Chapter 12: Field Research: A Qualitative Research Technique

12.4 Getting In and Choosing a Site

When embarking on a field research project, there are two major aspects to consider. The first is where to observe and the second is what role you will take in your field site. Your decision about each of these will be shaped by a number of factors, over some of which you will have control and others you will not. Your decision about where to observe and what role to play will also have consequences for the data you are able to gather and how you analyze and share those data with others. We will examine each of these contingencies in the following subsections.

Your research question might determine where you observe, by, but because field research often works inductively, you may not have a totally focused question before you begin your observations. In some cases, field researchers choose their final research question once they embark on data collection. Other times, they begin with a research question but remain open to the possibility that their focus may shift as they gather data. In either case, when you choose a site, there are a number of factors to consider. These questions include:

  1. What do you hope to accomplish with your field research?
  2. What is your topical/substantive interest?
  3. Where are you likely to observe behaviour that has something to do with that topic?
  4. How likely is it that you will actually have access to the locations that are of interest to you?
  5. How much time do you have to conduct your participant observations?
  6. Will your participant observations be limited to a single location, or will you observe in multiple locations?

Perhaps the best place to start, as you work to identify a site or sites for your field research, is to think about your limitations. One limitation that could shape where you conduct participant observation is time. Field researchers typically immerse themselves in their research sites for many months, sometimes even years. As demonstrated in Table 12.1 “Field Research Examples”, other field researchers have spent as much or even more time in the field. Do you have several years available to conduct research, or are you seeking a smaller-scale field research experience? How much time do you have to participate and observe per day? Per week? Identifying how available you’ll be in terms of time will help you determine where and what sort of research sites to choose. Also think about where you live and whether travel is an option for you. Some field researchers move to live with or near their population of interest. Is this something you might consider? How you answer these questions will shape how you identify your research site. Where might your field research questions take you?

In choosing a site, also consider how your social location might limit what or where you can study. The ascribed aspects of our locations are those that are involuntary, such as our age or race or mobility. For example, how might your ascribed status as an adult shape your ability to conduct complete participation in a study of children’s birthday parties? The achieved aspects of our locations, on the other hand, are those about which we have some choice. In field research, we may also have some choice about whether, or the extent to which, we reveal the achieved aspects of our identities.

Finally, in choosing a research site, consider whether your research will be a collaborative project or whether you are on your own. Collaborating with others has many benefits; you can cover more ground, and therefore collect more data, than you can on your own. Having collaborators in any research project, but especially field research, means having others with whom to share your trials and tribulations in the field. However, collaborative research comes with its own set of challenges, such as possible personality conflicts among researchers, competing commitments in terms of time and contributions to the project, and differences in methodological or theoretical perspectives (Shaffir, Marshall, & Haas, 1979). When considering something that is of interest to you, consider also whether you have possible collaborators. How might having collaborators shape the decisions you make about where to conduct participant observation?

This section began by asking you to think about limitations that might shape your field site decisions. But it makes sense to also think about the opportunities—social, geographic, and otherwise—that your location affords. Perhaps you are already a member of an organization where you would like to conduct research. Maybe you know someone who knows someone else who might be able to help you access a site. Perhaps you have a friend you could stay with, enabling you to conduct participant observations away from home. Choosing a site for participation is shaped by all these factors—your research question and area of interest, a few limitations, some opportunities, and sometimes a bit of being in the right place at the right time.

Choosing a role

As with choosing a research site, some limitations and opportunities beyond your control might shape the role you take once you begin your participant observation. You will also need to make some deliberate decisions about how you enter the field and who you will be once you are in.

In terms of entering the field, one of the earliest decisions you will need to make is whether to be overt or covert. As an overt researcher, you enter the field with your research participants having some awareness about the fact that they are the subjects of social scientific research. Covert researchers, on the other hand, enter the field as though they are full participants, opting not to reveal that they are also researchers or that the group they’ve joined is being studied. As you might imagine, there are pros and cons to both approaches. A critical point to keep in mind is that whatever decision you make about how you enter the field will affect many of your subsequent experiences in the field.

As an overt researcher, you may experience some trouble establishing rapport at first. Having an insider at the site who can vouch for you will certainly help, but the knowledge that subjects are being watched will inevitably (and understandably) make some people uncomfortable and possibly cause them to behave differently than they would, were they not aware of being research subjects. Because field research is typically a sustained activity that occurs over several months or years, it is likely that participants will become more comfortable with your presence over time. Overt researchers also avoid a variety of moral and ethical dilemmas that they might otherwise face.

As a covert researcher, “getting in” your site might be quite easy; however, once you are in, you may face other issues. Some questions to consider are:

  1. How long would you plan to conceal your identity?
  2. How might participants respond once they discover you’ve been studying them?
  3. How will you respond if asked to engage in activities you find unsettling or unsafe?

Researcher, Jun Li (2008) struggled with the ethical challenges of “getting in” to interview female gamblers as a covert researcher. Her research was part of a post-doctoral fellowship from the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre to study female gambling culture. In response to these ethical aspects, she changed her research role to overt; however, in her overt role female gamblers were reluctant to “speak their minds” to her (p. 100). As such, she once again adjusted her level of involvement in the study to one who participated in female gambling culture as an insider and observed as an outsider. You can read her interesting story at the following link:

Beyond your own personal level of comfort with deceiving participants and willingness to take risks, it is possible that the decision about whether or not to enter the field covertly will be made for you. If you are conducting research while associated with any federally funded agency (and even many private entities), your institutional review board (IRB) probably will have something to say about any planned deception of research subjects. Some IRBs approve deception, but others look warily upon a field researcher engaging in covert participation. The extent to which your research site is a public location, where people may not have an expectation of privacy, might also play a role in helping you decide whether covert research is a reasonable approach.

