Week 8, Chapter 13
Chapter 13- Field Research
Field Research is also called participant-observation research. It is a qualt style in which a researcher
directly observes & usually participates in small-scale social settings. Research also often uses
qualitative interviewing in the process. In field research, the ind researcher directly talks w/ &
observes the people being studied.
Quesns Appropriate for Field Research
Field research is approp when the research ques involves learning about, understanding or describing
a group of interacting people. It is usually best when the quesn is, "How do people do Y in the social
world?" or "What is the social world of X like?"
The people who are studied in a field setting → members. They re insiders or "natives" in the field &
belong to a group, subculture or social setting that the "outsider" field researcher wants to learn about.
Field researchers have explored a wide variety of social settings, subcultures and aspects of social
Ethno - people or folk, graphy - refers to describing something.
Ethnography means describing a culture & understanding another way of life from the native point
of view. Ethnographies are a particular approach to doing fieldwork. Doing field research is a core
part of ethnography, but field research is usually just one part of an ethnographic study.
Ethnography is often considered a methodology rather than a method, which means it is a collection
of methods that are tied together by an underlying theoretical orientation.
Ethnography assumes that people make inferences. People display their culture (what people
think/believe) through behaviour (e.g., speech & actions) in specific social contexts.
Displays of behaviour don't give meaning; rather meaning is inferred. Moving from what is heard or
observed to what is actually meant is at the centre of ethnography.
Cultural knowledge: includes symbols, songs, sayings, ways of behaving & objects. Cultural
knowledge involves both explicit (what we know & talk about) & tacit (what we rarely acknowledge)
The Logic of Field Research
What is F.R?
Field research is based on naturalism, which is also used to study other phenomena. Naturalism
involves observing ordinary events in natural settings, not in contrived, invented or researcher-created
A f. researcher's goal is to examine social meanings & grasp multiple perspectives in natural social
settings. He/she wants to get inside the meaning system of members & then return to an outside or
research viewpoint. The researcher switches perspectives & looks at the setting from multiple p.o.v's
F.R can disrupt one's personal life, physical security, mental well-being. It can also reshape
friendships, family life, self-identity & personal values.
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Steps in a F.R Project
Preparing, Reading & Defocusing
F.R begins w/ a general topic, not specific hypotheses.
Selecting a Field Site & Gaining Access to it
Field site: the 1 or more natural locations where a researcher conducts field research.
A site is the context in which events/activities occur, a socially defined territory w/ shifting
boundaries. A social group may interact across several physical sites.
A case is a social relationship or activity; it can extend beyond the boundaries of the site & have links
to other social settings.
3 factors are relevant when choosing a field research site: richness of data, unfamiliarity &
Sites that present a web of social relations, a variety of activities & diverse events over time provide
richer, more interesting data.
Beginning field researchers should choose an unfamiliar setting. It is easier to see cultural events &
social relations in a new site. In a very familiar site, much of the experiences of the group under study
may be taken for granted or assumed to be "normal".
A researcher may find that there are legal & political barriers to access. Laws & regulations in
institutions (hospitals, prisons) restrict access. Also institutional ethics review boards may limit f.r on
Entering the Field & Establishing Social Relations w/ Members
Once the site has been selected & is accessible, the researcher needs to consider the approp level of
involvement & a strategy for entering the field.
Level of Involvement: Field roles can be arranged on a continuum by the degree of detachment or
involvement a researcher has w/ members. At 1 extreme is a complete observer; at the other extreme
is complete participant. Complete observer, semi-participant & complete participant.
As a complete observer, the researcher's role is limited to simple observation, w/o any
participation in the activities of his/her study group. Can help members open up, can facilitate
detachment & protect the researcher's self-identity.
Roles at the complete participant end of the continuum facilitate empathy & sharing of a
member's experience. The goal of fully experiencing the intimate social world of a member is
achieved. However, a lack of distance from, too much sympathy for or over-involvement w/
members is likely. Data gathering is difficult & the distance needed for analysis may be hard
Often researchers adopt a "middle of the road" approach to involvement. They are not
complete participants (or full members) of the group they study nor are they complete
Semi-participant: researchers who participate to some extent w/ the activities of a group but
who don't immerse themselves completely in the group's culture, giving priority to their role
as a social researcher.
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Strategy for Entering: entering a field site requires having a flexible strategy or plan of action,
negotiating access & relations w/ members & deciding how much to disclose about the research to
Planning: entering & gaining access to a field state is a process that depends on common-
sense judgment & social skills.
Gatekeeper: someone w/ the formal or informal authority to control access to a site. Can be
the gang leader, admin of a hospital or the owner of a business.
The researcher must set nonnegotiable limits to protect research integrity. In some sites,
gatekeeper approval creates a stigma that inhibits the cooperation of members. Ex: prisoners
may not be cooperative if they know that the prison warden gave approval to the researcher.
Negotiating: social relations are negotiated & formed throughout the process of field work.
Negotiation occurs w/ each new member until a stable relationship develops to gain access,
develop trust, obtain info & reduce hostile reactions.
Deviant groups & elites often require special negotiations for gaining access.
Disclosing: a researcher must decide how much to reveal about himself & the research
project. Disclosing one's personal life/background can build trust & close relationships, but
the researcher will also lose privacy & his focus.
Disclosure ranges on a continuum. Covert observer: no one in the field is aware that
research is taking place.
Overt researcher: where everyone knows the specifics of the research project. Disclosure
may unfold over time.
Adopting a Social Role & Learning the Ropes
Presentations of Self: people explicitly & implicitly present themselves to others. Researcher must
be aware that self-presentation will influence field relations to some degree.
Researcher as Instrument: The researcher is the instrument for measuring field data. 2 implications
→ i) puts pressure on the researcher to be alert & sensitive to what happens in the field & to be
disciplined about recording data. ii) has personal consequences.
Personal, subjective experiences are part of field data. They are valuable for interpreting events in the
An Attitude of Strangeness: involves questioning & noticing ordinary details or looking at the
ordinary through the eyes of a stranger.
Building Rapport: researcher builds rapport by getting along w/ members in the field. Done through :
charm, trust & understanding.
Relations In The Field
Roles in the Field
Pre-existing vs. Created Roles: some existing roles provide access to all areas of the site, the ability
to observe & interact w/ all members, the freedom to move around & a way to balance the
requirements of researcher & member.
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Limits on the Role Chosen: female researchers often have more difficulty when the setting is
perceived as dangerous & wher