fieldwork.

In our experience, this is not only the general cycle for graduate students in North America, but also in Europe and likely elsewhere.

For helpful advice and feedback on earlier drafts, we wish to thank the editors and reviewers at International Studies Review , and Cassandra Emmons. We are also grateful to our interlocuters in Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Germany, Guatemala, Japan, Kenya, Norway, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States, without whom this reflection on fieldwork would not have been possible. All authors contributed equally to this manuscript.

This material is based upon work supported by the Forskraftstiftelsen Theodor Adelswärds Minne, Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation(KAW 2013.0178), National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program(DGE-1418060), Southeast Asia Research Group (Pre-Dissertation Fellowship), University at Albany (Initiatives for Women and the Benevolent Association), University of Missouri (John D. Bies International Travel Award Program and Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy), University of Southern California (Provost Fellowship in the Social Sciences), Vetenskapsrådet(Diarienummer 2019-06298), Wilhelm och Martina Lundgrens Vetenskapsfond(2016-1102; 2018-2272), and William & Mary (Global Research Institute Pre-doctoral Fellowship).

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  • Published: 22 June 2021

Now is the time to reassess fieldwork-based research

  • Adriana Rudling 1 , 2  

Nature Human Behaviour volume  5 ,  page 967 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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Fieldwork-based research by non-local scholars is valued in social science, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the exclusionary mechanisms and power differentials that sustain such research. This must change, writes Adriana Rudling.

Fieldwork has been depicted as the holy grail of social sciences. Field visits are a means for researchers to access locally produced documental evidence and the lived experiences of research participants in their most immediate form. Being physically removed from the field, even temporarily, has been understood traditionally as a way of reducing research bias and gaining in objectivity. It is an opportunity for the researcher to reflect on their experiences, the data collection process, and findings, particularly the ‘messier’ aspects of this process, without ‘undue’ influence from the context where it was produced. This includes, but is not restricted to, research participants with self-serving interests.

field work based research

Furthermore, remoteness is part of the very fabric of some sub-disciplines that broadly fit under the social sciences umbrella, like peace and conflict research. Massive and systematic human rights violations, for instance, have been studied by academics in the Global North as a phenomenon linked particularly with civil and political unrest in the Global South. If you consider the potential vulnerability to harm of scholars who openly oppose authoritarian governments and practices from within, it becomes clear that distance may be a must. But you do not need to go that far: consider how the patchy delivery of public service goods, such as electricity or Internet access, that is often the case in (post-)transitional societies dealing with large-scale human rights violations can affect the ability of local or locally based scholars to produce research on these matters. Remoteness, in this sense, has given researchers in this sub-field a ‘safe place’ from whence to enunciate the harms visited upon their research participants and advocate on their behalf.

As Arundhati Roy has written 1 , we can consider the COVID-19 health crisis “a portal” as it has increasingly called into question a number of dimensions, marking a before and after for (non-)human life. To better understand what COVID-19 has meant for fieldwork-based research and the relationship between the Global North and Global South scholars, I want to draw your attention to a poem 2 entitled “I am not your data” by Abhay Xaxa, an Adivasi rights activist and sociologist by training. Xaxa passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack in March 2020, a few days after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 health crisis a pandemic, and his poem was widely circulated on social media throughout 2020. Despite being written a few years prior, the most striking verse of this ode to epistemic justice and decolonial research methodologies remains, “Nor am I the lab where your theories are tested.” As the spread of the COVID-19 virus gradually brought the world to a standstill and the death toll climbed into the millions, the rumour that pharmaceutical companies based in the Global North would test the vaccines in the Global South, specifically in several African countries, began to take hold. This consolidated the poem’s underlying narrative about the nature of fieldwork and the research relationship between the Global North and the Global South. Because of the (perceived) widespread human rights violations taking place in the Global South, but also because of the power differential between the two spaces, the use of the Global South as “the lab” for Global North theories has been more common than many would like to admit.

To give a recent example, in 2010 the US apologized for syphilis experiments carried out in Guatemala during the 1940s, in which hundreds of prisoners and mental health patients were purposely, but covertly, infected. Susan M. Reverby, a Wellesley College professor whose work focused primarily on the history of US health care provision, uncovered evidence of these unethical and cruel practices in US archives. Between 1946 and 1948, when the experiments were carried out, Guatemala underwent a number of overlapping coups and constitutional crises punctuated by massive human rights violations. While the internal political commotion does not excuse the Guatemalan government for its human rights obligations, such as they were in the 1940s, it further highlights the question about the true capacity of the Global South, researchers included, to withstand pressures from the Global North.

The final lines of Xaxa’s poem remind us of his extratextual commitment as an activist and a member of the Adivasi ethnic group. Xaxa lays an unequivocal claim to his right as a scholar and activist to “draw [his] own picture” and “make [his] own tools to fight [his] own battle.” In the division of labour pertaining to fieldwork-based research, work produced in the Global North that leverages local knowledge and expertise from the Global South is celebrated for its ‘authenticity’ or ‘richness’. But locally based researchers and activists who transition to scholarly work continue to be regarded with some suspicion due to ‘unresolved’ questions about objectivity. Since COVID-19 vaccines have become available, we have seen the power differential between the Global North and the Global South play out in a different way in fieldwork-based research: while travel has been made possible again for researchers situated in the Global North, civil and political unrest is growing in the Global South, where activists and researchers alike continue to face the multiple precarities associated with the health crisis. If we take Roy’s advice seriously as researchers, we must seriously engage with the deficits of fieldwork-based research as we walk through the COVID-19 portal. This means we must question the research–activism and Global North–Global South divides as overlapping exclusionary mechanisms operating in our epistemic communities.

Roy, A. Financial Times (3 April 2020); https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

Xaxa, A. The Shared Mirror (19 September 2011); https://roundtableindia.co.in/lit-blogs/?tag=abhay-xaxa

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Rudling, A. Now is the time to reassess fieldwork-based research. Nat Hum Behav 5 , 967 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01157-x

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field work based research

Field work is the process of observing and collecting data about people, cultures, and natural environments

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Field work is the process of observing and collecting data about people, cultures , and natural environments . Field work is conducted in the wild of our everyday surroundings rather than in the semi-controlled environments of a lab or classroom. This allows researchers to collect data about the dynamic places, people, and species around them. Field work enables students and researchers to examine the way scientific theories interact with real life. Field work is important in both the social and natural sciences . Social sciences , such as economics or history , focus on people, culture, and society . Natural sciences, such as biology or chemistry , focus on physical characteristics of nature and natural environments. Social Science In anthropology , a researcher may do ethnographic field work, studying and describing the customs of different communities and cultures. Ethnographic field work dramatically changed the purpose and methods of anthropology. Early anthropologists collected ethnographic data from outside sources, usually leaders of the group they were studying, and then compared it to their theories. With this information, anthropologists tried to explain the origins of the cultures customs. By the early 20th century, however, anthropologists began to spend long periods of time in a particular community or geographic area. Rather than relying on outside sources, the anthropologists themselves recorded the activities and customs of local people. They listened to the peoples stories and participated in daily events. Anthropologists became active field workers, experiencing the everyday life of their subjects in order to explain the purpose of local institutions and cultural beliefs and practices. The National Geographic Society supports a variety of social science researchers and projects that use field work as a method of collecting data. One of National Geographics Explorers-in-Residence, Dr. Wade Davis , is an ethnobotanist . An ethnobotanist is someone who studies how different cultures understand and use plants as food , medicine , and in religious ceremonies. Davis spent more than three years in Latin America collecting and studying the plants that different indigenous groups use in their daily lives.

Field work can be conducted by groups of people as well as one individual. Participants in National Geographics Enduring Voices Project conduct field work by visiting and documenting areas of the world where indigenous languages are in danger of becoming extinct . Field workers in the Enduring Voices Project have recorded indigenous languages in places as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, and Siberia. Davis and the Enduring Voices Project use field work to document and preserve local knowledge so we may all better understand the diversity of human experiences around the globe. Natural Science Field work is also used to understand how natural environments function. A researcher in the field of ecology , for example, may conduct field work to understand how specific organisms , such as plants and animals, relate to one another and to their physical surroundings. The work of Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands is an important example of field work in the natural sciences . After observing that finch populations on different islands had different types of beaks , Darwin theorized that each type of beak was adapted to the birds environment and diet . These observations, along with many others made on his voyage around South America, would lead Darwin to propose his theory of evolution by natural selection , a pillar of modern biology . A number of National Geographic-supported researchers and projects conduct field work to better understand Earths natural environments . Dr. Jenny Daltry, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2005, is a herpetologist , someone who studies reptiles and amphibians . Daltry has traveled to remote regions of Cambodia and the Caribbean, observing and documenting rare species such as the Siamese crocodile and the Antiguan racer snake, known as the rarest snake in the world. She spent more than 400 nights camping on the Caribbean island of Antigua in order to understand the snakes' habitat , behavior , and predators . Daltrys field work helped establish the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project, which has successfully reintroduced the snake into the wild. A field work team from the Ocean Now project, supported by National Geographic, is studying and cataloguing information about healthy coral reef ecosystems . They are doing research in the Southern Line Islands , a remote island chain in the central Pacific Ocean. The project aims to better understand how healthy reefs function in order to help conserve reefs that have been endangered by human activity and climate change . Field work in the natural sciences , like that conducted by Daltry and the Ocean Now project, document the importance, complexity , and fragility of Earths natural environments .

Field Work, One Cubic Foot at a Time Photographer David Liittschwager crafted a 1-square-foot metal cube and placed it in a range of ecosystemsland and water, tropical and temperate, freshwater and marine. Over several weeks at each location, Liittschwager and a team of biologists found, identified, and photographed small creatures that passed through the cube. The result of their field work is an inventory of ecosystem diversity at our planet's surface and just below. The photos of these smaller, often unseen, species are showcased in the February 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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Field research.

Field research is a qualitative method of research concerned with understanding and interpreting the social interactions of groups of people, communities, and society by observing and interacting with people in their natural settings. The methods of field research include: direct observation, participant observation, and qualitative interviews. Each of these methods is described here. Terms related to these and other topics in field research are defined in the  Research Glossary .

Direct Observation

Participant observation, qualitative interviews.

Direct observation  is a method of research where the researcher watches and records the activities of individuals or groups engaged in their daily activities. The observations may be unstructured or structured. Unstructured observations involve the researcher observing people and events and recording his/her observations as field notes. Observations are recorded holistically and without the aid of a predetermined guide or protocol. Structured observation, on the other hand, is a technique where a researcher observes people and events using a guide or set protocol that has been developed ahead of time.

Other features of direct observation include:

  • The observer does not actively engage the subjects of the study in conversations or interviews, but instead strives to be unobtrusive and detached from the setting.
  • Data collected through direct observation may include field notes, checklists and rating scales, documents, and photographs or video images.
  • Direct observation is not necessarily an alternative to other types of field methods, such as participant observation or qualitative interviews. Rather, it may be an initial approach to understanding a setting, a group of individuals, or forms of behavior prior to interacting with members or developing interview protocols.
  • Direct observation as a research method is most appropriate in open, public settings where anyone has a right to be or congregate. Conducting direct observation in private or closed settings -- without the knowledge or consent of members -- is more likely to raise ethical concerns.

Participant observation  is a field research method whereby the researcher develops an understanding of a group or setting by taking part in the everyday routines and rituals alongside its members. It was originally developed in the early 20th century by anthropologists researching native societies in developing countries. It is now the principal research method used by ethnographers -- specialists within the fields of anthropology and sociology who focus on recording the details of social life occurring in a setting, community, group, or society. The ethnographer, who often lives among the members for months or years, attempts to build trusting relationships so that he or she becomes part of the social setting. As the ethnographer gains the confidence and trust of the members, many will speak and behave in a natural manner in the presence of the ethnographer.

Data from participant observation studies can take several forms:

  • Field notes are the primary type of data. The researcher takes notes of his/her observations and experiences and later develops them into detailed, formal field notes.
  • Frequently, researchers keep a diary, which is often a more intimate, informal record of the happenings within the setting.
  • The practice of participant observation, with its emphasis on developing relationships with members, often leads to both informal, conversational interviews and more formal, in-depth interviews. The data from these interviews can become part of field notes or may consist of separate interview transcripts.

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to direct and participant observation studies. Here is a list of some of both. While the advantages and disadvantages apply to both types of studies, their impact and importance may not be the same across the two. For example, researchers engaged in both types of observation will develop a rich, deep understanding of the members of the group and the setting in which social interactions occur, but researchers engaged in participant observation research may gain an even deep understanding. And, participant observers have a greater chance of witnessing a wider range of behaviors and events than those engaged in direct observation.

Advantages of observation studies (observational research):

  • Provide contextual data on settings, interactions, or individuals.
  • A useful tool for generating hypotheses for further study.
  • Source of data on events and phenomena that do not involve verbal interactions (e.g., mother-child nonverbal interactions and contact, physical settings where interactions occur).
  • The researcher develops a rich, deep understanding of a setting and of the members within the setting.

Disadvantages of observation studies:

  • Behaviors observed during direct observation may be unusual or atypical.
  • Significant interactions and events may take place when observer is not present.
  • Certain topics do not necessarily lend themselves to observation (e.g., attitudes, emotions, affection).
  • Reliability of observations can be problematic, especially when multiple observers are involved.
  • The researcher must devote a large amount of time (and resources).
  • The researcher's objectivity may decline as he or she spends more time among the members of the group.
  • The researcher may be faced with a dilemma of choosing between revealing and not revealing his or her identity as a researcher to the members of the group. If he or she introduces him/herself as a researcher, the members may behave differently than if they assume that he or she is just another participant. On the other hand, if the researcher does not, they may feel betrayed upon learning about the research.

Qualitative interviews  are a type of field research method that elicits information and data by directly asking questions of individuals. There are three primary types of qualitative interviews: informal (conversational), semi-structured, and standardized, open-ended. Each is described briefly below along with advantages and disadvantages.

Informal (Conversational) Interviews

  • Frequently occur during participant observation or following direct observation.
  • The researcher begins by conversing with a member of the group of interest. As the conversation unfolds, the researcher formulates specific questions, often spontaneously, and begins asking them informally.
  • Appropriate when the researcher wants maximum flexibility to pursue topics and ideas as they emerge during the exchange

Advantages of informal interviewing:

  • Allows the researcher to be responsive to individual differences and to capture emerging information.
  • Information that is obtained is not constrained by a predetermined set of questions and/or response categories.
  • Permits researcher to delve deeper into a topic and what key terms and constructs mean to study participants.

Disadvantages of informal interviewing:

  • May generate less systematic data, which is difficult to classify and analyze.
  • The researcher might not be able to capture everything that the interviewee is saying and therefore there is potential for important nuance or information to be lost. For example, the researcher might not have a tape recorder at that moment due to the spontaneous nature of these interviews.
  • Quality of the information obtained depends on skills of the interviewer.

Semi-Structured Interviews

  • Prior to the interview, a list of predetermined questions or probes, also known as an interview guide, is developed so that each interviewee will respond to a similar series of questions and topics.
  • Questions are generally open-ended to elicit as much detail and meaning from the interviewee as possible.
  • The researcher is free to pursue and probe other topics as they emerge during the interview.

Advantages of semi-structured interviewing:

  • Systematically captures data across interviewees.
  • The researcher is able to rephrase or explain questions to the interviewee to ensure that everyone understands the questions the same way and probe (follow-up) a response so that an individual's responses are fully explored.
  • Interviewee is allowed the freedom to express his or her views in their own words.

