Field Research Research Paper Starter

Field Research

(Research Starters)

Field research often falls under the purview of qualitative research. It is focused upon phenomena that occur in natural settings, or the field. Reviewed in this article are the conduct of and types of field research. In terms of types of field research, examples include ethnography, participant observation, and interviews. The conduct of field research involves the negotiation of entry into a setting where researchers engage within the field site for an extended period of time. Field notes often comprise the data gathered in field research and after a period of data analysis, results are written up and presented to constituents of a setting. Also discussed in the article are criticism of aspects of field research and issues relevant to the conduct of field research such as the relationship of the field researcher to the field site.

Keywords Case Studies; Entry; Ethnography; Field Notes; Field Research; Field Sites; Focus Groups; Interviews; Participant Observation; Qualitative Research


Across the fields of education, other areas of social science, such as psychology and anthropology, and in the natural sciences, it is research that is the means by which pertinent questions in myriad topics of interest are addressed. The two broad strategies for conducting research are through quantitative and qualitative methods. Quantitative research methods focus on data that can be quantified in numerical format and the statistical analysis of such data. Statistical analysis explores the relationship between variables as posited by hypotheses.

Qualitative research methods, on the other hand, center on data that is textual in format with hypotheses and theories that arise from the data gathered from naturalistic settings. Donmoyer (2006) referenced the mid-1980s as the date by which qualitative research was used more frequently within the field of education and gained a certain level of acceptance. Qualitative data can be gathered in a variety of ways including interviews, focus groups, and observations. Many of these data collection strategies comprise the area of qualitative research termed "field research." In fact, Atkinson and Shaffir (1998) denote field research as an aspect of ethnography and qualitative research in general.

Triandis (2000) succinctly defined field research as "a systematic investigation that is carried out in the field, as opposed to in a laboratory." (p. 430) According to Atkinson and Shaffir (1998) field research is "about studying phenomena in their natural setting." (p. 41) In that regard, field research is characterized by researchers' investment of themselves in the research that they conduct (Shaffir, Marshall, & Haas, 1979). Field researchers are guided by research questions that are grounded in hypotheses (Baxter, & Chua, 1998). Data is then gathered from several sources and is continually updated as new information is gained.

Conducting Field Research

One way of looking at the conduct of field research, or fieldwork as field research is also often referred, is through viewpoints described by Barley (1990) as synchronic, diachronic, and parallel. Barley defined synchronic analysis as cross-sectional in nature, diachronic analysis as longitudinal, and parallel analysis as a comparative strategy where data from synchronic and diachronic analyses can be used to compare different settings. Another perspective on the conduct of field research comes from Burke (1996) who posited eleven steps that comprise a field research endeavor. The steps are components of four sequential segments termed project identification and approval, project planning, project management, and project closure.

The project identification and approval segment of field research incorporates the initial idea on what to research, negotiating entry into the field site, and pitching the research idea within the field site (Burke, 1996). The most critical issue for individuals conducting field research is gaining entry in the field in which they intend to study which will involve participating in an ongoing process of negotiating access with gatekeepers within field sites (Baxter, & Chua, 1998).

Project Planning

During the project planning phase, field researchers highlight areas of concern that may extend the length of the research project, attend to human subjects' requirements, encourage participants in the research, and work to collect sound data (Burke, 1996). After entry is negotiated and access to the field is open, the pertinent aspects of field research involve review of documents and aspects of the field site, interviewing members of the community of interest, and observations that lead to in-depth and exhaustive field notes (Barley, 1990; Baxter, & Chua, 1998). Field notes are integral to successful ethnography, and in systematic observation the method used to record data will shape the description of the information gathered so that it is all-inclusive or selective in scope (Triandis, 2000). Barley (1990) contended that the groundwork for data analysis begins while the field researcher is still observing the phenomena of interest.

Burke (1996) asserted that when in the project management segment of field research, researchers attempt to control aspects of the field environment, make efforts to gain a sense of ownership of the project, and manage any conflicts of interest that arise. Each of these tasks requires the commitment of the field researcher to honestly assess where they are in their work and continue to negotiate relationships with others in the field. Once the field researcher completes data collection the data analysis process begins in earnest.

Data Analysis

Barley (1990) described the data analysis process as incorporating the creation of codes that represent groups in to which data can be sorted. Scripts arise from a review of the themes that are ascertained from the data. Analysis of themes can be conducted using synchronic and diachronic strategies. Grounded theory is another approach used by field researchers during data analysis. The idea behind grounded theory is building a theory about the phenomena of interest based on the data gathered; that is, theory is created from the "ground up" (Bruce, 2007). The completion of data analysis leads to the project closure segment of field research that entails presentation of results to the participants and other stakeholders in the communities or organization in which the research took place (Burke, 1996).

Van de Ven and Huber (1990) listed several areas that those conducting field research should attend to; among those mentioned were time, choosing research sites, and careful selection of a research audience and presentation. As the conducting of field research requires a level of attention to detail and process of which even more experienced field researchers must remain cognizant, Edmondson and McManus (2007) have several suggestions for novice field researchers. They advised inexperienced field researchers to develop a broad skill set, refer to case studies for examples of the principles that serve as the foundation for field research, obtain practical experience in conducting research, and possibly pursue further training in field research methods with which they have less familiarity.

Further Insights

Types of Field Research

Field research includes methods such as ethnography, case studies, event history analysis, tracking events over time, observation, and surveys and interviews (Triandis, 2000; van de Ven, & Huber, 1990). Preparing field notes is critical to data gathering and revision, as is the process of writing up the data (Baxter, & Chua, 1998). Many types of field research, for example, observations, interviews, and ethnography, can be conducted longitudinally (Edmondson & McManus, 2007). Additionally, Triandis (2000) stated that experiments that take place in natural environments, such as the field experiment, and methods that are inconspicuous also comprise field research.

The field experiment has been conceptualized as lying midway on a continuum with traditional, anthropological field research and laboratory experiments as the anchor points (Phillips & Glynn, 2000). A field experiment is an experiment set up to take place in a natural context; a complementary type of field experiment is the found experiment, according to Phillips and Glynn. The found experiment is an experiment that is ongoing in the natural environment.

As has been previously stated, field research incorporates observation of phenomena of interest, data analysis and presentation of results (Atkinson & Shaffir, 1998). Atkinson and Shaffir (1998) further elaborate on observation and note that it can be covert or overt with the researcher being a participant or nonparticipant. Covert observation is generally considered to be an unacceptable method to investigate others' behavior since consent is not obtained from them.

Participant Observation/Interviews

Participant observation, on the other hand, has been deemed an integral component of field research. Participatory action research occurs when a researcher is a member of the community being studied-a community that will be informed by the results of the research conducted (McNicoll, 1999). Examples of complementary methods to participant observation in field research are interviews, document analysis, and archival data (Atkinson & Shaffir, 1998).

In regard to interviewing as a component of field research, Knapik (2006) referred to interviews as opportunities...

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