Field research is defined as a data collection method whose goal is to observe, interact, and understand subjects while in a natural environment. For example, nature conservationists observe the behavior of animals in their natural environment and how they react to certain scenarios. Similarly, social scientists conducting field research can conduct interviews or observe people at a distance to understand how they behave in a social environment and how they react to situations around them.
Field research encompasses a wide range of social research methods, such as direct observation, limited participation, analysis of documents and other information, informal interviews, surveys, etc. Although field research is usually characterized as qualitative research, it often includes multiple aspects of quantitative research.
Field research usually begins in a specific setting, although the ultimate goal of the study is to observe and analyze a subject’s specific behavior in that setting. However, the cause and effect of a given behavior are difficult to analyze due to the presence of multiple variables in a natural environment. Most data collection is not based entirely on cause and effect, but above all on correlation. Although field research looks for correlation, the small sample size makes it difficult to establish a causal relationship between two or more variables.
Field Research Methods
Field research is usually carried out with 5 different methods. They are the following
In this method, data is collected through an observation method or from subjects in a natural environment. In this method, the behavior or outcome of the situation is not interfered with in any way by the researcher. The advantage of direct observation is that it offers contextual data about people, situations, interactions, and the environment. This method of field research is widely used in a public setting, but not in a private setting, as it poses an ethical dilemma.
Observation of participants
In this field research method, the researcher is deeply involved in the research process, not only as an observer, but also as a participant. This method is also carried out in a natural environment, but the only difference is that the researcher gets involved in the discussions and can shape the direction of them. In this method, researchers live in a comfortable environment with research participants, so that they feel comfortable and open up to in-depth discussions.
Ethnography is an extended observation of social research and the social perspective and cultural values of an entire social environment. In ethnography, entire communities are objectively observed. For example, if a researcher wants to understand how an Amazon tribe lives and functions, they can choose to observe them or live among them and silently observe their everyday behavior.
Surveys and Interviews
Surveys are closed questions that are asked directly to research subjects. Qualitative interviews can be informal and conversational, semi-structured, standardized and open or a mixture of the above three. This provides the researcher with a wealth of data that he or she can classify. It also helps to collect relational data. This field research method can use a mix of individual interviews, focus groups, and text analysis.
A case study investigation is an in-depth analysis of a person, situation, or event. This method may seem difficult to handle, however, it is one of the simplest ways to conduct research, as it involves deep immersion and a thorough knowledge of data collection methods and inference from them.
Steps to conduct field research
Due to the nature of field research, the magnitude of the timelines, and the costs involved, field research can be very difficult to plan, execute, and measure. Some basic steps in field research management are
Build the right team
In order to conduct field research, it is important to have the right equipment. The role of the researcher and the auxiliary members of the team is very important, as well as the definition of the tasks they have to carry out with defined relevant milestones. It is important that senior management is also involved in field research for it to be successful.
Hiring people for the study
The success of field research depends on the people on whom the study is conducted. Using sampling methods, it is important to refer the people who will be part of the study.
Data collection methodology
As already mentioned, the data collection methods for field research are varied. They can be a mix of surveys, interviews, case studies, and observation. All these methods have to be calibrated and the milestones of each method also have to be calibrated at the beginning. For example, in the case of a survey, it is important that the design of the survey is created and tested even before the research begins.
Visit to the place
The site visit is important for the success of field research and is always done outside the traditional places and in the real natural environment of the respondents. Therefore, it is important to plan a site visit along with data collection methods.
The analysis of the collected data is important to validate the premise of the field research and decide the outcome of it.
Communication of results
Once the data is analyzed, it is important to communicate the results to research stakeholders so they can take action.
Field Research Notes
Keeping an ethnographic record is very important for conducting field research. Field notes constitute one of the most important aspects of the ethnographic record. The field notes process begins when the researcher participates in the observational research process to be written later.
Types of Field Research Notes
The four different types of field notes are
This method of note-taking is performed while the researcher is in the study. It can be in close proximity and in view of the subject under study. The notes are brief, concise and condensed, and the researcher can expand them later. However, most researchers do not prefer this method for fear of feeling that the respondent does not take them seriously.
Field notes themselves
These notes should be expanded immediately after the completion of events. The notes have to be detailed and the words have to be as similar as possible to the topic studied.
These notes contain methods on the research methods used by the researcher, the proposed new research methods, and how to monitor their progress. Methodological notes can be saved along with field notes or archived separately, but go all the way to the final report of a study.
Journals and notebooks
This method of field notes is a vision of the life of the researcher. It allows you to track all aspects of the researcher’s life and helps eliminate the Halo effect or any bias that may have arisen during field research.