Disadvantages of semi-structured interviewing:

  • Does not offer as much flexibility to respond to new topics that unfold during the interview as the informal interview.
  • Responses to questions that have been asked in slightly different ways can be more difficult to compare and analyze.
  • Interviewer may unconsciously send signals about the types of answers that are expected.

Standardized, Open-Ended Interviews

  • Similar to a survey since questions are carefully scripted and written prior to the interview, which serves to minimize variability in question wording and the way questions are asked.
  • The researcher asks a uniform series of questions in the same order to each interviewee.
  • The questions are open-ended to capture more details and individual differences across interviewees.
  • Particularly appropriate for qualitative studies involving multiple interviewers.

Advantages of standardized interviewing:

  • All questions are asked the same to each study participant. Data are comparable across interviewees.
  • Reduces interviewer effects when several interviewers are used.
  • Standardization helps to facilitate the processing and analysis of the data.

Disadvantages of standardized interviewing:

  • Does not offer as much flexibility to respond to and probe new topics that unfold during the interview.
  • Standardized wording of questions may limit the responses of those being interviewed.

Both standardized and semi-structured interviews involve formally recruiting participants and are typically tape-recorded. The researcher should begin with obtaining informed consent from the interviewee prior to starting the interview. Additionally, the researcher may write a separate field note to describe the interviewee's reactions to the interview, or events that occurred before or after the interview.

See the following for additional information about field research and qualitative research methods.

  • Ethnography, Observational Research and Narrative Inquiry  (PDF)
  • An Introduction to Qualitative Research  (PDF)

The content on this page was prepared by Jerry West. It was last updated March 2019.

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5.9: Field Research

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  • Explain the three types of field research: participant observation, ethnography, and case studies

Field Research

The work of sociology rarely happens in limited, confined spaces. Sociologists seldom study subjects in their own offices or laboratories. Rather, sociologists go out into the world. They meet subjects where they live, work, and play. Field research refers to gathering primary data from a natural environment without doing a lab experiment or a survey. It is a research method suited to an interpretive framework rather than to the scientific method. To conduct field research, the sociologist must be willing to step into new environments and observe, participate, or experience those worlds. In field work, the sociologists, rather than the subjects, are the ones out of their element.

The researcher interacts with or observes a person or people and gathers data along the way. The key point in field research is that it takes place in the subject’s natural environment, whether it’s a coffee shop or tribal village, a homeless shelter or the DMV, a hospital, airport, mall, or beach resort.

A man is shown taking notes outside a tent in the mountains.

While field research often begins in a specific setting , the study’s purpose is to observe specific behaviors in that setting. Field work is optimal for observing how people behave. It is less useful, however, for understanding why they behave that way. You can’t really narrow down cause and effect when there are so many variables to be factored into a natural environment.

Many of the data gathered in field research are based not on cause and effect but on correlation. And while field research looks for correlation, its small sample size does not allow for establishing a causal relationship between two variables.

Parrotheads as Sociological Subjects

Several people in colorful T-shirts and leis are shown talking and drinking in an outdoor tiki bar setting.

Some sociologists study small groups of people who share an identity in one aspect of their lives. Almost everyone belongs to a group of like-minded people who share an interest or hobby. Scientologists, Nordic folk dancers, or members of Mensa (an organization for people with exceptionally high IQs) express a specific part of their identity through their affiliation with a group. Those groups are often of great interest to sociologists.

Jimmy Buffett, an American musician who built a career from his top-10 song “Margaritaville,” has a following of devoted groupies called Parrotheads. Some of them have taken fandom to the extreme, making Parrothead culture a lifestyle. In 2005, Parrotheads and their subculture caught the attention of researchers John Mihelich and John Papineau. The two saw the way Jimmy Buffett fans collectively created an artificial reality. They wanted to know how fan groups shape culture.

What Mihelich and Papineau found was that Parrotheads, for the most part, do not seek to challenge or even change society, as many sub-groups do. In fact, most Parrotheads live successfully within society, holding upper-level jobs in the corporate world. What they seek is escape from the stress of daily life.

At Jimmy Buffett concerts, Parrotheads engage in a form of role play. They paint their faces and dress for the tropics in grass skirts, Hawaiian leis, and Parrot hats. These fans don’t generally play the part of Parrotheads outside of these concerts; you are not likely to see a lone Parrothead in a bank or library. In that sense, Parrothead culture is less about individualism and more about conformity in a group setting. Being a Parrothead means sharing a specific identity. Parrotheads feel connected to each other: it’s a group identity, not an individual one.

In their study, Mihelich and Papineau quote from a book by sociologist Richard Butsch, who writes, “un-self-conscious acts, if done by many people together, can produce change, even though the change may be unintended” (2000). Many Parrothead fan groups have performed good works in the name of Jimmy Buffett culture, donating to charities and volunteering their services.

However, the authors suggest that what really drives Parrothead culture is commercialism. Jimmy Buffett’s popularity was dying out in the 1980s until being reinvigorated after he signed a sponsorship deal with a beer company. These days, his concert tours alone generate nearly $30 million a year. Buffett made a lucrative career for himself by partnering with product companies and marketing Margaritaville in the form of T-shirts, restaurants, casinos, and an expansive line of products. Some fans accuse Buffett of selling out, while others admire his financial success. Buffett makes no secret of his commercial exploitations; from the stage, he’s been known to tell his fans, “Just remember, I am spending your money foolishly.”

Mihelich and Papineau gathered much of their information online. Referring to their study as a “Web ethnography,” they collected extensive narrative material from fans who joined Parrothead clubs and posted their experiences on websites. “We do not claim to have conducted a complete ethnography of Parrothead fans, or even of the Parrothead Web activity,” state the authors, “but we focused on particular aspects of Parrothead practice as revealed through Web research” (2005). Fan narratives gave them insight into how individuals identify with Buffett’s world and how fans used popular music to cultivate personal and collective meaning.

In conducting studies about pockets of culture, most sociologists seek to discover a universal appeal. Mihelich and Papineau stated, “Although Parrotheads are a relative minority of the contemporary US population, an in-depth look at their practice and conditions illuminate [sic] cultural practices and conditions many of us experience and participate in” (2005).

Here, we will look at three types of field research: participant observation, ethnography, and the case study.

Participant Observation

In participant observation research, a sociologist joins people and participates in a group’s routine activities for the purpose of observing them within that context. This method lets researchers experience a specific aspect of social life. A researcher might go to great lengths to get a firsthand look into a trend, institution, or behavior. Researchers temporarily put themselves into roles and record their observations. A researcher might work as a waitress in a diner, live as a homeless person for several weeks, or ride along with police officers as they patrol their regular beat.

Although these researchers try to blend in seamlessly with the population they study, they are still obligated to obtain IRB approval. In keeping with scholarly objectives, the purpose of their observation is different from simply “people watching” at one’s workplace, on the bus or train, or in a public space.

Waitress serves customers in an outdoor café.

At the beginning of a field study, researchers might have a question: “What really goes on in the kitchen of the most popular diner on campus?” or “What is it like to experience homelessness?” Participant observation is a useful method if the researcher wants to explore a certain environment from the inside.

Field researchers simply want to observe and learn. In such a setting, the researcher will be alert and open minded to whatever happens, recording all observations accurately. Soon, as patterns emerge, questions will become more specific, observations will lead to hypotheses, and hypotheses will guide the researcher in shaping data into results.

Some sociologists prefer not to alert people to their presence. The main advantage of covert participant observation is that it allows the researcher access to authentic, natural behaviors of a group’s members. The challenge, however, is gaining access to a setting without disrupting the pattern of others’ beha vior. Becoming an inside member of a group, organization, or subculture takes time and effort. Researchers must pretend to be something they are not. The process could involve role playing, making contacts, networking, or applying for a job. Whenever deception is involved in sociological research, it will be intensely scrutinized and may or may not be approved by an institutional IRB.

Once inside a group, participation observation research can last months or even years. Sociologists have to balance the types of interpersonal relationships that arise from living and/or working with other people with objectivity as a researcher. They must keep their purpose in mind and apply the sociological perspective. That way, they illuminate social patterns that are often unrecognized. Because information gathered during participant observation is mostly qualitative, rather than quantitative, the e nd results are often descriptive or interpretive. This type of research is well-suited to learning about the kinds of human behavior or social groups that are not known by the scientific community, who are particularly closed or secretive, or when one is attempting to understand societal structures, as we will see in the following example.

Nickel and Dimed (2001, 2011)

Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich con ducted participation observation research for her book Nickel and Dimed . One day over lunch with her editor, Ehrenreich mentioned an idea. How can people exist on minimum-wage work? How do low-income workers get by? she wondered aloud. Someone should do a study. To her surprise, her editor responded, Why don’t you do it?

That’s how Ehrenreich found herself joining the ranks of the working class. For several months, she left her comfortable home and lived and worked among people who lacked, for the most part, higher education and marketable job skills. Undercover, she applied for and worked minimum wage jobs as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a retail chain employee. During her participant observation, she used only her income from those jobs to pay for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter.

She discovered the obvious, that it’s almost impossible to get by on minimum wage service work. She also experienced and observed attitudes many middle and upper-class people never think about. She witnessed firsthand the treatment of working class employees. She saw the extreme measures people take to make ends meet and to survive. She described fellow employees who held two or three jobs, worked seven days a week, lived in cars, could not pay to treat chronic health conditions, got randomly fired, submitted to drug tests, and moved in and out of homeless shelters. She brought aspects of that life to light, describing difficult working conditions and the poor treatment that low-wage workers suffer.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America , the book she w rote upon her return to her real life as a well-paid writer, has been widely read and used in many college classrooms. The first edition was published in 2001 and a follow-up post-recession edition was published with updated information in 2011.

About 10 empty office cubicles are shown.


Ethnography is the extended observation of the social perspective and cultural values of an entire social setting. Ethnogra phies involve objective observation of an entire community. British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who studied the Trobriand Islanders near Papua New Guinea during World War I, was one of the first anthropologists to engage with the communities they studied and he became known for this methodological contribution, which different from the detached observations that took place from a distance (i.e., “on the verandas” or “armchair anthropology”).

Although anthropologists had been doing ethnographic research longer, sociologists were doing ethnographic research in the 20th century, particularly in what became known as The Chicago School at the University of Chicago. William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum (1943) is a seminal work of urban ethnography and a “classic” sociological text.

The heart of an ethnographic study focuses on how subjects view their own social standing and how they understand themselves in relation to a community. An ethnographic study might observe, for example, a small U.S. fishing town, an Inuit community, a village in Thailand, a Buddhist monastery, a private boarding school, or an amusement park. These places all have borders. People live, work, study, or vacation within those borders. People are there for a certain reason and therefore behave in certain ways and respect certain cultural norms. An ethnographer would commit to spending a predetermined amount of time studying every aspect of the chosen place, taking in as much as possible.

A sociologist studying a tribe in the Amazon might watch the way villagers go about their daily lives and then write a paper about it. To observe a spiritual retreat center, an ethnographer might attend as a guest for an extended stay, observe and record data, and collate the material into results.

The Making of Middletown: A Study in Modern U.S. Culture

In 1924, a young married couple named Robert and Helen Lynd undertook an unprecedented ethnography: to apply sociological methods to the study of one U.S. city in order to discover what “ordinary” people in the United States did and believed. Choosing Muncie, Indiana (population about 30,000), as their subject, they moved to the small town and lived there for eighteen months.

Ethnographers had been examining other cultures for decades—groups considered minority or outsider—like gangs, immigrants, and the poor. But no one had studied the so-called average American.

Recording interviews and using surveys to gather data, the Lynds did not sugarcoat or idealize U.S. life (PBS). They objectively stated what they observed. Researching existing sources, they compared Muncie in 1890 to the Muncie they observed in 1924. Most Muncie adults, they found, had grown up on farms but now lived in homes inside the city. From that discovery, the Lynds focused their study on the impact of industrialization and urbanization.

They observed that the workers of Muncie were divided into business class and working class groups. They defined business class as dealing with abstract concepts and symbols, while working class people used tools to create concrete objects. The two classes led different lives with different goals and hopes. However, the Lynds observed, mass production offered both classes the same amenities. Like wealthy families, the working class was now able to own radios, cars, washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators. This was a newly emerging economic and material reality of the 1920s.

Early 20th century black and white photo of a classroom with female students at their desks.

As the Lynds worked, they divided their manuscript into six sections: Getting a Living, Making a Home, Training the Young, Using Leisure, Engaging in Religious Practices, and Engaging in Community Activities. Each chapter included subsections such as “The Long Arm of the Job” and “Why Do They Work So Hard?” in the “Getting a Living” chapter.

When the study was completed, the Lynds encountered a big problem. The Rockefeller Foundation, which had commissioned the book, claimed it was useless and refused to publish it. The Lynds asked if they could seek a publisher themselves.

As it turned out, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture was not only published in 1929, but also became an instant bestseller, a status unheard of for a sociological study. The book sold out six printings in its first year of publication, and has never gone out of print (PBS).

Nothing like it had ever been done before. Middletown was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times . Readers in the 1920s and 1930s identified with the citizens of Muncie, Indiana, but they were equally fascinated by the sociological methods and the use of scientific data to define ordinary people in the United States. The book was proof that social data were important—and interesting—to the U.S. public.

Institutional Ethnography

Institutional ethnography is an extension of basic ethnographic research principles that focuses intentionally on everyday concrete social relationships. Developed by Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith, institutional ethnography is often considered a feminist-inspired approach to social analysis and primarily considers women’s experiences within male-dominated societies and power structures. Smith’s work challenges sociology’s exclusion of women, both academically and in the study of women’s lives (Fenstermaker, n.d.).

Historically, social science research tended to objectify women and ignore their experiences except as viewed from a male perspective. Modern feminists note that describing women, and other marginalized groups, as subordinates helps those in authority maintain their own dominant positions (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, n.d.). Smith’s three major works explored what she called “the conceptual practices of power” (1990; cited in Fensternmaker, n.d.) and are still considered seminal works in feminist theory and ethnography.



Sometimes a researcher wants to study one specific person or event. A case study is an in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual. To conduct a case study, a researcher examines existing sources like documents and archival records, conducts interviews, or engages in direct observation and even participant observation, if possible.

Researchers might use this method to study a single case of, for example, a foster child, drug lord, cancer patient, criminal, or rape victim. However, a major criticism of the case study method is that a developed study of a single case, while offering depth on a topic, does not provide broad enough evidence to form a generalized conclusion. In other words, it is difficult to make universal claims based on just one person, since one person does not verify a pattern. This is why most sociologists do not use case studies as a primary research method.

However, case studies are useful when the single case is unique. In these instances, a single case study can add tremendous knowledge to a certain discipline. For example, a feral child, also called a “wild child,” is one who grows up isolated from other human beings. Feral children grow up without social contact and language, which are elements crucial to a “civilized” child’s development. These children mimic the behaviors and movements of animals, and often invent their own language. There are only about one hundred cases of “feral children” in the world.

As you may imagine, a feral child is a subject of great interest to researchers. Feral children provide unique information about child development because they have grown up outside of the parameters of “normal” child socialization and language acquisition. And since there are very few feral children, the case study is the most appropriate method for researchers to use in studying the subject.

At age three, a Ukranian girl named Oxana Malaya suffered severe parental neglect. She lived in a shed with dogs, and she ate raw meat and scraps. Five years later, a neighbor called authorities and reported seeing a girl who ran on all fours, barking. Officials brought Oxana into society, where she was cared for and taught some human behaviors, but she never became fully socialized. She has been designated as unable to support herself and now lives in a mental institution (Grice 2011). Case studies like this offer a way for sociologists to collect data that may not be collectable by any other method.


