fieldwork, recruitment, research

Field research for dummies. Or psychologists.


A field. Obviously.


My current study is the first time I’ve been involved in field research, and I must say that it’s an area much neglected by psychology courses. Past studies I have done over the course of my education included: a memory study using a Powerpoint presentation, an interview with home-educating mums, a hideous summer school study asking participants to do algebra (I wanted to swap this for Lego, I still think it was a great idea for testing the cognitive load theory we were looking at), an eye-tracking experiment about food labelling, and my MSc project involving participants sniffing huge numbers of liquids and then rating faces on screens.

None of this mainly lab-based research prepared me for field research and its many challenges and advantages. The OU course I did on critical social psychology probably came closest, with a focus on qualitative analysis, discursive analysis and attention to such issues as power relations and the need for reflexivity. It did not, however, explicitly examine field research versus lab-based research.  I think though that looking at aspects of field research can be useful for lab research too, since if anything the artificial nature of lab research obscures many of the same processes and relationships operating in the field. You could reasonably argue that things like power relations are as important, if not more so, in a lab setting than when you are visiting participants on their own territory. But let’s not get too bogged down in philosophy here.

Without wanting to gain a sociology degree’s worth of insight into field research (I’m not doing ethnographic research here, but a mixed methods field study), I looked round the uni library for any useful books. There wasn’t much in the psychology section. In fact, I think there was only one book: ‘A guide to qualitative field research’ by Carol Bailey (2nd edition). Luckily it proved to be very useful, and I have a forest of sticky notes proliferating in my copy. I’ve renewed it 6 times so far!

The book starts off with a quick introduction to field research – useful background – before heading off into a whole chapter on ethics, though ethical considerations are scattered throughout the book.

Chapter 3 is called a ‘prelude’ to qualitative fieldwork, and discusses issues such as selecting a research topic, practicality, accessibility, whether to choose a familiar versus an unfamiliar setting, and the importance of documenting decisions made early on in your research.  I think this is a good point for any – but particularly longitudinal – research, as a strong rationale for research relies on being able to justify methodological and epistemological decisions which may become ‘obvious’ to you but potentially confusing to outsiders unfamiliar with your thought processes. Er, like journal reviewers.  The chapter also briefly touches on research goals and questions, situating your research in the literature and final preparations. I’m not sure this would be detailed enough if you were to be intrepidly setting off to study tree-dwelling jungle-dwellers in the Amazon, but for running round a playing field in Surrey it was more than adequate in reminding you of what practical preparations you need to make.

Chapter 4 is the world’s fastest romp through paradigms, theory and traditions of inquiry. Each of which could do with its own book, and I’ve covered much of it in the qualitative courses I’ve done.

In chapter 5 my sticky notes start having sex with each other and popping out multicoloured offspring. Possibly because I’ve started writing my methodology section, methodology being the subject of this chapter. The chapter looks at sampling strategies, gaining entree, arrival in the field, key actors, informed consent and field relationships.  This chapter made me revisit my justification for choosing my sample (apparently saying it’s convenient is not good enough!) and made me think reflexively about my role as a researcher in this study.  Very thought-provoking and useful: even if none of it ends up in my dissertation I think it will be valuable to reflect on issues such as these.

Chapter 6 deals with observations. Although my study uses quantitative results (a number on a Likert scale) and participants discussing how they are feeling during exercise rather than observation, there is necessarily an element of observation involved. The venue for each group is different, and requires describing. The weather is variable (I visited one group for an introductory session in a huge thunderstorm) and should be recorded.  Whilst these variables are controlled for in a lab study on a treadmill, a naturalistic study will benefit from rich descriptions of the experience of participants and physical environment is one huge difference here.  There is also a discussion of participating while observing, which I found helpful.  Given the nature of my method, I have to participate in sessions to ask participants to give their ratings and talk about how they feel every 5 minutes. So reflecting on how my participation is influencing behaviour is worthwhile.

Chapter 7 discusses interviews, which again would be covered by any decent qualitative course.  I’m not really doing full-on interviews as part of this study, but there were a few gems for me here in terms of how to behave towards participants and status characteristics.

Field notes and leaving the field are addressed in chapter 8.  This chapter also has a stratospheric sticky note quotient! There is a good account of how to best make field notes and why, and an excellent suggestion to supplement field notes with additional material. As a result of this I decided I would take photos of the venues where the groups met (without the participants there, obviously) as a handy aide-memoire for me when I come to describe them. I have also been collecting any other incidental stuff I come across, such as couch to 5k schedules suggested by run leaders to their groups, and advertisements for groups so that I can talk about how run leaders find group members if I need to.  The sections titled ‘Things Previously Forgotten’ and ‘Things to Think About and Do’ are short but extraordinarily useful to add to field notes, as there are always things to follow up (emailing people to say thank you, arranging another visit), and things you have forgotten to write down strike you at the oddest times.

As a result of my sticky notes from chapters 6 and 8, I came up with a little form to follow for my field notes. I used to be an analytical chemist. Writing forms is practically a religion in the life of an analytical chemist.  I put in all the observational stuff which would be useful to record for each visit on the day and combined it with all the useful stuff from the field notes chapter so I would have an easy way of remembering what important details I would need to record. Much of this will never make it into my dissertation, but hopefully it will make writing about the study easier and make elements of it come alive in some touchyfeelywaffly way. It’s also a way of making it easier to keep track of each group, since I have all the information about each visit there in one central place. There is a copy of my form here, the spacing is skewiff as obviously some sections require quite a lot more information than others, but it’s a good guide for me to follow when I’m scribbling up my notes after a session so I don’t forget any important bits:

Form for group visits PDF

The rest of the book is devoted to analysis and writing up, so I haven’t read any of it yet as I don’t have enough data to get started on analysis. It looks similar to the sort of guidance you’d get from many qualitative textbooks, albeit maybe from a more sociological standpoint. As for the previous chapters, these look like they are short but succinct, I will probably give them a quick skim when I start analysis and write-up.

In conclusion, then, this book was ever so helpful to me in thinking about and planning field research. Even if your research happens to not be literally in a field, I highly recommend it.


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