Reasons to conduct field research
Field research has been commonly used in the twentieth century in the social sciences. But, in general, it takes a long time to perform and complete, it is expensive and, in many cases, invasive. So why is it commonly used and preferred by researchers to validate data? We analyze 4 main reasons:
Overcoming the lack of data
Field research solves the big problem of lack of data. Very often, data on a topic under study are limited or non-existent, especially in a specific setting. The problem may be known or suspected, but there is no way to validate it without research and primary data. Conducting field research not only helps fill data gaps, but also to collect supporting material, making it one of the research methods preferred by researchers.
Understand the context of the study
In many cases, the data collected is adequate, but field research is still being conducted. This helps to understand the existing data. For example, if the data states that one-block horses usually win races because the horses have pedigree and the stable owner hires the best jockeys. But conducting field research can shed light on other factors that influence success, such as forage quality and the care provided and favorable weather conditions.
Increased data quality
As this research method uses more than one tool to collect data, these are of higher quality. Inferences can be made from the collected data and can be statistically analyzed by data triangulation.
Auxiliary data collection
Field research puts researchers in a position of localized thinking that opens up new lines of thought for them. This can help collect data that the study didn’t take into account to collect.
Examples of field research
Some examples of field research are
Deciphering social metrics in a slum
Using purely observation methods and in-depth interviews, researchers can become part of a community to understand the social metric and social hierarchy of a slum. This study can also understand the financial independence and day-to-day operational nuances of a slum. Analyzing this data can provide insight into how different a slum is from structured societies.
Understand the impact of sport on children’s development
This method of field research requires several years of work and the sample size can be very large. The analysis of the data from this research allows us to understand how children from different geographical locations and backgrounds respond to sports and the impact of these on their integral development.
Study animal migration patterns
Field research is widely used to study flora and fauna. An important case is that of scientists who control and study the migration patterns of animals with the change of season. Field research helps collect data over the years and that helps draw conclusions about how to expedite the safe passage of animals.
Advantages of field research
The advantages of field research are:
- It takes place in a real and natural environment in which the variables are not manipulated or the environment is manipulated.
- Because the study is conducted in a comfortable environment, data can be collected even on ancillary topics.
- The researcher acquires a deep knowledge of the research subjects due to the proximity to them and, therefore, the research is broad, exhaustive and accurate.
Disadvantages of field research
The disadvantages of field research are:
- Studies are expensive and time-consuming and can take years to complete.
- It is very difficult for the researcher to distance himself from a bias in the research study.
- The notes have to be exactly what the researcher says, but the nomenclature is very difficult to follow.
- It is an interpretive method and this is subjective and depends entirely on the capacity of the researcher.
- In this method it is impossible to control external variables and this constantly alters the nature of the research.
How to Approach Writing a Field Report
How to get started
Field reports are most often assigned in the disciplines of applied social sciences [e.g., social work, anthropology, gerontology, criminal justice, education, law, health professions], where it is important to bridge the gap between theoretical concepts learned in the classroom and the practice of the work being taught to be done. Field reports are also common in certain scientific disciplines [e.g., geology], but these reports are organized differently and serve a different purpose than described below.
Professors will assign you a field report with the intention of improving your understanding of key theoretical concepts by applying methods of careful and structured observation and reflection on people, places or phenomena existing in your natural environments. Field reports facilitate the development of data collection techniques and observation skills and help you understand how theory applies to real-world situations. Field reports are also an opportunity to obtain evidence through methods of observation of professional practice that contribute to or challenge existing theories.
We are all observers of people, their interactions, places and events; however, your responsibility when writing a field report is to conduct research based on the data generated by the act of designing a specific study, deliberate observation, synthesis of the main findings, and interpretation of their meaning.
Drafting of the Report
When writing a field report you must:
Systematically observe and accurately record the various aspects of a situation
Always approach your field study with a detailed protocol on what you will observe, where you should carry out your observations, and the method by which you will collect and record your data.
Continuously analyze your observations
Always look for the meaning that underlies the actions you observe. Ask yourself: What’s going on here? What does this observed activity mean? What else do you relate to? Keep in mind that this is a continuous process of reflection and analysis that takes place throughout the field research.
Keep in mind the objectives of the report as you watch
Recording what you observe should not be done randomly or randomly; you must be focused and pay attention to details. Enter the place of observation [i.e., the “field”] with a clear plan about what you intend to observe and record in relation to the research problem and, at the same time, be prepared to adapt to the changing circumstances that may arise.
Consciously observe, record, and analyze what you hear and see in the context of a theoretical framework. This is what separates data collection from reporting. The theoretical framework that guides field research should determine what, when, and how it is observed, and serve as a basis for interpreting the results in relation to the underlying assumptions of the theoretical framework.