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  • Section on content analysis, Introduction to Sociology 2e. Authored by : William Little. Provided by : BC Open Textbooks. Located at : https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontosociology/ . License : CC BY: Attribution

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Cultural information for education and research, an introduction to fieldwork and ethnography.

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Francine barone, human relations area files at yale university, ethnographic fieldwork.

Ethnographic fieldwork is how anthropologists gather data. Fieldwork is the process of immersing oneself in as many aspects of the daily cultural lives of people as possible in order to study their behaviors and interactions. Nearly any setting or location can become “the field”: a village along the Amazon river, a large corporate office in Tokyo, a small neighborhood café in Seattle, or even a social networking site like Facebook.

Fieldwork takes time. Anthropologists enter the field location much like a newborn child. They may have trouble communicating until they have learned the local language. They will likely make mistakes, and locals will find them funny or strange. It can take months or years to begin to accustom themselves to the society or community within which they will live and learn. In the fieldwork process, anthropologists eventually piece together ideas about kinship, language, religion, politics, and economic systems, which allows them to build a picture of the society.


Ethnography can mean two things in anthropology:

a) the qualitative research methods employed during fieldwork b) the written descriptive and interpretive results of that research

Doing ethnography

The hallmark method of ethnographic field research in anthropology is known as participant-observation . This type of data-gathering is when the anthropologist records their experiences and observations while taking part in activities alongside local participants or informants in the field site. Anthropologists also engage in informal conversations, more formal interviews, surveys, or questionnaires, and create photos, sound or video recordings, as well as conduct historical or archival research into correspondence, public records, or reports, depending on their research area. Some anthropologists use quantitative methods when analyzing their research, such as producing statistics based on their findings.

Writing ethnography

Ethnographic writing differs from other types of academic, historical, journalistic, or travel writing about peoples and places. While ethnographers may also keep a fieldwork diary containing personal notes, ethnography is much more than a recounting of daily events. Ethnography engages with the theoretical foundations of anthropology and is written with cultural contextualization in mind, speaking to anthropology as a discipline as well as furnishing greater understanding of the cultural world that has been explored. The aim of ethnographic writing is to produce work that contributes to, and advances, the comparative interpretation of human cultures and societies.

An insider’s view

Ethnography is a collaborative effort between the ethnographer and their research participants. Anthropologists have ethical codes that guide their behavior in the field as they rely on relationships with others in order to conduct their research. In the ethnographic process, informants or key participants can help to induct the ethnographer into the society and explain its customs and ways.

Traditionally, anthropologists have attempted to arrive at an emic perspective or “insider’s point of view”. In other words, ethnographers wish to understand the structures, categories, and patterns of behavior as conceptualized by members of the culture they are studying. This is contrasted with etic models, which are analyses of cultural meaning as seen from the “outside” by an objective observer. This uneasy simplification of emic vs. etic gets at the heart of the paradox of doing ethnography: what people say they do, what they say they should do, and what they actually do, rarely – if ever – coincide.

Anthropologists today are increasingly aware of their own views and biases that they carry with them into the field from their home cultures, acknowledging wherever possible how this affects their methods and findings. Despite all of the best intentions, any practicing fieldworker can tell you that fieldwork is, at best, unpredictable. A reflexive approach to ethnography acknowledges that no researcher can be 100% objective, and that fieldwork constitutes an ongoing dialogue of consent and mutual respect between participants and the ethnographer.

Workbook Activity 1: The Fieldwork Experience

Read the following passages in eHRAF World Cultures that describe different aspects of fieldwork and conducting ethnography. Then, answer the questions.

Malinowski (1922) – Argonauts of the Western Pacific , Chapter 1, Section VII, pages 17-21 on participant-observation  

  • What is “the imponderabilia of actual life”?
  • How does Malinowski suggest that ethnographers should observe and record this imponderabilia during fieldwork?
  • According to Malinowski, why is it good for the ethnographer to sometimes put aside their notebook and camera?

Stross (1971) – Aspects of Language Acquisition by Tzeltal Children , “Appendix B: The Fieldwork”, pages 201-202 on data collection in the field  

  • List the kinds of research methods that the ethnographer used during fieldwork.
  • How did he familiarize himself with the field location?
  • Describe the relationship(s) that the ethnographer had with informants.
  • What unexpected problems did the ethnographer run into? How were they resolved?

  Textor (1973) – Roster of the Gods , Appendix One, pages 855-858 on working with key informants

  • Describe the relationship between the ethnographer and his informants.
  • How critical were the informants to completing the ethnographic research?
  • Do you think that learning the local language is essential for doing fieldwork?

Landsman (1988) – Sovereignty and Symbol , pages 7-8 on taking notes with informants

  • How did the emotions of informants/research participants impact the ethnographer’s fieldnotes?
  • How were historical, archival, print, and photographic materials utilized in their study? How did informants assist with this?
  • How critical do you think informants are to conducting ethnographic research?

  Hill (1972) – Rural Hausa: A Village and Setting , page 148 on the anatomy of poverty

  • What do you think the author means by “the poor are usually unobserved”?
  • Are there some types of insights that are difficult or impossible to ascertain through participant-observation? Why might this be the case?
  • How do you think anthropologists should deal with sensitive information or vulnerable members of a culture?

Workbook Activity 2: Thinking Ethnographically

How would you observe the following cultural practices ethnographically?

  • Shopping in a bookstore
  • Traveling by public transportation
  • Ordering takeout from your favorite restaurant
  • Having coffee with friends at Starbucks

Choose one of these or select your own scenario. Write a brief ethnographic account of everyday events. Consider methods such as participant-observation, interviews, surveys, and engaging with informants. If you are unable to participate in these activities face-to-face, simply try and imagine how you would describe them to an outsider not familiar with your culture.

Begin by recording your “field notes”, keeping track of everything that you see and do, and what you observe others saying and doing.

Then, describe what’s happening from both emic and etic perspectives.

For the emic perspective , consider the activity you are engaged in and how it is viewed in your own culture. What are the established “rules” or patterns of each interaction that make up the scene you have chosen?

  • For example, at a café, you might find that one of your friends buys coffee for the entire group, which is fairly typical among friends. If asked why they have done so, the buyer may simply reply that “it’s a nice thing to do”, and indicate that someone else would pay next time.

For the etic perspective , look beyond your notes and step outside your own cultural expectations. What over-arching structures, symbols, or meaning are at play in this setting?

  • For example, why do you think people really take turns buying rounds of drinks? What happens if one person never pays for the coffee? Due to the fact that such a person would not be considered a good friend, an etic analysis might find that coffee exchange is meaningful for building and sustaining friendship rather than being about money.

Hill, Polly. 1972. Rural Hausa: A Village and Setting. Cambridge, England: University Press. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=ms12-018 .

Landsman, Gail H. 1988. Sovereignty and Symbol: Indian-White Conflict at Ganienkeh. Albuquerque, N.Mex.: University of New Mexico Press. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=nm09-058

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=ol06-001 .

Stross, Brian. 1971. Aspects of Language Acquisition by Tzeltal Children. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=nv09-010 .

Textor, Robert B. 1973. “Roster of the Gods: An Ethnography of the Supernatural in a Thai Village.” In Ethnography Series, 3, 44, 911 leaves. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=ao07-011 .

Understanding Qualitative Field Work

Narration audio (MP3)

Narration audio (OGG)

2. What is fieldwork?

Fieldwork is an integral part of qualitative research. Originating in anthropology and sociology, fieldwork has become a recognised method in health sciences in recent years. Fieldwork involves going into a natural setting to understand people within that context i.e. understanding people in their everyday natural setting. A field worker is comparable to a child who learns by observing and engaging in the activities within their environment.

Fieldwork can be used to gain an understanding of people's experiences within a context, how a culture works/influences health care practices and the multifaceted relationships within the work environment. For example, if you want to research how care is delivered and received in a secure mental health unit, the most reliable way to do this is to observe the environment itself and the experiences of individuals within it.

Fieldwork is not itself a research methodology, rather there several research methodologies and methods in qualitative research that utilise fieldwork. These include, but not limited to ethnography, discourse analysis and conversation analysis.

This resource will focus predominately on ethnography and observations, but many of the principles of fieldwork are universal to the other methodologies too.

Click on each title to see a definition and how fieldwork might be used to support this methodology.

Build your Research Protocol Sheet.

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Direct Observation

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Qualitative Interviews

participant observation

Participant Observation

case study


Direct observation:, qualitative interview:, participant observation:, case study:, qualitative fieldwork protocol form.

This example of a Qualitative Fieldwork Protocol Form will be completed by you as you progress through this resource. You can save/print the finished form at the end.

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Getting to the Source: The Importance of Field Research

An academic and intellectual decline is inevitable without a post-pandemic revival of fieldwork.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021 / By: Alastair Reed, Ph.D. ;  Boglarka Bozsogi

Publication Type: Analysis

Travel restrictions and social distancing practices put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have largely ground field research to a halt. Fieldwork plays an essential but often underappreciated role in both understanding violent extremism and developing policy responses to it. It is vital, therefore, that funders and policymakers support the return of such important work in a post-pandemic world.

Students from the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies conduct a research field visit in Sri Lanka. November 2017. (Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies/Wikimedia Commons)

Fieldwork brings important local perspectives to the fore, helping to contextualize conflicts within their wider ecosystems and societal and cultural realities. This forces researchers to challenge their preconceptions and theoretical assumptions as they come face to face with the realities on the ground. And, perhaps most importantly, fieldwork brings to life the human dimension — the human suffering and resilience of the communities affected by violence and the motivations and drivers of the violent actors.

Without understanding the view from the ground, we will continue to struggle to understand violent extremism and develop effective policy responses. 

The Human Side

As many field researchers will admit, there is something about the smell and feel of a place that being on the ground provides and that reading reports and analyzing data cannot capture. On the ground, a researcher has the opportunity to diversify their primary sources and data. They can also better appreciate and absorb the context of the conflict. Without understanding the human side, the unique cultural and societal setting and the physical geography and climate, which together forge the contours within which the violence evolves, we can only have a partial understanding of the conflict ecosystem.

“The value of engagement with human beings cannot be underestimated,” Haroro Ingram, a senior research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and member of the RESOLVE Research Advisory Council, told a recent RESOLVE Forum session.

Absorbing the context can help the researcher understand and interpret the collected data, but also to reinterpret what they learned from desk-based studies. The subjective experience of sharing is humbling; it offers an intellectual appreciation not only of the complexity on the ground but also of the breadth and depth of the literature and its gaps.

Researchers are only human and bring along preconceived perceptions, biases and assumptions — implicit or explicit — internalized from academic literature and media reports. Seeing the realities on the ground forces them to confront these preconceived assumptions and challenge, reinterpret or discard them. Theoretical explanations and conceptual analysis can only be tested when applied against the world they purport to explain. Field research gives us a chance to improve and develop our understanding, and a chance to glimpse the unknown unknowns, the missing factors that we cannot see or conceive from our academic ivory towers.

It is easy to overlook the human side — the victims of violence and conflict-affected communities that bear the brunt of the human tragedy of extremism — when researching a conflict from a distance. Observing and talking to the most affected communities reminds us of the horrors of war and the depths of depravity humanity can sink to. However, it also brings to light the human side of violent actors on all sides, an insight into the motivations and drivers that led them down the path to violence. Conflicts are ultimately about people; attempts to understand conflicts need to start with understanding the people that drive them. To do that, field researchers need to adopt a methodical approach, informed by the literature, and ensure their research and findings are triangulated, ethical and trustworthy.

“Mindanao, in the last 50 years, has experienced cycles of failed peace processes that international actors tried to support with a top-down understanding, often from a distance, in the absence of genuine bottom-up, grassroot perspectives,” said Ingram, who focuses his field research on the Middle East and Southeast Asia. “Since the most important actors in the grassroots population do not have electricity, let alone internet, the only effective outreach is getting to the source to build trust, engage with communities respectfully and learn of cultural subtleties through conversations. Collaborative effort, trust and the contribution to research can create actionable, nuanced and effective recommendations for policy and practice,” he added.

Contextual Understanding

Field research strengthens academic rigor, theories and methodologies, complements desk research and brings a different vantage point to understanding conflict. One constant risk in academic research is the tendency to be reductionist, and to focus on an isolated issue and miss the dynamic connections between it and its wider context. It can be appealing to zoom in on a particular violent extremist group and examine a singular aspect, such as ideology and group dynamics, rather than to see it as part of a complex ecosystem and dynamic processes. Conflict contexts often comprise multiple, interlinked armed actors, all influenced by and influencing each other. These contexts are further complicated by cross-cutting dynamics of ethnic, customary, kinship or religious dimensions.

Field research contextualizes the conflict and the issues that matter, helps understand drivers and motivations behind conflict actors and breaks free of embedded preconceptions. It can bring to life the unseen complexities: policemen fighting rebelling siblings, women fleeing insurgent cousins, parents losing children to armed groups, government officials persecuting family members as non-state actors. “People often said: ‘My brother joined that armed group, my cousin is in the police force,’” said Ingram, recalling conversations with locals in conflict areas that may seem, on the surface, to be absurd but that actually reflect a sober, clinical rational choice decision-making. Conflict ecosystems are invariably messy, counterintuitive and seemingly incomprehensible, yet remain the reality we seek to understand.

Sukanya Podder, defense studies senior lecturer at King’s College London and member of the RESOLVE Research Advisory Council, who also participated in the RESOLVE Forum session, conducted research in Mindanao, the Philippines, and Liberia where she focused on children and young people recruited into armed groups. Observing youth relationships with families and commanders in their communities, she was able to break free of preconceptions from media imagery and simplistic assumptions that children join community-based armed groups because they are drugged. Her fieldwork unearthed much more diverse motivations and choices: many children chose to join or decided to refrain of their own will.

Ethics and Safety

With any type of research, ethics and safety must be paramount. Fieldwork poses distinct challenges for each venue, context and participant. “Do no harm” should be the central principle of fieldwork planning to ensure the safety and integrity of researchers, respondents and their communities. Research fatigue is a growing issue that has negative implications on the quality of data. If respondents are wary about the benefits of research and are hesitant to participate, the authenticity of results is harder to determine. Researchers must be careful not to instrumentalize fieldwork and budget enough time and resources for in-depth quality research to produce authentic, reliable and valid data; this data should be periodically updated.

Getting approval from institutional review boards for fieldwork can often be challenging, and rightly so, but this rigor helps researchers address potential challenges and ensure the integrity of their research. While standards procedures, bureaucratic processes, reviews, clearances and preparations may seem taxing, they are indispensable for rich contributions of the highest integrity.  

Strengthening Research and Policy

The effectiveness and ultimate success — however we choose to measure it — of policy approaches to countering violent extremism depend on a thorough understanding of the phenomenon they try to address. Sound research should be the rock on which good policy is built. Podder’s research in West Africa has informed disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs with a nuanced understanding of the implications of different types of armed groups. Returnees from community-based armed groups or community defense groups found reintegration less problematic, as reconciliation could be locally administered through local, tribal judicial processes. Such findings from field research can avoid wasting money on programs that cannot yield the desired outcome.

Our understanding of violent extremism has benefitted from an interdisciplinary research field where each discipline and method, qualitative and quantitative, brings a new lens to gathering and analyzing data. Collectively, this cross-pollination of research methods has allowed us to see further than one approach alone ever could. Within a complementary and overlapping web of methods, fieldwork has an important but sometimes overlooked role to play. Without a post-pandemic revival of fieldwork, an academic and intellectual decline is inevitable.

