What are the major steps and challenges involved in undertaking fieldwork? 

Expert Answers
Jessica Pope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Scholars of religion, sociology, psychology and cultural anthropology use ethnographic fieldwork to collect data on communities and cultures across the world. Ethnographic fieldwork involves numerous steps. A scholar must first identify a research plan and conduct a literature review. He must examine the current body of information, data, and theories associated with his proposed research. Scholars studying remote locales or obscure phenomenon may experience challenges in the literature review step. There may not be much information available, or the information available may be in a language the scholar does not speak. In this case, it might be difficult for the scholar to figure out what specific questions to research, or how to organize his research project.

After conducting a survey of the current literature, an ethnographer usually sets out to establish contacts in the field. Much like an investigative journalist covering war or military operations, an ethnographer must carefully choose his contacts. He then spends time, energy, and resources building a rapport of trust between himself and potential contacts. Finding contacts can be difficult if the ethnographer does not speak the native language. Even without a language barrier, building trust with potential contacts usually requires much patience and time.

Finally, ethnographers go out into the field and conduct their ethnographic research. They often live with the community they study; participating in religious, cultural, and social rituals, and engaging in everyday work and leisure activities with members of the community. During this stage of ethnographic fieldwork, researchers sometimes experience culture shock: a sense of loneliness, alienation and overwhelming anxiety. These psychological challenges can interfere with the quality of their scholarly research and may even threaten the health and psychological wellness of the researcher.