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Fieldwork Methodology

A guide to preparing for and performing fieldwork in the social sciences

Fieldwork Methodologies

The Smithsonian Institution has a free downloadable guide to oral history interviewing.

Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide

The American Folklife Center has a great page on fieldwork techniques, from a classic how-to guide.

Folklife and Fieldwork: An Introduction to Field Techniques

The Veterans History Project has a great field kit you could alter, particularly the audio/video and photo logs.

VHP Field Kit and Individual Forms

Folklorist and social justice advocate Kiran Sirah has a free toolkit with specific guidance on interviewing methods and project ideas.

Telling Stories That Matter Toolkit

The Local Learning Network's Tools page has interview tips, links to interview guides, and a sample consent form you can alter.

Local Learning Tools

The Online QDA (Qualitative Data Analysis) website has a fairly comprehensive listing of various methodologies, with definitions, examples, and further reading. Some entries are more robust than others.

Online QDA: Methodologies

The same website also has a series of tutorials on qualitative research. See especially the tutorials on project design and data collection.

Online QDA: Tutorials

This YouTube channel by Graham R. Gibbs (University of Huddersfield) includes a series of videos on grounded theory, surveys and sampling, questionnaire design, the research interview, social research methods and design, and more:

Research Methods in the Social Sciences

Fieldwork Tips

Participant-Observation

It’s important to create rapport with the community you are in. You want to collaborate rather than observe coldly from the sidelines. Sometimes this means participating in events that are boring or outside your comfort range. For example, I sometimes find myself staying up later than I like or perhaps eating something I’m not fond of. But trust your intuition if you feel uncomfortable, and always keep your own safety (emotional and physical) your top priority.

Fieldnotes

Fieldnotes help you remember your experiences. You will forget things otherwise! I tend to bring a notebook with me and jot things down when possible, and then type up my notes and expand on them at the end of the day. Include the date, day of the week, time, where you were, who you spoke to, and the topics you spoke about (as detailed as you can). Remember the affective dimension- how did you feel? Was there shared laughter? A somber mood? Did the person sit close to you? Did they avoid eye contact? Did they gesture as they spoke? Doodling, for example architecture or food, might also help you remember what you saw.

Interviewing

If you are using consent forms, offer to read them out loud, to avoid embarrassing anyone who may not be literate or a fast reader. Also make sure you use natural language rather than jargon. Explain what it means to be named in a research paper- who might read it? Would they prefer a pseudonym? Also, be sure to ask permission to record and to take photographs if you want to do that. Always explain what you are doing with the information and give them a way to say no.

Take notes on affect, location, gesture, proximity, etc. during the interview. Did the participant pause a lot when talking about a certain thing? Were they excited and speaking fast? Were they animated, using large gestures? Were they keeping their bodies small and still?

Remember, this is a human interaction. It’s okay for you to be human too. People will likely ask you questions too. You can decide if you want to answer them honestly.

Always end the interview by thanking them. They gave their time as well as their honesty about personal things. It’s a gift.

Visual Documentation

Photographs and video can be useful just for remembering your experience and the people you collaborated with. Or you may want to use it to augment your written thesis, or for a different kind of project (documentary, website, poster presentation, conference presentation, future classes you teach, and so on). Make sure you ask permission of anybody you photograph or video record. Some people may expect payment of some kind, so be prepared with some sort of response.

Questionnaires

Questionnaires can be useful for a few different reasons. You might use them as a survey tool at the beginning, to figure out who you want to follow up with an in-depth interview. Or you might use them to accompany an interview, for example to record demographic information.

Questionnaires are not a good idea if your participants are not literate or have difficulty with vision or hand mobility.

Make sure to word questions as inclusively as possible. Allow space for all identities and don’t make any assumptions. Free text answers take longer but can be more respectful than multiple choice. Also, don’t just ask ALL the demographic questions without considering which are actually important to your research.

Finding Participants

If you're lucky, you might have a ready-made group of people willing to talk to you. This is rarely the case! Field researchers often have to stretch their interpersonal comfort levels to meet people. Here are some suggestions:

  • Think about local community organizations related to your topic. Could you talk to someone there about providing an introduction?
  • Are you doing research in a small community? Consider typical community meeting spaces such as markets, churches, and parks.
  • Are you doing research on the Internet? Ask relevant forum admins if you can post. Also think about harnessing Facebook and other social media platforms and asking people to reblog and share.
  • Is the group you hope to work with difficult to access? You may need to ask permission from somebody in a leadership position.
  • Don't forget to network. Every time you have a positive interaction, ask the person if they would be willing to introduce you to somebody else.

What Do I Call Them?

The question of what we call the people who talk to us is a fraught one. Terms are imprecise and often have troublesome connotations. Here are some possibilities:

  • Informant: someone who provides information. However, also used by government agencies.
  • Subject: perhaps useful if you never meet the person and interact as a human being.
  • Source: same as above.
  • Respondent: implies a one-way exchange.
  • Interviewee: functional, but narrow.
  • Participant: implies agency, but also implies ownership, which may or may not be ideal.
  • Colleague: same as above.
  • Consultant: respectful but sometimes confusing.
  • Friend: use only if true.

Challenges

There is no such thing as a perfect fieldwork experience! Expectations and reality don't always match up, technology may fail, a participant may decide they'd rather not be recorded, you might get lost and show up late, and so on. Don't despair: it's always a learning experience and these things happen to the most experienced field researcher. Here are some common challenges you may want to prepare for:

  • You may be flirted with, especially if you are female-bodied. This can be awkward if every interaction turns into a request for a date when you'd really prefer to talk about your work. There's no magic answer for what to do: you might laugh it off, you might decide to talk to someone else, you might make up a spouse, or you might find that a certain level of "safe" flirting is conducive to rapport. Use your best judgment and think carefully about your boundaries.
  • You may be lied to, either because someone doesn't want you asking questions, or because someone thinks it's funny, or even because someone really wants you to succeed and gives you the answers they think you want. That's okay- it's useful information, in its own way. Hopefully, you'll talk to enough people that you can easily pick out data that doesn't match.
  • You may be asked for money or other resources. Depending on your academic department and approved fieldwork plan, you may decide to pay informants a small stipend for their assistance. If this is not in your plan or your budget, though, this could be awkward if it comes up. I often offer something small and symbolic as a thanks- whether it's treating the person to a coffee for the interview or offering to email them any photos I took. Be careful though; there's a line between respectful compensation and bribery.
  • Your technology may (will probably at some point) fail. ALWAYS have backup batteries and a plan B.