Boglarka Bozsogi is executive coordination and network manager at the RESOLVE Network housed at USIP. 

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Field Research explained

Field research - Toolshero

Field research: this article explains the concept of field research in a practical way. The article starts with the definition of this term, followed by a general explanation and some practical examples of field research. You will also find an explanation of the various methods and a step-by-step plan for conducting field research. Enjoy reading!

What is field research?

Field research, also known as fieldwork, is a method of collecting raw data outside of the lab, library, or usual workplace.

It involves observing and interacting with people, animals or phenomena in their natural environment to gain a deeper understanding of their behavior, social interactions and the dynamics of their environment. Read more about experimental research .

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Field research methods vary by field. For example, biologists observe animals in their natural habitats, and social scientists conduct interviews and observations to study human societies.

The definition of Field research

Field research is a qualitative research method that focuses on observing and understanding individuals, groups, communities or society as a whole.

It aims to capture authentic and contextual data by immersing researchers in the environments they study.

Through direct observation and interaction with subjects, field researchers gain firsthand insight into their behaviour, beliefs, cultural practices and social structures.

It encompasses a wide variety of well-defined methods, including:

  • Formal interviews
  • Informal interviews

Direct observation

Participating observation.

  • Collective discussions
  • Analysis of personal documents
  • Self-analysis
  • Offline and online activities

Although this type of research is mainly qualitative, it can also contain quantitative aspects, depending on the research goals and methodologies applied.

History and the origin of Field research

Field research has a long history, especially within cultural anthropology . Anthropologists have made extensive use of field research to study different cultures, often focusing on so-called primitive cultures or cultural differences based on factors such as class.

The term “field” refers to defined areas of research, such as education, industrial environments or Amazon rainforests, where social research is conducted.

Influential figures in the early development of this type of research include Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and Bronisław Malinowski, who laid the foundations for future work in anthropology.

Field research versus laboratory research

Field research and laboratory research differ in their approach to data collection.

Field research takes place in natural environments, where researchers make direct observations and interact. It provides contextual data and insight into complex processes, but may be limited in establishing causal relationships.

On the other hand, laboratory research takes place in controlled environments, where variables are manipulated and repeatability is ensured.

It is well suited for testing hypotheses and obtaining accurate measurements, but may lack the complexity of natural environments.

Both approaches complement each other and the choice depends on the research questions and available resources .

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Methods for field research

Field research involves the use of various methods to collect valuable data and gain insight into the phenomena under investigation.

Here are some common methods applied in field research:

This method involves carefully observing people, animals, or events in their natural environment. By watching closely, researchers can study behaviors, interactions, and responses to specific situations without actively participating.

In this method, the researcher actively participates in the group, community, or environment under study. By participating in activities, having conversations and being involved in daily routines, researchers can develop a deep understanding of the social structures, norms and values, and the meaning attached to certain actions.

Qualitative interviews

This includes conducting interviews with individuals or groups to find out their perspectives, experiences and opinions. By asking open-ended questions and delving deeper into topics, researchers can gain insight into participants’ thoughts and feelings.

Data analysis of documents

In this method, documents, such as letters, diaries, reports, or other written materials, are analyzed to obtain information and insights. These documents can provide valuable context and provide a historical perspective on the issues examined.

Informal conversations

Sometimes having informal conversations with people in the research environment can yield useful information. These can be casual chats during breaks or informal gatherings where people talk freely about their experiences and perspectives.

The use of these different methods allows researchers to collect a wide range of data and develop an in-depth understanding of the social, cultural and behavioral aspects of the phenomena under study.

Case studies

Case studies are a useful approach in field research to gain in-depth insights into specific situations, groups or phenomena.

Step-by-step plan for conducting field research

Follow the steps below to get started conducting field research yourself.

Step 1: define your research goal

Determine the specific goal of your research. What do you want to discover, understand or observe? Clearly formulate your research question(s) and objective(s).

Step 2: design your research plan

Consider which methods and approaches are best suited to your research question. Consider the location, participants/population, data collection methods and time frame.

Step 3: Get permission

If necessary, obtain permission from relevant agencies, organizations or individuals to access the study site and collect data. Make sure you follow ethical guidelines and procedures.

Step 4: collect data

Go to the research site and start collecting data according to your research plan. This may include direct observation, interviews, surveys, participant observation or collection of documentation.

Step 5: Analyze and interpret your data

Evaluate and analyze the collected data . Identify patterns, themes or trends relevant to your research question. Interpretation of the data should be based on accurate and systematic analysis.

Step 6: draw conclusions and formulate results

Based on your analysis and interpretation, you come to conclusions that answer your research question . Formulate clear results and present them in a structured way .

Step 7: Report and share your findings

Write a research report describing the methodology, findings and conclusions. Share your results with the scientific community, stakeholders or the wider public through publications, presentations or other appropriate channels.

Step 8: Reflect and Evaluate your field research

Take the time to evaluate your research experience . What were the strengths and challenges of your research? What would you do differently in the future? Reflect on possible improvements and learning points for subsequent studies.

Examples of known field studies

Numerous interesting discoveries have been made while conducting research. Here are three examples of discoveries made while conducting this type of research:

New animal species

Field research has led to the discovery of several new animal species. For example, in 2018, during a field research expedition in the rainforests of Ecuador, researchers discovered a new species of tree frog.

This discovery highlighted the importance of field research in identifying biodiversity and understanding the ecological systems in which these species live.

Ecological changes

Field research has also helped identify ecological changes and understand their causes.

For example, by studying coral reefs in different parts of the world, scientists have found that coral bleaching, a consequence of climate change, is having a devastating effect on coral reef health.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about field research? Have you ever heard of this type of research before? Have you ever conducted this yourself? What do you think are the advantages compared to, for example, research in a laboratory? Do you have tips or other comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  • Barick, R. (2021). Research Methods For Business Students . Retrieved 02/16/2024 from Udemy.
  • Burgess, R. G. (Ed.). (2003). Field Research: A sourcebook and field manual (Vol. 4) . Routledge.
  • Burgess, R. G. (2002). In the field: An introduction to Field Research (Vol. 8) . Routledge.
  • Edmondson, A. C., & McManus, S. E. (2007). Methodological fit in management Field Research . Academy of management review, 32(4), 1246-1264.
  • McKinnon, J. (1988). Reliability and validity in Field Research: some strategies and tactics . Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 1(1), 34-54

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Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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How to Conduct Field Research Study? – A Complete Guide

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There is a challenge in undergoing a research which involves a vast understanding of the environment and the study of subjects staying in that environment. Although the outcome of this study will help fill in the gaps evidently seen in the literature but the process involves a lot of planning. How does one plan such a humongous research study?  In this article, we will discuss how to conduct a field research and what are the different methods used to streamline the field study !

Research is much more than performing the experiment and analyzing results. It involves gathering raw data and understanding the subject of research in its environment. These type of researches are more elaborate and are the reason for producing real information on a large scale.

Table of Contents

What is Field Research?

Field research is a process where data is collected through a qualitative method. The objective of field study  is to observe and interpret the subject of study in its natural environment. It is used in the field of study of humans and health care professions. Furthermore, it connects theory and practical research study by qualitatively analyzing the data.

Why to Conduct Field Study?

Field study allows researchers to identify and observe the subjects and helps draw correlations between subjects and surroundings, and how the surroundings may influence the behavior.

It gives an in-depth information on subjects because they are observed and analyzed for a long period of time.

Field study allows researchers to fill the gaps in data which can be understood by conducting in-depth primary research.

How is a Field Research different from a Lab Research?

Different methods of field study research.

field work based research

There are four main types of methods for conducting a field research .

1. Ethnographic Field Notes

This type of field work is particularly associated with field work that records and analyzes culture, society or community. Most commonly this method of research is used in social anthropology, societies and communities.

2. Qualitative Interviews

Qualitative interviews give researchers detailed information. This vast information is segregated in order to make inferences related to the sample group. This data is gathered by conducting interviews either informally, conversationally or in an open ended interview.

3. Direct Observation

Researchers gather information on their subjects through close visual observation. The researcher can record the observations and events as field notes holistically without a guided protocol. This form of research approach is termed as unstructured observation. However, in a structured observation the researcher uses a guide or set protocols to observe people and events. Furthermore, in direct observation the observer is detached and does not obstruct the research setup. It does not work as an alternative method for conducting field research , and rather works as an initial approach to understand the behavior of the research. This type of method is extensively used in fields of sociology and anthropology wherein the researchers focus on recording social life details in a setting, community, or society.

4. Participant Observation

In this research method, the researcher takes part in the everyday life of the members chosen for observation. This gives the observer a better understanding of the study. Additionally, these observation notes are a primary type of data which the researchers later develop into detailed field notes.

field work based research

Steps to Conduct a Field Study

1. identify and acquire researchers of the field.

It is essential to acquire researchers who are specialized in the field of research. Moreover, their experience in the field will help them undergo the further steps of conducting the field research .

2. Identify the topic of research

Post acquiring the researcher, they will work on identifying the topic of research. The researchers are responsible for deciding what topic of research to focus on based on the gaps observed in the existing research literature.

3. Identify the right method of research

After fine tuning the research topic, researchers define the right method to approach the aim and objectives of the research.

4. Visit the site of the study and collect data

Based on the objectives, the observations begin. Observers/Researchers go on field and start collecting data either by visual observation, interviews or staying along with the subjects and experiencing their surroundings to get an in-depth understanding.

5. Analyze the data acquired

The researchers undergo the process of data analysis once the data is collected.

6. Communicate the results

The researchers document a detailed field study report , explaining the data and its outcome. Giving the field study a suitable conclusion.

Advantages of Field Study

The major advantage of field study is that the results represent a greater variety of situations and environments. Researchers yield a detailed data analysis which can be used as primary data for many different research hypotheses. Furthermore, field research has the ability to find newer social facts which the setting or community and the participants may be unaware of. Most importantly, there usually is no tampering of data or variable, as data is collected from the natural setting.

Disadvantages of Field Study

Various methods of field study involve researchers conducting research study and immersing themselves on the research field to gather data. This collection of data can be expensive and time consuming. Moreover, the information acquired is usually undertaken through observation of small groups and this may lack understanding and implications to the larger group of study.

Did you ever conduct a field research? How did you find the process? Which type of field research method did you use? Let us know about it in the comment below.

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  • What is Field Research: Meaning, Examples, Pros & Cons

Angela Kayode-Sanni


Field research is a method of research that deals with understanding and interpreting the social interactions of groups of people and communities by observing and dealing with people in their natural settings. 

The field research methods involve direct observation, participant observation, and qualitative interviews.

Let’s take a deeper look at field research, what it entails, some examples as well as the pros and cons of field research.

What is Field Research

Field research can be defined as a qualitative method of data collection focused on observing, relating, and understanding people while they are in their natural environment. It is somewhat similar to documentaries on Nat Geo wild where the animals are observed in their natural habitat. 

Similarly, social scientists, who are sometimes called men watchers carry out interviews and observe people from a distance to see how they act in a social environment and react to situations around them.

Field research usually begins in a specific setting and the end game is to study, observe and analyze the subject within that setting. It looks at the cause and effect as well as the correlation between the participants and their natural setting. Due to the presence of multiple variables, it is sometimes difficult to properly analyze the results of field research. 

Field research adopts a wide range of social research methods, such as limited participation, direct observation, document analysis, surveys, and informal interviews. Although field research is generally considered qualitative research , it often involves multiple elements of quantitative research.

Methods of Field Research

There are 5 different methods of conducting Field Research and they are as follows;

1. Direct Observation

In this method of research, the researcher watches and records the activities of groups of people or individuals as they go about their daily activities. Direct observation can be structured or unstructured.

 Structured here means that the observation takes place using a guide or process developed before that time. 

Unstructured, on the other hand, means that the researcher conducted the observation, watching people and events, and taking notes as events progressed, without the aid of any predetermined technique.

Some other features of direct observation include the following;

  • The observer does not attempt to actively engage the people being observed in conversations or interviews, rather he or she blends into the crowd and carries out their observation.
  • Data collected include field notes, videos, photographs, rating scales, etc.
  • Direct observation most times occurs in the open, usually public settings, that requires no permission to gain entry. Conducting direct observation in a private setting would raise ethical concerns.
  • The outcome of direct observation is not in any way influenced by the researcher.

2. Participant Observation

This research method has an understanding with a group of individuals, to take part in their daily routines and their scheduled events. In this case, the researcher dwells among the group or community being observed for as long as is necessary to build trust and evoke acceptance.

Data from the participant’s observation take the following varying forms;

  • Field notes are the primary source of data. These notes are taken during the researcher’s observations and from the events they experienced and later developed the notes into formal field notes.
  • A diary is used to record special intimate events that occur within the setting.
  • The process of participant observation is intent on developing relationships with the members which breed conversations that are sometimes formal or informal. Formal here refers to deliberate depth interviews, while informal could stem from everyday conversations that give insight into the study. 

Data from these events can be part of the field notes or separate interview transcripts.

The method of participant observation aims to make the people involved comfortable enough to share what they know freely without any inhibition.

3. Ethnography

Ethnography is a form of field research that carries out observation through social research, social perspective, and the cultural values of a social setting. In this scenario, the observation is carried out objectively, hence the researcher may choose to live within a social environment of a cultural group and silently observe and record their daily routines and behavior.

4. Qualitative Interviews

Qualitative interviews are a type of field research method that gets information by asking direct questions from individuals to gather data on a particular subject. Qualitative interviews are usually conducted via 3 methods namely;

  • Informal Interviews
  • Semi Structured Interviews
  • Standardized Open ended Interviews

Let’s take a look at each of them briefly along with their advantages and disadvantages.

This kind of interview is often conversational and occurs during participant and direct observations.

The interview is triggered, most times spontaneously by conversing with a member of the group on the areas of interest and as the conversation progresses, the researcher fluidly introduces the specific question.

  • Semi-Structured Interviews

In this scenario, the researcher already has a list of prepared questions, that are open-ended and can evoke as much information as possible. The researcher can venture into other topics as the interview progresses, using a call-and-response style.

This method of field research can adopt a mix of one-on-one interviews or focus groups.

  • Standardized, Open-Ended Interviews

These are scripted interviews with the questions prepped and written before the interview following a predetermined order. It is similar to a survey and the questions are open-ended to gather detailed information from the respondents and sometimes it involves multiple interviewers.

5. Case Study

A case study research is a detailed analysis of a person, situation, or event. This method may seem a bit complex, however, it is one of the easiest ways of conducting research. difficult to operate, however, it is one of the simplest ways of researching as it involves only a detailed study of an individual or a group of people or events. Every aspect of the subject life and history is analyzed to identify patterns and causes of behavior.

Steps to Conduct Field Research

Due to the nature of field research, the tight timelines, and the associated costs involved, planning and implementing can be a bit overwhelming. We have put together steps to adopt that would make the whole process hitch free for you.

Set Up The Right Team : To begin your field research, the first step is to have the right team. The role of the researcher and the team members has to be well defined from the start, with the relevant milestones agreed upon to measure progress.

Recruiting People for the Study : The success of field research largely depends on the people being studied. Evaluate the individuals selected for the research to be sure that they tick all the boxes required for successful research in the area of study that is being researched.

Data Collection Methodology : The methodology of data collection adopted must be suited to the area or kind of research being conducted. It could be one of the methods or a combination of two or more methods.

Visit The Site: A prior visit to the site is essential to the success of the field research. This should be done to also help determine the best methodology that would be suitable for the location. 

Data Analysis: Analyzing the data gathered is important to validate the hypothesis of the field research. 

