Chapter 12: Field Research: A Qualitative Research Technique

Learning Objectives

  • Define field research.
  • Define ethnography.
  • Explain the conditions under which it is appropriate to undertake field research.
  • Identify the pros and cons of field research.
  • Explain what is meant by “getting in” in the context of field research

If we wanted to know who conducts more of the housework in households, how could we find the answer? One way might be to interview people and simply ask them. That is exactly what Arlie Hochschild did in her study of “the second shift”, her term for the work that goes on in the home after the day’s work for pay is completed. Hochschild (1989) interviewed 50 heterosexual, married couples with children to learn about how they did, or did not, share the work of the second shift. Many of these couples reported to her that they shared the load of the second shift equally, sometimes dividing the house into areas that were “her” responsibility and those that were “his.” Hochschild was not satisfied with just people’s personal accounts of second-shift work. She chose to observe 12 of these couples in their homes as well, to see for herself just how the second shift was shared.

What Hochschild discovered was that even those couples who claimed to share the second shift did not have as equitable a division of duties as they had professed. For example, one couple who told Hochschild during their interview that they shared the household work equally had explained that the wife was responsible for the upstairs portion of the house and the husband took responsibility for the downstairs portion. Upon conducting observations in this couple’s home, however, Hochschild discovered that the upstairs portion of the house contained all the bedrooms and bathrooms, the kitchen, the dining room, and the living room, while the downstairs included a storage space and the garage. This division of labour meant that the woman actually carried the weight of responsibility for the second shift. Without a field research component to her study, Hochschild might never have uncovered these and other truths about couples’ behaviours and sharing (or not sharing) of household duties.

Overall, there are two reasons for doing research in the field. The first is that from a qualitative perspective, behaviour only has meaning in the context in which it occurs. Therefore “in context” is the only place where the behaviour can accurately be observed (Palys & Atchison, 2014). The second is that, if the reason we undertake field research is to understand behaviour, then field research is the most relevant and valid option because it enables the duplication of “in context” conditions that influence behaviour, and provides the behaviour with its meaning (Palys & Atchison, p. 11).