A Quick Guide to Fieldwork

Field research is one of the most important data collection methods for social scientists. Many scholars take research trips during graduate school and some continue doing this in later stages of their career. Fieldwork provides the researcher crucial opportunities, information or insights that she cannot otherwise reach while in home institution. Yet, despite its great benefits, fieldwork is a costly (both financially and time-wise), lonely, stressful, and difficult process. So, what should a researcher do while engaged in fieldwork to obtain the expected benefits? What are some strategies that can be employed to cope with the anticipated difficulties? This essay draws on my ongoing fieldwork in Algeria and Tunisia  where I focus on regime persistence and regime change.. What follows is intended as  key pointers based on my experiences prior to and during the fieldwork. I provide practical tips that make fieldwork easier and more productive. Obviously, there is no standard way of doing fieldwork; yet there definitely are some common practices and strategies to follow.

Preparing for Fieldwork

Fieldwork is an iterative process; from beginning to end, the researcher is expected to continuously revisit and develop her research design, data and insights. This iterative process does not begin the first day you step into the target research site; rather, it begins when you start developing your research project. Preparing properly for fieldwork is as important as doing the research in the field. A good preparation can save months for a researcher. First of all, develop your research design well.

“A good preparation can save months for a researcher. First of all, develop your research design well.”
As part of research design, develop your main concepts, think about operationalization and measurement issues and make a data collection plan. Components of your research design may (and definitely will) change over the course of this iterative process, but a sound research design and data collection plan generate sound and meaningful strategic decisions in the field. Regardless of the type of fieldwork, develop a list of contacts and start building a network ahead of time.  Get in touch with the people and institutions in the field site even before you go there. Having a list of dependable, previously acquainted contacts will help a lot in the first difficult days of the fieldwork. All of this preparation can be done while you are in your home institution; yet if the time and resources permit, it is always better to make a trip to your field site to lay the groundwork before starting your actual fieldwork.

Data Collection during the Fieldwork

Once in the field, the most important objective is data collection. You may work on data analysis while in the field as well; yet, especially if your time is limited, it is better to focus on things that you can only do while in the field. Data collection can take place in a variety of methods and this mainly depends on research question, research design, and researcher’s strategic choices. Do not try to do everything, rather be strategic and choose the methods that will help most with your research. The best way is to decide on specific methods and then triangulate them. In other words, use multiple methods that help different aspects of your research and/or provide robustness for your findings.

A view from Tunis- Al-Zaytuna Mosque

There are variety of methods to collect data that ranges from less to more interactive ways of data collection. Data can be collected through less interactive methods such as archival work, newspaper research, plain observation or gathering books or documents. There are two important points to be careful about while engaging in this kind of methods. First, you need to think about ways to obtain and store data. It is usually difficult to transport all the printed materials to your home institution. In most cases, you need to scan the documents or just take photos. Collecting the right kind of materials during fieldwork helps a lot when you start analyzing the data. Second, even in these methods, there is interaction. If you do research in an archive, a library or a government institution, the staff working there can be your best allies or worst enemies depending on the relationship you develop with them. If you establish good rapport or even become friends with these individuals, it will save you lots of time and energy.

“In order to conduct a successful interview, you should be well prepared.  You should know the context as well as your interviewees well enough so that you can ask specific questions that will be more rewarding”

Data can be collected through more interactive methods as well such as interviews, surveys, focus groups or participant observation. Elite interviews is one of the most commonly used methods in fieldwork, especially in social sciences rather than the humanities. In order to conduct a successful interview, you should be well prepared.  You should know the context as well as your interviewees well enough so that you can ask specific questions that will be more rewarding; this will increase the likelihood to collect information that may not be immediately available in books or other materials. The selection of interviewees or the issue of sampling is also very important. You may choose to conduct interviews with anyone you can find and reach a good quantity of interviews that may look good on paper. But if you do not interview the right kind of people that your research goals warrant, this may lead to either insufficient or skewed data collection. Try to conduct interviews with as many and as diverse people as possible. If you hear something from one interviewee, do not take it for granted and try to verify the information with others, preferably ones from different political, social, and economic backgrounds. For surveys and focus groups, it is more reasonable to work with local agencies and monitor them while they carry out the operation. This may decrease your control over the process and accrue costs, but it saves lots of time and energy.

 Practical Aspects Matter

The author during one of the better days of his fieldwork.

Data collection is probably the central part of fieldwork. However, there are certain practical aspects that you should keep in mind while conducting your fieldwork. First, develop your understanding about the local context where you conduct your research (before going to the field, if possible). Speaking the local language is a big advantage but not always necessary depending on the type and content of the research. Knowing the local culture and norms is usually more important. You should not forget that you will live in that research site during your stay, so you should adapt to that life as much as possible. Second, establish your own network while in the field.

“You should not forget that you will live in that research site during your stay, so you should adapt to that life as much as possible. Second, establish your own network while in the field.”
This will help you in your research as well as in your personal life. Moreover, this network will help with your re-entry to the field site in the future. Third, be very organized. You should develop a good contact management system, utilize to-do lists and take notes. After spending some time in the field, you will be overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do or the number of people you have to meet. If you are not well organized, it is very easy to get lost while doing fieldwork. Fourth, write regularly. You can take a field diary or just write down your thoughts when you have time. Do not forget that unwritten thoughts are bound to get lost. If you keep writing, even in a very loose format, you will benefit from it at the end of your fieldwork. Finally, be patient. Field research has a non-linear development curve. In the first days or weeks, the fieldwork will develop slowly because you have to adjust to a new city, learn local practices, establish contacts, meet with people, go to field sites or institutions and learn the system. Especially in those days, it is very normal to feel unproductive as you do not see concrete outcomes of your efforts. However, once you take the first steps correctly, research will develop much faster in the following period. Being patient and following the correct practices will eventually pay off.

Fieldwork is a very difficult process. While in the field, you often feel lonely, stressed, and isolated, work on a tight budget, and try to manage costs. And most likely, you will fail at certain points. However, do not forget that it is also a rewarding experience. Academically, you discover things that you are not able to uncover while in your home institution. Conducting fieldwork helps you produce a better research project. Moreover, while working on your own research, you obtain new ideas for future projects. At the same time, you meet with new people, start life-long friendships, experience the life in new places, develop your own personality and most of the time discover yourself more and more. With good preparation, a sound research plan, the right strategies while in the field and patience you can overcome the difficulties of fieldwork and enjoy the many benefits it presents for your academic and personal life.

Reading Suggestions:

The following is a list of books that provide crucial insight on the art of conducting fieldwork in social sciences.

Diana Kapiszewski, Lauren MacClean, and Benjamin Read, Field Research in Political Science: Practices and Principles, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Ellen Perecman and Sara Curran, A Handbook for Social Science Field Research: Essays & Bibliographic Sources on Research Design and Methods, SAGE Publications, 2006.

Chandra Lekha Sriram et. al. Surviving Field Research: Working in Violent and Difficult Situations, Routledge, 2009.

Elisabeth Jean Wood, “Field Research”, in The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics, ed. Carles Boix and Susan C. Stokes, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Layna Mosley (ed.), Interview Research in Political Science, Cornell University Press, 2013.

Beth, L. Leech. “Symposium: Interview Methods in Political Science”. PS: Political Science and Politics, 35 (4), 2002: 663-688.

Burton, Antoinette, ed. Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, Duke University Press, 2005.

David L. Morgan. “Focus groups.” Annual Review of Sociology (1996): 129-152.

Janine A. Clark et. al. “Symposium: Field Research Methods in the Middle East“, PS: Political Science & Politics, July 2006.