Communicating Results : Once the data is analyzed, communicate the results to the stakeholders involved in the research so that the relevant action required based on the results can be decided and carried out promptly. 

Reasons to Conduct Field Research

Field research has been widely used in the 20th century in the social sciences. However, it can be time-consuming and costly to implement. Despite this fact, there exist a lot of reasons to conduct field research.

Here are 4 major reasons to conduct field research:

Solves the problem of lack of data : Field research fixes the issue of gaps in data, especially in cases where there is very little or no data about a topic. In cases like this, the only way to validate any hypothesis is through primary research and data. Conducting field research solves the problem of data lapses and provides material evidence to support any findings.

Understanding the context of the study : In many cases, the data collected is appropriate, however for a deep understanding of the data gathered there is a need for field research to help understand other factors in the study. For instance, if data show that students from rich homes generally do well academically. 

Conducting field research can bring to the fore other factors like, discipline, well-equipped teachers, motivation from their forebears to excel in whatever they do, etc. but field research is still conducted. 

Increasing data quality: Since this research, method employs the use of multiple tools to collect data and varying methodologies, the quality of data is higher.

Collecting ancillary data : Field research puts the researchers in a position of being at the center of the data collection process, in terms of location, one on one relationship with the participants, etc. This exposes them to new lines of thought that would have hitherto been overlooked and they can now collect data, that was not planned for at the beginning of the study.

Examples of Field Research

1. Interprete social metrics in a slum By employing the use of observation methods and formal interviews, researchers can now understand the social indicators and social hierarchy that exist in a slum.

Financial independence and the way the slum is run daily are part of the study and data collected from these areas can give insight into the way a slum operates differently from structured societies.

2. Understand the impact of sports on a child’s development This method of field research takes years to conduct and the sample size can be quite huge. Data collected and analyzed from this study provides insight into how children from different physical locations and backgrounds are influenced by sports and the impact of sporting activities on a child’s development. 

3. The study of animal migration patterns Field research is used immensely to study flora and fauna. A major use case is scientists observing and studying animal migration patterns alongside the change of seasons and its influence on animal migration patterns.

Field research takes time and uses months and sometimes years to help gather data that show how to safely expedite the passage of animals.

Advantages of Field Research

Field research and the various methodology employed have their pros and cons.

Let’s take a look at some of them.

  • Provide context to the data being analyzed in terms of settings, interactions, or individuals.
  • The source of data does not require or involve verbal interactions, and there is no intrusion of anyone’s personal, space because everything is done quietly, from a distance.
  • The researcher develops a  deep and detailed understanding of a setting and the members within the setting.
  • It is carried out in a real-world and natural environment which eliminates tampering with variables.
  • The study is conducted in a comfortable environment, hence data can be gathered even about an ancillary topic, that would have been undiscovered in other circumstances.
  • The researcher’s deep understanding of the research subjects due to their proximity to them makes the research thorough and precise. 
  • It helps the researcher to be flexible and respond to individual differences while capturing emerging information. Allows the researcher to be responsive to individual differences and to capture emerging information.

Disadvantages of Field Research

  • The researcher might not be able to capture all that is being said and there is the risk of losing information.
  • The quality of the information derived is dependent, on the researcher’s skills.
  • Significant interactions and events may occur when an observer is not present.
  • Some topics cannot easily be interpreted by mere observation.g., attitudes, emotions, affection).
  • The reliability of observations can be complex due to the presence of multiple observers with different interpretations.
  • It requires a lot of time (and resources)and can take years to complete.
  • The researcher may lose objectivity as they spend more time among the members of the group.
  • It is a subjective and interpretive method that is solely dependent on the researcher’s ability.

Field research helps researchers to gain firsthand experience and knowledge about the events, processes, and people, being studied. No other method provides this kind of close-up view of the everyday life of people and events. It is a very detailed method of research and is excellent for understanding the role of social context in shaping the lives, perspectives, and experiences of people. Alongside this, it may uncover aspects of a person that might never have been discovered.


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  • Data Collection
  • field research
  • qualitative research
  • Angela Kayode-Sanni


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Family and the field: Expectations of a field-based research career affect researcher family planning decisions

Christopher d. lynn.

1 Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, United States of America

Michaela E. Howells

2 Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, North Carolina, United States of America

Max J. Stein

Associated data.

The de-identified dataset and codebook used for analysis in this paper are publicly available at http://doi.org/10.3886/E105404V1 and licensed under CCA 4.0 International.

Field-based data collection provides an extraordinary opportunity for comparative research. However, the demands of pursuing research away from home creates an expectation of unburdened individuals who have the temporal, financial, and social resources to conduct this work. Here we examine whether this myth of the socially unencumbered scholar contributes to the loss of professionals and trainees. To investigate this, we conducted an internet-based survey of professional and graduate student anthropologists ( n = 1025) focused on the challenges and barriers associated with developing and maintaining a fieldwork-oriented career path and an active family life. This study sought to determine how (1) family socioeconomic status impacts becoming an anthropologist, (2) expectations of field-based research influence family planning, and (3) fieldwork experiences influence perceptions of family-career balance and stress. We found that most anthropologists and anthropology students come from educated households and that white men were significantly more likely to become tenured professionals than other demographic groups. The gender disparity is striking because a larger number of women are trained in anthropology and were more likely than men to report delaying parenthood to pursue their career. Furthermore, regardless of socioeconomic background, anthropologists reported significant lack of family-career balance and high stress associated with the profession. For professionals, lack of balance was most associated with gender, age, SES, tenure, and impacts of parenting on their career, while for students it was ethnicity, relative degree speed, graduate funding, employment status, total research conducted, career impact on family planning, and concern with tenure ( p < .05). Anthropology bridges the sciences and humanities, making it the ideal discipline to initiate discussions on the embedded structural components of field-based careers generalizable across specialties.


“Those same structures that have provided the resources for the academic disciplines to flourish have also restricted the means and content of knowledge production . ” Karri A. Holley (2013)

Despite calls for intersectionality in academia [ 1 ], structural challenges impede the success of women, those caring for dependents, and people of low socioeconomic status across disciplines at higher rates than other groups [ 2 – 6 ]. Intersectionality refers to the interconnected nature of social categorizations that apply to an individual or group, including race, class, gender, or status. However, these categorizations are also interrelated in systems of privilege and discrimination and challenge the very disciplines that study and seek to improve them. Among such challenges is family-career balance, which is a chronic concern in many professions and likely to affect those with least privilege [ 7 , 8 ]. For example, even in dual-parent working households, men spend more time at work than women and women more time on childcare and household chores [ 9 – 11 ]. This imbalance may contribute to the higher number of married women with children that are likely to leave their profession than men [ 12 ]. People from low-income families are also at a disadvantage in navigating academia as indicated by studies of first-generation college students, who are likely to come from such families. These students generally have less exposure to the options of graduate study, minimal awareness and knowledge of how university organizational structures work or fund students, and fewer people they see as potential academic mentors [ 13 – 15 ]. This lack of experience reinforces cycles of negative feedback in higher education [ 2 , 15 – 18 ]. Even among those for whom there are fewer structural impediments to success (i.e., white, cis-gendered men) [ 19 ], preparation for the demands of academic work-family balance are reportedly lacking [ 20 ]. These problems may be exasperated in anthropology, where a long history of field-based research expectations may produce additional barriers to recruiting a diverse workforce [ 21 – 24 ].

Advanced training in anthropology requires extensive research experiences that frequently include long-term immersive fieldwork in communities and organizations that necessitate extensive time away from home. In the 1920s, Malinowski’s “one man, one site, one year” framework for anthropological fieldwork transformed the discipline and modified expectations for trainees and professionals. Although this technique has significant benefits, it is an expensive (temporally and financially) and logistically complicated legitimizing process. Regardless, field-based research has become a paradigmatic rite of passage for challenging personal abilities [ 25 , 26 ].

For professionals, fieldwork provides space for ongoing and new research while playing a critical role in hiring, retention, promotion, and tenure. For instance, scholars with active field sites publish with greater frequency and receive more grants than those reliant on other strategies to conduct research [ 27 ]. The disciplinary importance of fieldwork relies on individuals who are socially unencumbered and financially solvent, either through their own means or external funding. However it systematically overlooks the significant social and financial responsibilities experienced by many professionals and trainees, including dependent family members (children, elderly parents, etc.), and household expenses (rent, car payments, student loan bills, tuition, credit card bills), and may act to systematically privilege those without these pressures. We explore whether this myth of the socially unencumbered scholar contributes to the loss of professionals and trainees in anthropology.

We test whether the expectation to conduct fieldwork in anthropology acts as a barrier that limits access by diverse socioeconomic, familial, and gendered backgrounds resulting in increased systematic homogeneity. Little attention has been paid to the pressures of family-career balance in anthropology with regard to fieldwork. To address how family-career balance and fieldwork affect scholars’ abilities to adhere to anthropology’s expectations, we investigated five intersecting questions related to the concept and practice of fieldwork as a discipline.

  • Is family socioeconomic status (SES) related to becoming an anthropologist?
  • Do expectations of anthropological fieldwork dissuade people from having children?
  • Do family responsibilities prevent those with or who would like to have children from entering the discipline?
  • Does having children impact individual ability to conduct fieldwork?
  • Does balancing family and anthropological careers influence perceived stress?

We pursued these questions through a survey of professional and graduate student anthropologists. These questions address the less obvious personal, social, and economic costs associated with fieldwork expectations of anthropology and examine the advantages and privileges that may indirectly support homogeneity in the profession.

We used an online survey (Qualtrics, Provo, UT) with two waves of recruitment to examine the pressures of field-based research and perceptions of family-career balance in anthropology. The questionnaire included 73 items querying socio-demographic information, family planning, careers, children and fieldwork, and external family support in anthropology ( S1 Appendix ).

Study recruitment

We administered the survey between April and November 2015 ( n = 417) and between December 2015 and January 2017 ( n = 722). We added the socioeconomic status (SES) questions in the second wave after preliminary analysis of survey qualitative responses suggested that anthropologists able to take children to the field came from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. We recruited English-speaking professional anthropologists and graduate students (both parents and non-parents) for participation using exponential non-discriminate snowball sampling through email, social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Academia.edu ), and flyers and presentations at professional meetings. We asked that these links to be shared by colleagues [ 28 ], while links to the survey were also provided on a department blog site and a post in an Anthropology News online column by the lead author [ 29 , 30 ]. The University of Alabama Institutional Review Board approved this protocol (#15-OR-134-R1).

Assessing family support

To assess family influences and social support, we asked respondents if they were parents and, if so, what assistance/resources they have received around parenting. To determine SES, we used a modification of the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status [ 31 ], which uses a pictorial ladder and asks respondents to indicate the rung that best represents their status with regard to education, income, and occupation. We modified the scaling from 10 rungs to 9 to group respondents in intervals of 3 as high (7–9), middle (4–6), and low status (1–3). We extracted a list of occupations from the Barratt Simplified Measure of Social Status [ 32 ] and also grouped those in association with high (7–9), middle (4–6), and low (1–3) economic status. We then created an SES variable for partners and parents by averaging education and occupation. To address structural impediments to raising a family while meeting the expectation of anthropological fieldwork, we asked respondents about support they received for parenting from partners, graduate advisers, colleagues, employers, and department chairs. We calculated overall support by summing these items. We measured family-career balance, impact of anthropology on family planning, and impact of family on anthropology careers using a series of items composed specifically for this study. Finally, we measured perceived stress using the 4-item Perceived Stress Scale [ 33 ].

Statistical analysis

We downloaded both waves of survey data from Qualtrics and merged them in SPSS v.25 (IBM Corp., Armonk, NY). A total of 1135 respondents consented to participate and began the survey, while 4 dissented. We removed 110 incomplete responses for a final sample of 1025 participants. We generated descriptive statistics for all survey items and checked for errors and outlier values. In describing the data and testing hypotheses 1–4, we conducted bivariate analysis comparing professionals to students and women to men using χ 2 , Fisher’s exact, and independent samples t tests (there so were few non-binary gender respondents that we chose not include them in these comparisons). To test hypothesis 5, we conducted separate multiple linear regressions on perceived stress and family-career balance, retaining each as an independent variable in models of the other, using model variance to estimate the appropriate causal path. We chose other model variables based on bivariate correlations, theoretical considerations, and degrees of freedom. We standardized regression variables and tested for interaction effects among correlated variables of theoretical import (e.g., factors related to gender and minority disparities) but found none. Upon determining causal paths for professionals and students, we used AMOS V.25 (IBM Corp., Armonk, NY) to create visualizations of these models. We considered all statistics significant if p < .05.

Respondent demographics

Table 1 outlines the demographics of the sample, the majority (80%) of whom identified as women. Most participants were living in (82%) and raised in (83%) North America and identified as white non-Hispanic (82%). For professional anthropologists, the mean age was 42.2 ± 9.54 (25–76) and for students 30.2 ± 6.62 (20–69). Most of the professionals (86.5%) and students (69%) were married or in committed relationships. Professionals were more likely to have at least one child (67%) compared to students (27%); and, among respondents with children, the mean ± SD was 1.3 ± .89 (1–5) for professionals and 1.6 ± 1.03 (1–8) for students.

Samples represented for each variable, and frequencies represent category, not full sample.

*p < .05

** p < .01

*** p < .001

Table 2 outlines demographic details specifically related to anthropology training. The largest single career demographic among respondents was the doctoral-level graduate student rank (34%), but professional academics (51%) and graduate students (49%) were evenly represented when collapsed into the two-group variable “career stage.” Nearly half (48%) were sociocultural anthropologists. As these ranks indicate, most respondents (49%) were employed full-time.

We compared degree rates and employment of women and men to assess whether there were disparities consistent with the professional attrition of women in other studies [ 3 – 6 , 23 , 24 ]. Fig 1 illustrates this comparison, indicating significantly ( p < .01) higher percentages of women among MA and PhD students and PhD-holding adjuncts and lecturers but higher percentages of men among PhD-holding tenure-track and tenured professors (42%). There were also more men ( p < .01) among those with full-time employment (59%). Since this is a convenience sample, it is unknown if these rates are representative of the discipline of anthropology or if there was differential dropout based on differing interests in aspects of the study.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is pone.0203500.g001.jpg

Family socioeconomic background

We predicted that people from an educationally privileged background would be more able to pursue an anthropological career. We tested this by eliciting information about spousal and family education and, in the second survey wave ( n = 573), personal (1 = lowest, 9 = highest), spousal, and family socioeconomic self-ratings (low/middle/high). As outlined in Table 3 , the majority of our study participants came from highly educated families, wherein at least one parental figure had a bachelor’s degree or higher (72%), and about half had at least one parent who completed a graduate degree. There were no differences between women and men or professionals and students in family educational background. Mean ± SD (min-max) SES for professional respondents was 6.62 ± 1.35 (1–9) and for students was 5.87 ± 1.51 (2–9). The majority of respondents’ partners (76%) and parents were high status (61% for mothers and 70% for fathers).

* p < .01

** p < .001

Fieldwork and family planning

To assess how an anthropology career may impact family planning, we asked respondents with children about family structure, planning of children, career stage when children were born, and the aspects of anthropology that most influenced family planning. Most were part of two-parent nuclear family units (including stepparents) (85%) ( Table 4 ), and the majority had their first child during graduate school (38%). Eighteen percent had a first child before graduate school and another 18% had a first child after graduate school but before obtaining a full-time permanent position. Fifteen percent of respondents had a first child during the pre-tenure period of academic employment, while 5% had a first child post-tenure. A second child was also most likely to be born during graduate school (17%), with 13% born during the pre-tenure period of tenure-track employment, 10% born between graduate school and full-time employment, 6% born before graduate school, and 5% born after obtaining tenure.