Structure and Writing Style of the Field Report
The format of the field report is determined by the research problem, the theoretical framework that drives the analysis, the observations made and/or the specific guidelines established by the professor. Since field reports are not standard in format, it is a good idea to determine with the teacher what the preferred structure and organization is before you start writing. Note that field reports must be written in the past. With this in mind, most field reports in social sciences include the following elements:
The introduction should describe the research problem, the specific goals of your research, and the important theories or concepts on which your field study is based. The introduction should describe the nature of the organization or environment in which the observation is made, the type of observations that have been carried out, what it has focused on, when it has been observed, and the methods that have been used to collect the data. Taken together, this descriptive information should support the reasons why you chose the observation site and the people or events that occurred there. It should also include a review of the relevant literature related to the research problem, especially if similar methods were used in previous studies. Conclude your introduction with a statement on the organization of the rest of the work.
Description of activities
The only knowledge and understanding of what happened that your readers will have will be that of the description section of your report, since they did not witness the situation, people or events you are writing about. It is therefore crucial that you provide sufficient detail to place the analysis you are following in the right context; don’t make the mistake of providing a description without context. The description section of a field report is similar to a well-written newspaper article. Therefore, a useful approach to systematically describing the various aspects of an observed situation is to respond to the “Five W’s of investigative reporting.” As Dubbels points out [p. 19], these are
Describe the What
Write down what you observed. Write down the temporal, physical, and social limits you imposed to limit the observations you made. What were his general impressions of the situation he observed. For example, as a teaching student, what is your impression of the application of iPads as a learning device in a history class; As a cultural anthropologist, what is your impression of women’s participation in a Native American religious ritual?
Describe the Where
Provide background information about the environment of your observation and, if necessary, write down important material objects that are present that help contextualize the observation [for example, the arrangement of computers in relation to students’ engagement with the teacher].
Describe the When
Record the factual data of the day and the start and end time of each observation. Please note that it may also be necessary to include background information or key events that impact the situation you were observing [for example, observing the ability of teachers to re-engage students after returning from an unannounced fire drill].
Describe the Who
Write down the background and demographic information of the people observed, for example, age, sex, ethnicity and/or any other variables relevant to your study]. Record who is doing what and saying what, as well as who is not doing or saying what. If relevant, be sure to record who is missing the observation.
Describe the Why?
Describe the reasons why you have selected certain situations to observe. Write down why something happened. Also note why you may have included or excluded certain information.
Interpretation and analysis
Always place the analysis and interpretations of your field observations in the broader context of the theoretical assumptions and issues you have described in the introduction. Part of their responsibility in data analysis is to determine which observations deserve to be commented on and interpreted, and which observations are more general in nature. It is your theoretical framework that allows you to make these decisions. You must demonstrate to the reader that you perform the fieldwork with the eyes of an informed viewer and from the perspective of a casual observer.
Conclusion and recommendations
The conclusion should briefly recapitulate the entire study, reiterating the importance or significance of your observations. Avoid including new information. You should also set out any recommendations you can make based on the results of your study. Be sure to describe any unforeseen problems you have encountered and point out the limitations of your study. The conclusion should be no more than two or three paragraphs.
This is where information is placed that is not essential to explain the results, but that supports the [especialmente la información repetitiva o larga] analysis, validates the conclusions, or contextualizes a related point that helps the reader understand the overall report. Examples of information that may be included in an appendix are figures/tables/tables/graphs of results, statistics, images, maps, drawings or, if applicable, transcripts of interviews. There is no limit to what may be included in the appendix or its format [e.g. a DVD recording of the observation site], provided that it is relevant to the purpose of the study and is referenced in the report. If the information is included in more than one appendix [“appendices”], the order in which they are organized is dictated by the order in which they are first mentioned in the text of the report.
List all the sources you have consulted and obtained information from when writing your field report. Note that field reports do not usually include further reading or an expanded bibliography. However, check with your teacher about what your list of sources should include and be sure to write them in the preferred citation style of your discipline or preferred by your teacher [i.e., APA, Chicago, MLA, etc.].
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Alderks, Peter. Data Collection. Psychology 330 Course Documents. Animal Behavior Lab. University of Washington
Dubbels, Brock R. Exploring the Cognitive, Social, Cultural, and Psychological Aspects of Gaming and Simulations. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2018
Emerson, Robert M. Contemporary Field Research: Perspectives and Formulations. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2001
Wolfinger, Nicholas H. “On Writing Fieldnotes: Collection Strategies and Background Expectancies.” Qualitative Research 2 (April 2002): 85-95; Writing Reports. Anonymous. The Higher Education Academy.