Having an insider at your site who can vouch for you is helpful. Such insiders, with whom a researcher may have some prior connection or a closer relationship than with other site participants, are called key informants. A key informant can provide a framework for your observations, help translate what you observe, and give you important insight into a group’s culture. If possible, having more than one key informant at a site is ideal, as one informant’s perspective may vary from another’s.

Once you have made a decision about how to enter your field site, you will need to think about the role you will adopt while there. Aside from being overt or covert, how close will you be to participants? In the words of Fred Davis (1973), [12] who coined these terms in reference to researchers’ roles, “will you be a Martian, a Convert, or a bit of both”? Davis describes the Martian role as one in which a field researcher stands back a bit, not fully immersed in the lives of his subjects, in order to better problematize, categorize, and see with the eyes of a newcomer what’s being observed. From the Martian perspective, a researcher should remain disentangled from too much engagement with participants. The Convert, on the other hand, intentionally dives right into life as a participant. From this perspective, it is through total immersion that understanding is gained. Which approach do you feel best suits you?

In the preceding section we examined how ascribed and achieved statuses might shape how or which sites are chosen for field research. They also shape the role the researcher adopts in the field site. The fact that the authors of this textbook are professors, for example, is an achieved status. We can choose the extent to which we share this aspect of our identities with field study participants. In some situations, sharing that we are professors may enhance our ability to establish rapport; in other field sites it might stifle conversation and rapport-building. As you have seen from the examples provided throughout this chapter, different field researchers have taken different approaches when it comes to using their social locations to help establish rapport and dealing with ascribed statuses that differ from those of their “subjects

Whatever role a researcher chooses, many of the points made in Chapter 11 “Quantitative Interview Techniques” regarding power and relationships with participants apply to field research as well. In fact, the researcher/researched relationship is even more complex in field studies, where interactions with participants last far longer than the hour or two it might take to interview someone. Moreover, the potential for exploitation on the part of the researcher is even greater in field studies, since relationships are usually closer and lines between research and personal or off-the-record interaction may be blurred. These precautions should be seriously considered before deciding to embark upon a field research project

Field notes

The aim with field notes is to record your observations as straightforwardly and, while in the field, as quickly as possible, in a way that makes sense to you. Field notes are the first—and a necessary—step toward developing quality analysis. They are also the record that affirms what you observed. In other words, field notes are not to be taken lightly or overlooked as unimportant; however, they are not usually intended for anything other than the researcher’s own purposes as they relate to recollections of people, places and things related to the research project.

Some say that there are two different kinds of field notes: descriptive and analytic. Though the lines between what counts as description and what counts as analysis can become blurred, the distinction is nevertheless useful when thinking about how to write and how to interpret field notes. In this section, we will focus on descriptive field notes. Descriptive field notes are notes that simply describe a field researcher’s observations as straightforwardly as possible. These notes typically do not contain explanations of, or comments about, those observations. Instead, the observations are presented on their own, as clearly as possible. In the following section, we will define and examine the uses and writing of analytic field notes more closely.

Analysis of field research data

Field notes are data. But moving from having pages of data to presenting findings from a field study in a way that will make sense to others requires that those data be analyzed. Analysis of field research data is the focus in this final section of the chapter.

From description to analysis

Writing and analyzing field notes involves moving from description to analysis. In Section 12.4 “Field Notes”, we considered field notes that are mostly descriptive in nature. In this section we will consider analytic field notes. Analytic field notes are notes that include the researcher’s impressions about his observations. Analyzing field note data is a process that occurs over time, beginning at the moment a field researcher enters the field and continuing as interactions happen in the field, as the researcher writes up descriptive notes, and as the researcher considers what those interactions and descriptive notes mean.

Often field notes will develop from a more descriptive state to an analytic state when the field researcher exits a given observation period, with messy jotted notes or recordings in hand (or in some cases, literally on hand), and sits at a computer to type up those notes into a more readable format. We have already noted that carefully paying attention while in the field is important; so is what goes on immediately upon exiting the field. Field researchers typically spend several hours typing up field notes after each observation has occurred. This is often where the analysis of field research data begins. Having time outside of the field to reflect upon your thoughts about what you have seen and the meaning of those observations is crucial to developing analysis in field research studies.

Once the analytic field notes have been written or typed up, the field researcher can begin to look for patterns across the notes by coding the data. This will involve the iterative process of open and focused coding that is outlined in Chapter 10, “Qualitative Data Collection & Analysis Methods.” As mentioned in Section 12.4 “Field Notes”, it is important to note as much as you possibly can while in the field and as much as you can recall after leaving the field because you never know what might become important. Things that seem decidedly unimportant at the time may later reveal themselves to have some relevance.

As mentioned in Chapter 10, analysis of qualitative data often works inductively. The analytic process of field researchers and others who conduct inductive analysis is referred to as grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Charmaz, 2006). The goal when employing a grounded theory approach is to generate theory. Its name not only implies that discoveries are made from the ground up but also that theoretical developments are grounded in a researcher’s empirical observations and a group’s tangible experiences. Grounded theory requires that one begin with an open-ended and open-minded desire to understand a social situation or setting and involves a systematic process whereby the researcher lets the data guide her rather than guiding the data by preset hypotheses.

As exciting as it might sound to generate theory from the ground up, the experience can also be quite intimidating and anxiety-producing, since the open nature of the process can sometimes feel a little out of control. Without hypotheses to guide their analysis, researchers engaged in grounded theory work may experience some feelings of frustration or angst. The good news is that the process of developing a coherent theory that is grounded in empirical observations can be quite rewarding, not only to researchers, but also to their peers, who can contribute to the further development of new theories through additional research, and to research participants who may appreciate getting a bird’s-eye view of their every day.


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