#Future plans to become parent was only queried among respondents with no children.

More than half of respondents without children (60%) indicated that their career in anthropology had impacted their decision to not have children. Family planning decisions had greater impacts on women than men for parents and non-parents in our sample ( Fig 2 ), a difference that was significant among students ( p = .003) but not professionals ( p = .057). Family planning decisions of women were significantly more likely to be affected by concerns with conducting fieldwork, getting tenure, impacts on promotion, preconceived notions of peers, and disappointing their advisors than in men ( p < .05). Students were significantly more concerned than professionals with all aspects of anthropological careers that could affect family planning ( p < .01). Among the concerns, professionals and students alike were most concerned with salary constraints, conducting fieldwork with children, and getting tenure ( Fig 3 ).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is pone.0203500.g002.jpg

Children and fieldwork

We predicted that anthropologists without family resources to care for children during fieldwork would reduce or cease fieldwork upon becoming parents. Regardless of gender or career stage, the majority of those with children (56%) indicated that parenthood did not impact their decision to pursue a career in anthropology. Women and men tended to go to distant sites (defined as sites that required travel away from home for multiple overnight stays) to conduct fieldwork at least every few years (64%). The mean number of months parents spent in the field conducting research per field season was .76 ± 1.578 (0–15.6) or approximately 3 weeks.

To address whether having children impacted anthropological fieldwork, we queried patterns of fieldwork after having children, how children were cared for, and the quality of experiences, as outlined in Table 5 . The majority of respondents with children (80% professionals, 71% students) had been to the field to conduct research since becoming parents. This postpartum fieldwork was significantly more likely among men (86%) than women (74%, p = .02). Most respondents with children (56%) had never taken a child to the field, and there were no gender differences among those who had done so.

Women and men used a variety of resources for childcare while in the field, though men tended to rely exclusively on a co-parent or combination of childcare options, whereas women more often utilized grandparents and non-relatives ( p = .01). The majority of those who had taken their kids to the field reported it as a good experience for the children (87%), though half (51%) also reported that it made fieldwork more difficult.

Balancing family and an anthropological career

To determine how anthropologists handle the pressure of work and family, we asked participants about general perceived stress and self-rating of family-career balance. On a 5-point scale (1 = terrible, 5 = excellent), the rating valence for professionals (3.1 ± .04) was significantly more positive than students (2.8 ± .04, p < .001). Among professionals, men (3.3 ± .91) were significantly more positive than women (2.9 ± .03, p = .001), whereas there was no difference by gender among students ( Fig 4 ). Similarly, perceived stress was significantly higher among students (7.7 ± 3.0) than professionals (6.5 ± 3.0, p < .001), but there were no gender differences in perceived stress.

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To reflect the differing pressures experienced by professionals and students, we conducted separate bivariate correlations to select variables for regressions on perceived stress and family-career balance. We considered findings to preceding hypotheses and, for professionals, chose variables that were significantly correlated with perceived stress, family-career balance, mean time in the field, or SES. To ensure sufficient degrees of freedom, we included only variables with n ≥ 250 ( Table 6 ).

* p < .05

** p < .01 (2-tailed).

We constructed separate linear regression models for perceived stress and family-career balance, including each as independent variables for the other to determine causality. For professionals, the regression on perceived stress including family-career balance as independent variable explained more variance ( F 12,169 = 6.880, p < .001, r 2 = .328) than did regression on family-career balance with perceived stress as independent variable ( F 12,169 = 6.404, p < .001, r 2 = .313) ( Table 7 ).

Because of the significant effect of family-career balance on perceived stress, we regressed several dummy variables related to things that lead to delaying or avoiding parenthood among non-parent respondents ( Table 8 ), including concerns about salary, balancing children and fieldwork, tenure, promotion, peer pressures, advisor pressures, colleague pressures, and family pressures. We retained gender, age, marital status, and parent status as controls. We found that gender, SES, having children, and concerns with tenure were significant influences on family-career balance.

To put these models in context, we constructed a path model as illustrated in Fig 5 . Of note in this model are the significant influences of parenting on career and concerns around tenure that caused people to forgo or delay having children.

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Most students are not expected to have completed fieldwork, so we examined bivariate correlations with respect to perceived stress, family-career balance, and SES only and included other variables relevant to students ( Table 9 ).

As with professionals, we conducted separate regressions among student respondents on perceived stress and family-career balance, including each as independent variables for the other ( Table 10 ). Unlike professionals, we found that the model predicting student family-career balance ( F 12,173 = 6.421, p < .001, r 2 = .308) explained more variance than that predicting perceived stress ( F 12,173 = 5.739, p < .001, r 2 = .285).

We tested dummy variables related to delaying or refraining from having children against perceived stress among students, controlling for SES and having a partner in academia, but only SES was a significant predictor ( Table 11 ).

Finally, we created a visualization of the path model for students ( Fig 6 ). Where separate regressions indicated on an influence of SES and family-career balance on perceived stress and career impact on family planning on perceived stress and the sense of family-career balance, the path model indicates several other salient influences. Having a partner who is also in academia significantly increases stress, as do negative employment status and, curiously, planning not or being unsure about future children. Among students, being white was significantly associated with a positive sense of family-career balance, as was positive employment status. There was a significant relationship between a low career impact on family planning and a positive sense of family-career balance. In theory, students have yet to conduct much research, so it may be consistent that there was a significant negative relationship between total research conducted and family-career balance, though the significant negative relationship between funding and family-career balance is unclear. Despite being students, delaying or refraining from parenthood because of concerns with tenure is as great a concern as among professionals.

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Anthropology is a field-based discipline that utilizes a comparative approach to understand humanity. However, social and financial barriers may undermine intersectionality in the discipline and prevent some individuals from pursuing an anthropological career. We examined perceived stress and family-career balance among anthropologists and those training to become anthropologists with regard to SES, gender, and family planning decisions. To accomplish this, we used a convenience survey.

Women in anthropology

In anthropology, women are more likely to enroll in undergraduate and graduate courses and are represented in higher numbers among young professionals [ 23 ]. This is consistent with other social science fields, but in opposition to fields considered more “mathematically intensive” [ 34 ]. Our results indicate that representation at earlier stages doesn’t necessarily mean equality in later career stages. Women in our study were less likely to hold PhDs, professional rank, or full-time employment. Our study also indicated that a career in anthropology had a more negative impact on women’s family planning than on men’s across an array of domains, including childcare, academic advisor support, tenure and promotion, equity in salary, and attitudes of peers. Women in this study were more likely to perceive themselves as disadvantaged concerning structural (salary, fieldwork plans, career plans, social pressure) and social constraints (opinions of family, colleagues, or superiors). They also ranked their family-career balance more negatively than men. These findings reflect other studies of family-career balance in academia, which find that women, particularly those who are pre-tenure, report more difficulty juggling parental and work responsibilities than men [ 35 ]. For instance, women scientists report sacrificing discretionary or leisure time and flexibility more than men [ 35 – 37 ]. Loss of leisure time is associated with increased stress, while loss of flexibility can be directly related to reducing abilities to travel for work. These reductions negatively influence opportunities for collaboration and recognition for research [ 35 , 38 ]. As others [ 12 , 23 ] indicate, these factors are directly responsible for women leaving academia at a substantially higher rate than white men. A 35-year-old female PhD student respondent to our study confirmed this, indicating,

academia showed me the people I once respected as leading researchers had no work life balance and had sacrificed the other elements of life, like family, to work 100-hour weeks to excel in [the] field [of anthropology]. Working hard is one thing but that attitude of being the ONLY way to be a quality scientist turned me off the profession entirely.

For those pursuing a graduate degree or tenure, the demands of children can slow their progress and thus represent a significant trade-off in family-career balance [ 39 ]. This is a particular challenge to women, whose children are physically dependent on them during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding and who may suffer punitive policies that limit postpartum rehabilitation. A white 49-year-old tenured female professor stated,

I had to fight, hard, to get any maternity leave. I was fighting so much that my senior colleagues (all male except for one) turned me down for early tenure. I ended up taking an extra year on my clock to let the whole mess blow over. I came up for regular tenure late, got it with a unanimous vote. Guess my colleagues wanted to say fuck you without getting sued. It worked!!

Several women addressed this challenge when it came time for fieldwork by taking their children with them because they simply had no other choice. As a 31-year-old female student indicated she took her child “because he was a baby and breastfeeding for the first time. Because I want to be with him, when he grew up.” Similarly, another female student (age 35) stated,

both my bio kids nursed well into toddlerhood. They needed me to sleep and pumping for any long amount of time just wasn’t working for our family. Also, my husband’s schedule isn’t very flexible so childcare was easier to arrange if the kids were with me. Also, fuck that broken family shit. I just wanted my babies with me. I like ‘em.

For many, the response of colleagues, academic advisors, and supervisors was crucial to their perceived balance. However, this support ranged from very positive (e.g., advisors who hosted baby showers) to very negative (“My dissertation advisor was nearly emotionally abusive when I became pregnant while writing my dissertation”). One woman who had achieved tenure shared, “I keep my kids a total secret in academia”.

In addition, women were less likely to have conducted field-based research since having a child. When they did, women were dependent on support from their parents more than their male peers were (“I have taken them when I have had a grandparent with me who can take off work. Otherwise, I have not taken them with me.”), who were more dependent on spousal support (“Child was very young and fieldwork was several months long, so wife and daughter came along.”). Support from family and academic peers has a significant impact on individual abilities to conduct extended stretches of fieldwork, the places where fieldwork can be conducted (safety, distance, etc.), and possibly the quality of the work that can be conducted, which echoes findings on family-career balance in academia in general [ 35 ]. A 28-year-old white female student said, “my step-daughter and partner are Tanzanian, which is where I conduct my fieldwork. Therefore, they are in the same country but don’t go with me to my particular data collection sites.” By contrast, another student (36-year-old, white female) opted to do research in the US, stating, “I chose to set up a domestic project so that I could have children. The site is two hours from my home. I frequently brought my infant son with me; it was very difficult to bring him or leave him.” Finally, few grant agencies permit grantees to use funding to support childcare or travel for family members, which creates additional financial restrictions on fieldwork plans. Taken together, this can have cumulative, long-term effects on women’s careers and act as a barrier to promotion [ 12 ].

Gender based barriers have been identified in other field-based disciplines, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Recent studies find that masculine culture is overvalued in field settings when women are excluded [ 40 , 41 ]. In general, women and minorities in STEM are severely underrepresented, have lower rates of retention, and are most likely to switch their majors to non-STEM fields [ 42 ]. Since Marie Curie won a Nobel Prize in 1903, only 17 other women have received the award in the areas of physics, chemistry, or medicine compared to 572 men, and only 28% of the world’s researchers are women [ 43 ]. Analysis of adolescent achievement in STEM careers internationally indicates higher performance among girls than boys in two-thirds of sampled countries but an inverse relationship between “national gender equality” and pursuit of STEM degrees by women [ 44 ]. Our research supports that this difference may be driven in part by hidden barriers associated with a mismatch between family and career expectations that may result in the reduction of qualified individuals from research fields.

Family and the field

Many participants in our study indicated that they delayed having children or avoided taking them to the field because of fears related to professional credibility or disapproval of an adviser or supervisor. However, we found no gender differences in opinion on whether taking children to a field site is a positive or negative experience. Some people found that taking their children to the field was a growth and education opportunity for the kids that was too important to pass up, and others said it enhanced the quality of the data they could collect. Ice et al. [ 45 ] indicate that having one’s family present can reduce loneliness, support research, and humanize researchers for a local community. As one participant stated,

having children is [not] a drag on academic careers. It can be precisely the opposite. My dissertation fieldwork would not have been nearly as rich without my family (husband and daughter). I have been tremendously productive. But each child is different and can cause vastly different challenges for travel.

Others pointed out that having children in the field made it more difficult because of caring for or worrying about their safety or that they avoided it so they could be productive. A 43-year-old Hispanic female student noted that “the option to bring my child wasn’t offered, and I didn’t want to risk my performance in the field worrying about the safety of my child.” A 43-year-old white male professional said, “I would not get any work done. Quality childcare is too expensive and it is not possible to conduct fieldwork while responsible for a child.” At a basic level, young children cannot be left alone while parents conduct fieldwork. As a result, parents must arrange for long-term care either at home or in the field. A spouse can provide this care, as can a family member, shared care services, or paid caregivers; but not all professionals have the same social and financial options for caregivers, and it is even rarer among students. Our findings indicate that individuals with a stay-at-home spouse or retired parent with a taste for adventure were more likely to be able to bring children to their field site than peers without these relationships. A 42-year-old white male professional put it:

I have conducted research that can accommodate my family life, which is ultimately more important to me than personal careerist aspirations. Fortunately for me, my wife and children are adventurous souls who, like me, are not necessarily looking for conventional middleclass security.

As many of our respondents had their first and second children before or during graduate school, social and emotional support for parents presents a critical feature in retaining diversity in anthropology.

Family and career stress

Successfully managing the stress of a family and a career in a field-based discipline such as anthropology can be challenging. According to O’Laughlin and Bischoff [ 35 ], academics are subject to several types of family-career conflict, including time-based, strain-based, and behavior-based. The average academic, works approximately 55 hours/week balancing teaching, research, service, consultation, and other roles, which is a strain. Such strain is compounded when career and family roles are incompatible. These factors have been associated with individual health risks and depression in other studies [ 35 , 37 ]. Lack of family-career balance was the single most predictive influence on stress in all our models. Graduate students were especially likely to report imbalance associated with stress; this is consistent with high rates of anxiety and depression reported among academics [ 20 ].

In addition, several childless respondents indicated they had been discouraged from having children or had avoided it because they worried they would not be taken seriously, or because the demands of academia were perceived as too great a burden to expect balance. For instance, one respondent stated,

I am not a parent yet, though I do feel that the absolute command the PhD process has on my life is detrimental to the work/life balance needed to attend to other aspects of my life beyond meeting academic expectations. Instead of recognizing that this culture is damaging to students and faculty alike, and that striving to achieve a healthy work/life balance is important for long term productivity and career satisfaction, I have been advised to quit my program. I have been told that I don’t seem truly committed to the rigors of an academic life. I have been told that this is a demanding process and I should think about leaving if I want to strike a better balance between my personal needs and my professional advancement. I imagine this only gets worse once children come into the picture.

Social science professionals and students in general seem to know and fear a lack of family-career balance as a predictable tribulation of the discipline, which was suggested by our finding that students are already concerned about the impacts of family on getting tenure before they have even graduated or have a tenure-track position. As one 39-year-old male postdoc stated, “[I] want to give my child (and child to be due soon) sufficient attention. I don’t want to juggle pubs, teaching, and service for so little money and even less chance of success if it will negatively impact them.” A 39-year-old Asian-American female PhD student in our study said,

I don’t think having children would be perceived problematically by my peers. The biggest problem is that I have to make the wrong choices to remain in this work. I don’t face discrimination that I can discern because I already prioritize work over family and I take on more and more work, which leaves me little time for meaningful interactions with my kids. This is a huge problem and I’m not sure that the pressures of an academic career make me happy enough to sacrifice time with my family.

Yet, the relationship between family-career balance and psychosocial stress is not always negative, as remarked upon in other climate surveys of anthropology [ 23 ]. Although the financial rewards of becoming an anthropologist seem to diminish with each additional obstacle, anthropology as a career choice can also be exciting and rewarding in ways not measured by our survey. One respondent said that “[taking my child to the field] was difficult both for my child and me in terms of productivity, but it was a good experience overall.” Another stated, “a mixed experience for the children and I. Afterward a good experience, but difficult to see that during fieldwork.” For this reason, Halpern and colleagues suggest changing the metaphor to family-career “interactions”—balancing family and career in general is not a zero-sum game [ 8 ].

