Chapter 12: Field Research: A Qualitative Research Technique

12.1 Field Research: What it is?

Field research is a qualitative method of data collection aimed at understanding, observing, and interacting with people in their natural settings. In the context of research, observation is more than just looking. It involves looking in a planned and strategic way with a purpose (Palys & Atchison, 2014, p. 189). As such, when social scientists talk about being in “the field,” they are talking about being out in the real world and involved in the everyday lives of the people they are studying. Sometimes researchers use the terms ethnography or participant observation to refer to this method of data collection; the former is most commonly used in anthropology, while the latter is used commonly in sociology. For our purposes, we will use two main terms: field research and participant observation. You might think of field research as an umbrella term that includes the myriad activities that field researchers engage in when they collect data: they participate; they observe; they usually interview some of the people they observe; and they typically analyze documents or artifacts created by the people they observe.

Researchers conducting participant observation vary in the extent to which they participate or observe. Palys and Atchison (2014, p. 198) refer to this as the “participant-observer continuum,” ranging from complete participant to complete observer. This continuum is demonstrated in Figure 12.1. However, these researchers, as to do other researchers, question whether a researcher can be at the “complete observer” end of the continuum. Rather, they contend, it is increasingly acknowledged that, even as an observer, the researcher is participating in what is being studied and therefore cannot really be a complete observer.

Figure 12.1 (Palys & Atchison, 2014)

Indeed, it is important to acknowledge that there are pros and cons associated with both aspects of the participant/observer’s role. For example, depending upon how fully researchers observer their subjects (as opposed to participating), they may miss important aspects of group interaction and may not have the opportunity to fully grasp what life is like for the people they observe. At the same time, sitting back and observing may grant researchers opportunities to see interactions that they would miss, were they more involved.

Ethnography is not to be confused with ethnomethodology. Ethnomethodology will be defined and described in Chapter13

Participation has the benefit of allowing researchers a real taste of life in the group that they study. Some argue that participation is the only way to understand what it is that is being investigated. On the other hand, fully immersed participants may find themselves in situations that they would rather not face but from which cannot excuse themselves because they have adopted the role of a fully immersed participant. Further, participants who do not reveal themselves as researchers must face the ethical quandary of possibly deceiving their subjects. In reality, much field research lies somewhere near the middle of the observer/participant continuum. Field researchers typically participate to at least some extent in their field sites, but there are also times when they may strictly observe.