Addressing barriers between women and fieldwork

Field-based data collection provides an extraordinary opportunity for comparative research. However, the demands of pursuing research away from home creates an expectation of socially unencumbered individuals who have the temporal, financial, and social resources to conduct this work. However, this perspective excludes the lived experience of anthropology professionals and trainees with social and financial obligations including (but not limited to) dependent children. Similar problems have been pointed out with regard to other field-based disciplines. In one study of gender issues reported by women in polar field research, 28% of respondents considered family commitments and caring issues an important source of inequality [ 40 ].

The intrinsic expectations of an anthropological field career can produce barriers to current and potential scholars. Our survey revealed that obstacles to anthropology as a field-based discipline are pervasive and multi-layered. Even people more likely to achieve success as field researchers in anthropology—those born into the relative wealth that provides socioeconomic privilege and support that continues while establishing a career and family—report high stress related to lack of balance between career and family. There are a number of family-friendly reforms for academia that have been implemented at progressive research institutions to address such issues, which others can adopt. In order of how commonly they’ve been implemented, reforms include six weeks paid maternity leave, maternal and dependent health insurance, stoppage of tenure-track clocks for mothers, modified duties for mothers after childbirth, college tuition remission for dependents, adoption expenses, lactation rooms, stoppage of tenure-track clocks for fathers, dual hires, subsidized childcare, modified duties for fathers, childcare grants for parents to attend conferences, emergency childcare, and part-time tenure-track appointments pre-and post-tenure [ 12 ]. Many of these benefits, especially parental leave after childbirth, should be entitlements that happen automatically, not privileges that must be applied for [ 12 , 16 ]. These benefits generally focus on research faculty, but, increasingly, awareness is spreading to liberal arts colleges and teaching institutions and extending to teaching faculty, adjuncts, graduate students, postdocs, and others in limited term positions.

Although some might assume that anthropology is more accepting of those with diverse life circumstances than other disciplines because of its study of human diversity, the limited existing evidence suggests that this is not the case. As Bassett writes, the “prevailing ethos of academic culture is that the career is to be prioritized over all else. To do otherwise is to risk being perceived as not committed to your profession, or worse, to risk not being taken seriously as a real scholar” [ 7 ]. Mason et al. [ 12 ] found that people within academia consider research universities hostile for faculty to necessities of family life. Higher education institutions frequently lack accountability for gender-related inequities [ 46 , 47 ], and the recent controversy about policing microaggressions [ 48 ] distracts from the systematic creation of spaces where safety is not evenly distributed. A 2016 survey of American Anthropological Association members affirms this, indicating that “women are significantly more likely than men to have experienced a hostile workplace and most types of unwanted sexual behaviors” and to report that their institution did not handle claims of sexual harassment in accordance with federal law [ 4 ]. These inequities apply as much to fieldwork as to campus life. Recently, two SAFE (Survey of Academic Field Experiences) studies within anthropology documented a high level of sexual harassment in field settings [ 6 , 49 ], a finding that has been replicated in other sciences [ 5 ]. These lines of investigation also highlight the lack of awareness among those with privilege that their tolerance of structural impediments imposes silence on those with less power [ 49 ]. In all these studies of discrimination and harassment, respondents felt that speaking out would jeopardize their careers in ways white men rarely experience [ 5 , 6 , 49 , 50 ].

Anthropologists must address these issues not only for ethical reasons, to advance our field, and to provide a model for other similar disciplines. Fieldwork is a critical practice that thickens and binds anthropology and renders it relevant for explaining human complexity. In training and experience, anthropologists are uniquely situated to compare culture and identify social injustice in the world. Yet struggles with intersectionality among anthropologists make our expertise suspect. Only by addressing the access and socialization within anthropology and other field-based disciplines will it begin to reflect those it claims to represent.

Study limitations

One of the limitations of this study is associated with the use of an online self-report survey. Language used in recruitment may have introduced bias consistent with our hypothesis; however, responses spanned a continuum of agreement/disagreement. Additionally, recognizing our inability to anticipate all potential answers, we encouraged participants to provide comments throughout, enabling them to describe their unique circumstances. This was particularly important due to our unintended bias towards a nuclear family model. Because of our survey’s anonymity and public availability, we had no mechanism to prevent individuals from taking it multiple times though we have no reason to suspect that is the case.

Additionally, convenience surveys are inherently limited in that they provide only imperfect evidence, but we believe our survey provided enough data to establish that there are issues within the discipline of anthropology that departments and professional organizations should take measures to address. For instance, although we attempted to recruit all working or graduate student anthropologists regardless of experience or family circumstances, we repeatedly heard that people thought the survey was only for parents or those who took children into the field, which may have skewed the results. We also took steps to increase our recruitment of non-white participants but had lower responses than anticipated.

Furthermore, though we examine associations among family-career balance, stress, and career status, we frame our discussion as though there is linear causality, such that, for professionals at least, family-career balance seems to moderate how stressful one’s career status is. Though this pathway reflects findings from other studies [ 35 ], we acknowledge that there are as many possible causality pathways as there are intersections among respondents. For example, it is possible and implied by many qualitative respondents’ comments that some adjust their family-career balance till stress is sufficiently minimized to be personally tolerable.

Finally, our total sample included higher proportions of women and sociocultural anthropologists than other groups and overrepresented younger respondents in spite of the fact that we reached out purposefully to all genders, subdisciplines, and ages. The higher numbers of women and sociocultural anthropologists may be due to a greater interest in the study topic or to the larger numbers of sociocultural anthropologists in the discipline and of women among younger anthropologists [ 3 ]. However, we did have equal numbers of men among professionals and students. Regular social media users tend to be younger than people who primarily use email [ 51 ], so it is likely that our sampling skewed toward younger anthropologists. Furthermore, though we had equal numbers of professionals and students, those with strong feelings of family-career imbalance may be principally students and relatively younger professionals in the prime childrearing period of their lives.

This paper represents the first steps in exploring these data. Future articles will explore the role of ethnicity, status of first-generation college students in accessing an anthropological career, and how anthropology fares in supporting breastfeeding and maternal and paternal leave, among other workplace issues.

Conclusions and future

The majority of our respondents were white and from college-educated US households—the demographic group most likely to have access to resources that allowed them to succeed at the highest levels of education [ 15 , 17 , 52 ]. Yet, the transition from graduate school to permanent employment is precarious, especially for women [ 17 , 53 ]. We confirmed that, in anthropology, white men were more likely to become tenured professors than women or minority men. Furthermore, our study found that expectations of an anthropology career influenced family planning decisions for both women and men; however, impacts were greater for women. The biggest concerns for participants were, depending on model construction, being able to conduct fieldwork and have children and aspects of stable employment.

We found that family-career balance was the most significant predictor of stress for both professional and graduate students. High stress perception was pervasive, especially among students. Younger professionals reported significantly higher stress related to family-career imbalance relative to older respondents, and students self-reporting as lower SES had higher stress. Combined, our findings are similar to those of other STEM and related fields and suggest that field-based disciplines like anthropology may be self-limiting because of socioeconomic factors associated with gender, class, ethnicity, and other personal factors, which may ultimately undermine the integrity of these disciplines and their constructions of knowledge. We take heart, therefore, that education and gender equality are integral parts of the UN 2030 Agenda for sustainable development adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 and the statement that holds as true for anthropology: “Girls and women are key players in crafting solutions to improve lives…They are the greatest untapped population to become the next generations of STEM professionals—we must invest in their talent” [ 43 ]. Based on the findings of this study, investing in their talent means taking an active role in supporting family career balance.

Supporting information

S1 appendix.

This is the second iteration of the survey, which includes items querying socioeconomic status. The survey was administered using Qualtrics and included skip logic, which skipped respondents past questions that did not apply to them, based on previous answers. However, items numbers were not retained when copying the survey, so skip logic markers refer to numbers that are not visible in this supplement. Furthermore, some sections would not have been visible to some respondents—for instance, the section on childcare in the field would not be visible to respondents with no children.


We are thankful to the participants in this study who shared their personal stories and insights with our team and the colleagues whose lived experiences helped us identify the need for greater research into the topic. This study was partially inspired by and developed for a session about problems and priorities in biocultural field research organized by Lesley Jo Weaver and Christopher Lynn at the 2015 American Anthropological Association meeting. Early results from this study were presented at the 2016 meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. We are grateful to both organizations for enabling us to develop this project and ideas. Finally, thanks to Cara Ocobock, Lesley Jo Weaver, and Sharon DeWitte for helpful comments on early drafts of this article.

Funding Statement

The authors received no specific funding for this work.

Data Availability

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Learning Geography Beyond the Traditional Classroom pp 11–33 Cite as

Learning in the Field—A Conceptual Approach to Field-Based Learning in Geography

  • Diganta Das 5 &
  • Kalyani Chatterjea 5  
  • First Online: 09 May 2018

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4 Citations

Fieldwork has been considered a hallmark of geographical education by teachers and researchers alike. In the literature review by Kent et al. ( 1997 ) on the issue of the effectiveness and importance of fieldwork in geographical education, field studies were found to provide the integration of the theoretical with practical concepts taught in the classrooms. Also, Kent et al. ( 1997 ) proposed that fieldwork is commonly accepted as a process that encourages holistic geographical understanding of issues. However, some school teachers commonly conduct fieldwork as field trips where they are in reality just tours or excursions (Chang and Ooi 2008 ). Students remain largely passive and assume the roles of tourists. Inevitably, these field trips can be less academic, as students are not deeply engaged in the fieldwork process (Brown 1969 ). On the other hand, properly organized and academically well-articulated field trips can provide students with learning experiences, comparative knowledge, critical understanding as well as skills that are important to an understanding of the world around them (Kent et al. 1997 ). In practice, many of the fieldwork activities conducted by teachers fall somewhere in the middle on both dimensions. This chapter provides a conceptualization of how an effective field learning experience can be conducted. With a literature review of the range of practices across contexts, the chapter will then uncover steps to identify the issue in the field under study and develop a question, to gather and collect data, to process and reorganize the data, and to reflect and make sense of the information collected. While this simple approach is common to most inquiry-based learning, it provides a clear framework for teachers to conduct meaningful learning of geography in the field.

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  • Geography Education
  • Geography Fieldwork
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Das, D., Chatterjea, K. (2018). Learning in the Field—A Conceptual Approach to Field-Based Learning in Geography. In: Chang, CH., Wu, B., Seow, T., Irvine, K. (eds) Learning Geography Beyond the Traditional Classroom. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-8705-9_2

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Home • Knowledge hub • What is Fieldwork in Market Research?

What is Fieldwork in Market Research?

fieldwork market research studies

Definition of Fieldwork

Fieldwork in market research refers to the collection of primary data directly from the source or field. This involves various techniques such as surveys, interviews, observations, and experiments conducted with targeted groups or individuals. The main aim of fieldwork is to gather raw data, providing firsthand, in-depth, and accurate information about customers’ behaviors, attitudes, preferences, or any other aspects needed for the study. This data is then used to make informed decisions or predictions about the market.

History of Fieldwork

The history of fieldwork in market research is as old as the history of market research itself. It dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when businesses began recognizing the need for informed decisions based on customers’ perspectives. The modern practice of fieldwork, as part of the market research process, took shape after World War II, when there was increased competition in the market, leading to the need for more detailed consumer insights.

Initial fieldwork methodologies were very traditional, heavily relying on door-to-door surveys and in-person interviews. As technology advanced, fieldwork methodologies have also evolved significantly. They now incorporate online surveys, telephone interviews, video interviews, social media analytics, mobile data collection, etc., allowing researchers to reach larger and more diverse audiences.

  • Surveys : One of the most common types of fieldwork. They can be conducted face-to-face, via telephone, or online. For instance, a beverage company could survey consumers about their flavor preferences for new product development.
  • Interviews : These can be structured (with pre-defined questions) or unstructured (more open-ended). An example could be a car manufacturer conducting face-to-face interviews to understand consumers’ thoughts on their latest car model.
  • Observations : Here, the researcher observes consumers in their natural settings. An example could be a clothing retailer observing consumer behavior in their store to understand how they interact with different product displays.
  • Experiments : These are typically set up in controlled environments to test specific variables. For instance, a restaurant might experiment with different menu designs to see which results in higher sales.

Is the term fieldwork in market research known by any other names?

The term “fieldwork” in market research is often interchangeably used with several other terms, depending on the context and specific methods used. Some of these include:

  • Primary Research : This term is used because fieldwork involves collecting original or primary data that has not been previously gathered. However, primary research also includes other techniques like experiments and content analysis, which may or may not be considered fieldwork, depending on their design.
  • Data Collection : This is a more general term that refers to gathering information. Fieldwork is a type of data collection that occurs directly from the source or field.
  • Ethnographic Research : While technically a type of fieldwork, this term is often used when the research involves immersive observation of the subject in their natural environment over extended periods.
  • Survey Research : This term is commonly used when fieldwork primarily involves using surveys to gather information from a sample of individuals.

It’s important to note that while these terms often overlap with the concept of fieldwork in market research, they each have their nuances and specificities. Hence, the appropriate term to use would depend on the context and the precise nature of the research being conducted.

Fieldwork Use Cases

Fieldwork in market research has a broad spectrum of applications across various industries. Here are some common use cases:

  • Product Development : Companies often conduct fieldwork to gather insights about consumer preferences and needs, which can guide the development of new products or services.
  • Brand Positioning : Fieldwork helps understand consumers’ perceptions of a brand and its competitors, assisting in devising effective positioning strategies.
  • Customer Satisfaction : By gathering firsthand data from customers, businesses can gauge the level of customer satisfaction and identify areas of improvement.
  • Advertising Testing : Fieldwork can be used to test the effectiveness of advertising campaigns, with feedback used to optimize future efforts.
  • Market Segmentation : Fieldwork helps in identifying different customer groups based on their behaviors, attitudes, and needs, aiding in the creation of targeted marketing strategies.

Fieldwork is a vital component of market research, offering a direct line to consumer insights and behaviors. Its robust methodologies, adaptable to changing market and technological conditions, make it a reliable tool for any business looking to succeed in its market.

Trends in Fieldwork in Market Research

As an integral part of market research, fieldwork is continually evolving, keeping pace with technological advancements and changing consumer behaviors. Some notable trends shaping the future of fieldwork include:

  • Mobile Fieldwork : As smartphones become ubiquitous, they play a key role in shaping fieldwork methodologies. Mobile surveys are gaining traction thanks to their convenience and the ability to reach a broader audience. These surveys allow respondents to provide data in real-time, anywhere, at any time, providing researchers with immediate, valuable insights. An added advantage is leveraging smartphone features like geolocation and multimedia capabilities, enriching the data collected.
  • Social Media Analytics : Social media platforms have become a goldmine of consumer behavior data. As consumers share their preferences, opinions, and experiences on these platforms, they leave a trail of valuable data points. By observing and analyzing these interactions, researchers can gain profound insights into consumer sentiments and trends. This practice is growing rapidly due to its potential to provide unfiltered, authentic, and timely data.
  • AI and Machine Learning in Fieldwork : AI and machine learning technologies are revolutionizing fieldwork data processing and analysis. They provide sophisticated tools to handle large and complex data sets, reducing the time and effort traditionally required for data analysis. These technologies can uncover hidden patterns, predict trends, and provide deeper insights, thus enhancing the value derived from fieldwork. With the increase in computational power and the availability of big data, the role of AI and machine learning in fieldwork is set to expand.

These trends are evidence of an exciting evolution in the field of market research. Embracing these changes will enable researchers to conduct fieldwork more efficiently, effectively and deliver more accurate and actionable insights. As market research continues to evolve, it will be intriguing to see how these trends will further shape the future of fieldwork.

Challenges in Fieldwork in Market Research

While fieldwork plays a crucial role in market research, it has its hurdles. Understanding these challenges can help refine strategies and lead to more effective data collection and analysis. Here are some common challenges faced by researchers:

Data Quality : One of the foremost challenges in fieldwork is ensuring the quality of the data collected. Several factors can affect this:

  • Respondent Fatigue : This occurs when respondents become tired or bored during data collection, leading to hurried or careless responses, thus affecting the data’s reliability.
  • Bias : Bias can creep in from various sources – from the researcher’s side (e.g., leading questions) or from the respondent’s side (e.g., social desirability bias where respondents answer in a way they believe is socially acceptable rather than being truthful). Managing these biases is crucial to obtaining accurate data.
  • Dishonesty : Some respondents may provide false information, either deliberately or unintentionally. Such misinformation can skew the research results.

Ethical Considerations : Fieldwork must be conducted responsibly, respecting participants’ rights and privacy:

  • Privacy : Protecting respondent privacy is critical, especially with data protection regulations like GDPR. Researchers must ensure that personal data is collected, stored, and used ethically and legally.
  • Informed Consent : Researchers must ensure respondents understand the purpose of the research, what their participation involves, and their rights, including the right to withdraw from the study at any time without repercussions.
  • Sensitive Topics or Vulnerable Populations : Extra care must be taken when dealing with sensitive topics or vulnerable populations, such as children or people with disabilities. Appropriate measures should be implemented to ensure their comfort and safety during the research process.

Conducting Fieldwork in Rural Versus Urban Areas

Fieldwork in both rural and urban settings has its unique set of opportunities and challenges, given the differences in these environments.

Urban Areas:

Urban areas generally have a higher population density, diverse demographics, and better connectivity. This makes it easier to find and reach target respondents for fieldwork. However, urban respondents may have higher expectations for incentives or maybe less available due to busy lifestyles. There could also be more distractions, potentially affecting data quality.

Rural Areas:

Rural areas, on the other hand, may pose logistical challenges due to lower population density, less developed infrastructure, and potentially greater geographical distances between respondents. However, rural populations may be more available and willing to participate in fieldwork studies. It is also important to be aware of cultural and social norms, which may vary greatly from urban areas, and to adapt research methods accordingly.

Conducting Fieldwork in Multiple Countries

Fieldwork across different countries provides the opportunity to gather diverse and rich data. It enables comparative studies and offers insights into different markets. However, it also comes with its own set of challenges:

  • Cultural Differences : Different countries have different cultural norms, values, and behaviors, which could affect the conduct and interpretation of fieldwork. Ensuring cultural sensitivity and understanding these differences is vital for successful fieldwork.
  • Language Barriers : Communication can be challenging if the researchers and respondents do not share a common language. It may be necessary to hire local fieldworkers or translators.
  • Legal and Ethical Considerations : Different countries may have different laws and regulations around data collection, privacy, and research ethics. It is important to understand and comply with these.
  • Logistical Challenges : Time zones, travel arrangements, and scheduling can all present logistical difficulties when conducting fieldwork across multiple countries.

To overcome these challenges, careful planning, adequate resources, cultural training, and collaboration with local partners can be beneficial. By taking into account these considerations, fieldwork in different geographical and cultural contexts can yield valuable insights.

Key Considerations for Brands Conducting Fieldwork Research

Fieldwork can provide invaluable insights for brands, but it’s essential to approach it thoughtfully. Here are some crucial considerations:

  • Defining Clear Objectives : The first step in any research initiative is to clearly outline what you hope to learn. The objectives of the fieldwork must be defined upfront to guide the design of the research methodology.
  • Selection of Appropriate Methodology : Depending on the research objectives, brands should choose the right mix of fieldwork methods – surveys, interviews, observations, etc. The chosen methods should effectively gather the required information and be feasible in the given context.
  • Sample Selection : Brands must determine who they will include in their fieldwork research. The sample should represent the population they want to make inferences about. Proper sample selection ensures the reliability and validity of the study.
  • Training of Fieldworkers : The quality of data collected heavily relies on the skills of the researchers. Brands need to ensure that fieldwork researchers are adequately trained to conduct the research ethically and effectively, minimizing bias.
  • Data Analysis : The data collected during fieldwork needs to be appropriately analyzed to derive meaningful insights. This might require statistical expertise and the use of appropriate data analysis tools.
  • Respecting Privacy and Ethical Considerations : Brands must conduct their fieldwork per ethical guidelines and respect participants’ privacy. They need to ensure informed consent, anonymity, and data protection.
  • Budget and Timeline : Brands must consider their resources in terms of budget and timeline. Fieldwork can be time-consuming and potentially expensive depending on the scale, so proper planning is necessary to ensure efficiency.
  • Incorporating Findings into Strategy : Finally, brands should plan how to use the insights gathered from fieldwork. The findings should inform decision-making, strategy development, and improvement initiatives.

By considering these factors, brands can ensure their fieldwork research is effective, efficient, and beneficial to their strategic goals.

The Advantage of Partnering with a Market Research Company

Choosing to collaborate with a market research agency, particularly one as established as Kadence International, can be a strategic decision for brands for several reasons:

  • Expertise : Market research agencies like Kadence bring a wealth of expertise in various research methodologies, including fieldwork. We know how to design effective research studies, choose appropriate data collection methods, select representative samples, and analyze data to derive meaningful insights.
  • Experience Across Markets : Kadence International, with its global footprint, has experience conducting research in diverse markets. We understand cultural nuances, local market dynamics, and regional consumer behavior, which can be invaluable in multinational research.
  • Access to Tools and Technologies : Market research agencies often have access to advanced research tools and technologies. This can range from sophisticated data analysis software to mobile or online survey platforms. These tools can enhance the efficiency and accuracy of the research.
  • Time and Resource Efficiency : Conducting fieldwork can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. By outsourcing this task to a market research agency, brands can focus on their core competencies. Also, agencies often have established processes and resources to conduct research more quickly and efficiently.
  • Impartiality : An external agency can bring an objective perspective to the research. They can minimize biases that may inadvertently creep into internally conducted research.
  • Actionable Recommendations : Beyond data collection and analysis, market research agencies often provide actionable recommendations based on their findings. They can help translate research insights into strategic implications, making it easier for brands to apply the learnings.

Partnering with a market research agency like Kadence International can enhance the quality, efficiency, and impact of fieldwork research, driving informed decision-making and strategic success for brands.

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The review +, the case for field experiments in behavioral research.

20 March 2024

Research by

  • Hengchen Dai
  • Silvia Saccardo
  • Sitaram Vangala
  • Communications
  • Health Care

Nudges already proven to work in the real-world increased uptake of COVID-19 boosters; nudges based on lab findings and expert insights, not so much

The COVID-19 pandemic presented the field of behavioral science with an insanely consequential and robust real-world testing ground. Once vaccinations became available, the challenge was to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated.

UCLA Anderson’s Hengchen Dai and Carnegie Mellon’s Silvia Saccardo, along with UCLA Health’s Maria Han, Daniel Croymans and other co-authors, contributed to this field-testing bonanza with a large-scale real-world research project in 2021 that studied the effectiveness of a series of specific text nudges sent to nearly 100,000 patients of the UCLA Health System to remind them they were eligible for a jab.

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That research, published in Nature, found that a text nudge promoting a sense of ownership with a personalized note to “ Claim your dose by making a vaccination appointment ” was more effective than a text that simply provided a link to the online vaccination scheduling tool.

Theory Vs. Practice

The same research also unearthed an interesting schism between theory and practice for one particular type of nudge. In online experiments conducted via Amazon Mechanical Turk and Prolific Academic, participants who were shown a video about the value of COVID-19 vaccinations reported a higher probability of getting vaccinated. That finding was in line with other research suggesting the same promise that informational videos might increase vaccination intentions. But when the video was put into a real-world test in the 2021 field test, adding a link to the video in a text message didn’t increase uptake.

Dai and Saccardo, along with UCLA Geffen School of Medicine’s Han, Sitaram Vangala, Juyea Hoo and Jeffrey Fujimoto, are now back with fresh research that drills down on this potential disconnect between what people in a hypothetical scenario say they will do, and what people actually do in the real world. 

COVID-19 vaccines were once again the focal point in their new field experiment. This time they tested various nudges gleaned from different forms of research — prior field tests, online surveys, expert predictions — for their effectiveness in getting people to schedule the booster vaccine.

In an article publishe d in Nature Human Behavior, the authors report that nudges that had proven effective in prior real-world field tests were also effective in encouraging people to get a booster vaccination, including the “ownership” framing from their earlier COVID-19 research. 

But nudges based on hypothetical findings or expert predictions got lost in real-world translation, failing to increase the likelihood of receiving the booster shot.

“While hypothetical surveys and self-reports are undoubtedly valuable for providing foundational evidence on the mechanisms of human behavior, our findings suggest that they may not always translate to complex real-world situations where various factors can affect behavior,” they write.

Taking a Shot at Increasing Booster Uptake

The researchers texted more than 300,000 patients in the UCLA health system one of 14 messages that prior field tests, lab research or expert surveys suggested might encourage them to get the booster shot; a control group did not receive any text message. 

The previously field-tested effective nudges of a simple reminder, and a note playing up the psychological sense of ownership (claim your dose), compelled more patients to get a booster than simply being told the booster was available.

All other nudges, gleaned from research dependent on hypothetical scenarios or expert predictions, fell flat.

A series of a half-dozen text nudges were aimed at pulling at psychological strings, which prior lab research has shown can shift behavior. One message pushed the notion of consistency (hey, given you completed the first round of vaccinations…), another strove to appeal to “uniqueness” briefly explaining the booster was indeed different in that it was designed to attack the most prevalent COVID-19 strains at that stage of the pandemic. Another played up the “severity” or fear factor, texting “the chances that a healthy adult will develop severe or long-lasting COVID-19 symptoms are higher than many people realize.”  

In the field test, these nudges weren’t effective. That is counter to what the researchers found when they tested the same six nudges in an online Mechanical Turk survey of more than 1,700 participants: Five of the six nudges in that hypothetical survey “significantly” increased a participant’s likelihood of scheduling a booster shot.

There was a similar disconnect when the researchers field tested the value of nudges that bundled messaging of getting a COVID-19 booster shot with a seasonal flu vaccine. A small survey of behavioral experts and a separate survey of regular folk suggested a nudge that combined messaging about both protective vaccinations would be more effective than just a simple text reminder of the bivalent booster. But when tested in the real world, the bundling nudges didn’t move the needle. 

Though the researchers take care to point out their findings are limited to the field of COVID-19 booster vaccinations, they also center their work as part of the intensifying conversation about the real-world efficacy of research built on hypotheticals or theoretical assumptions.

“Growing concerns about the replicability and reliability of scientific findings have sparked a much-needed conversation about the importance of scientific rigor,” the authors write in. “While hypothetical surveys and self-reports are undoubtedly valuable for providing foundational evidence on the mechanisms of human behavior, our findings suggest that they may not always translate to complex real-world situations where various factors can affect behavior.”

At a minimum this seems to suggest that before resources are devoted to the implementation of any type of nudge at a policy or institutional level, it should first be taken for a spin in a real-world road test.

Featured Faculty

Associate Professor of Management and Organizations and Behavioral Decision Making

Chief Quality Officer for the UCLA Health Department of Medicine and Assistant Clinical Professor

David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA

About the Research

Saccardo, S., Dai, H., Han, M.A., Vangala, S., Hoo, J. & Fujimoto, J. (2024). Field-Testing the Transferability of Behavioural Science Knowledge on Promoting Vaccinations.

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    Travel restrictions and social distancing practices put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have largely ground field research to a halt. Fieldwork plays an essential but often underappreciated role in both understanding violent extremism and developing policy responses to it. It is vital, therefore, that funders and policymakers support the return of such important work in a post ...

  15. Field Research explained

    The definition of Field research. Field research is a qualitative research method that focuses on observing and understanding individuals, groups, communities or society as a whole. It aims to capture authentic and contextual data by immersing researchers in the environments they study. Through direct observation and interaction with subjects ...

  16. How to Conduct Field Research Study?

    It is essential to acquire researchers who are specialized in the field of research. Moreover, their experience in the field will help them undergo the further steps of conducting the field research. 2. Identify the topic of research. Post acquiring the researcher, they will work on identifying the topic of research.

  17. What is Field Research: Meaning, Examples, Pros & Cons

    Communicating Results: Once the data is analyzed, communicate the results to the stakeholders involved in the research so that the relevant action required based on the results can be decided and carried out promptly. Reasons to Conduct Field Research. Field research has been widely used in the 20th century in the social sciences.

  18. What Is Field Research?: Definition, Types and Examples

    Field research refers to the process and methods of gathering qualitative data about the interactions of people or groups in their natural environments. Social scientists use field research methods to collect information and develop new theories about sociology, human nature and interpersonal interactions. Field research aims to establish and ...

  19. Family and the field: Expectations of a field-based research career

    Addressing barriers between women and fieldwork. Field-based data collection provides an extraordinary opportunity for comparative research. However, the demands of pursuing research away from home creates an expectation of socially unencumbered individuals who have the temporal, financial, and social resources to conduct this work.

  20. Learning in the Field—A Conceptual Approach to Field-Based ...

    In the literature review by Kent et al. ( 1997) on the issue of the effectiveness and importance of fieldwork in geographical education, field studies were found to provide the integration of the theoretical with practical concepts taught in the classrooms. Also, Kent et al. ( 1997) proposed that fieldwork is commonly accepted as a process that ...

  21. What Does a Field Researcher Do? (With Skills and Salary)

    A field researcher is a professional who conducts research and collects data outside of laboratory settings. They can work in a variety of fields, including biology, anthropology, sociology or political science. They may collect data for universities, research institutions, think tanks, government agencies or private companies.

  22. What is Fieldwork in Market Research?

    Fieldwork in market research refers to the collection of primary data directly from the source or field. This involves various techniques such as surveys, interviews, observations, and experiments conducted with targeted groups or individuals. The main aim of fieldwork is to gather raw data, providing firsthand, in-depth, and accurate ...

  23. The Case for Field Experiments in Behavioral Research

    That research, published in Nature, found that a text nudge promoting a sense of ownership with a personalized note to "Claim your dose by making a vaccination appointment " was more effective than a text that simply provided a link to the online vaccination scheduling tool.. Theory Vs. Practice. The same research also unearthed an interesting schism between theory and practice for one ...

  24. Question is ⇒ Field-work based research is classified as:, Options are

    Question is ⇒ Field-work based research is classified as:, Options are ⇒ (A) Historical, (B) Empirical, (C) Biographical, (D) Experimental, (E) , Leave your comments or Download question paper. ... The research is carried out keeping in mind the possibilities of an incident

  25. Amadeus Harte and Yanping Ni Present Fieldwork Proposals to Department

    Amadeus Harte and Yanping Ni, third-year graduate students in Anthropology, presented their fieldwork proposals to the Department of Anthropology community on March 29th. Amadeus Harte's fieldwork proposal is titled, "Psychedelics: A Paradigm Shift in Psychiatry? An ethnography of a clinical trial using LSD to Treat Addiction." During this year...