A Basic Guide to Field Research

Part of our Experiential Learning Module (ELM) involved us learning to conduct field research. Considering that our ELM team consists of a law, psychology and media & communications’ graduate, none of us were very well versed with the ins and outs of field research when we first began. Over the last six months, we’ve experimented, adapted, erred, cried and finally (at least we feel) have reached a stage where we feel like we have gotten our heads around the field research process. Here is a rough road map for how to chart out preparing for your field research should you find yourself doing it for the first time.

  1. Identify the Sample Area

One very important piece of advice that was given to us is to immediately identify the area in which you are conducting the study. You should make the decision whether you want a large area of study or a narrower scope. This will depend on how much time you have to complete the project and how much you are facilitated to travel to these areas. Decide whether your analysis will be a village, set of villages, district or even a state. From here, try to obtain a list of all the places that you wish to go to and select the ones which are of interest to your project. This can be done deliberately or by random selection. Either way, keep a tab on how you made your selection as it will become important to note if your research is to delivered in a form of a report.

  1. Quantitative or Qualitative?

“Not everything important is measurable and not everything measurable is important” – Elliot Eisner

Next, ask yourself whether you want to the research to be quantitative, qualitative, or a mix of both. Quantitative research means observing phenomenon through statistical, mathematical or computational techniques, which basically means gathering data that can be objectively measured and can support your research. An example of this would be gathering information about the amount of children a person had, their education level, their household income and drawing observations from this information. Qualitative research is a deeper inquiry into the specific experiences of the person which develop themes that cannot be quantified in the same way. An example of this would be conducting long interviews with people to unearth their perceptions on caste. Many think that quantitative is more accurate than qualitative, whereas both are extremely useful and can be complementary. We decided to adopt a mixture of both quantitative and qualitative for our research.

  1. Academic Literature Review

Start hunting down the academic literature that currently exists on your chosen research topic. Start with (although not the most reliable source) a basic Google search, then move on to articles from academic journals, books from the library and any other sources you find. Identify the commonalities and differences in the scope of study of your research topic and the gaps in the current knowledge. Note when these articles were written, as the reality on the ground could be vastly different if there has been a significant time lapse.

  1.    Initial Research Question

Using your academic literature review as a foundation, come up with an initial research question. This question should be sufficiently broad as you have not yet been to the field and therefore, do not have any real experience to contextualize your theory. Notwithstanding your initial research question, you should go in with as open mind as possible. Your initial research question is likely to be modified upon contact with the field.

  1.     Research Methodologies

Next is to familiarize yourself with the various research methodologies, based on whether you wish to conduct a qualitative study, quantitative study or a mix. Research methodologies include surveys, long interviews, focus groups, oral histories, observations and homestays.

Surveys:

We are all well versed with surveys, having been bombarded with them at one stage or another. The next time you receive a survey, really take a look through it and ask yourself, what is the researcher trying to find out? Surveys are very useful to gather quantitative data. We have found that they are also a good way of easing respondents in to answering more probing questions as everyone has answered their basic information such as name, date of birth, a hundred times before. For the drafting of your surveys, try to find accredited surveys that have been tried and tested (and academically approved), which can usually be found online. Some of the academic articles that you have read will also contain the sample surveys that they have used which can clarify what questions to ask. Else, you can draft your own questions.

Long Interviews:

Long interviews are a very beneficial qualitative research tool to probe deeper in to people’s perceptions, understanding, thought-processes and prejudices which you will not gage through a survey alone. For long interviews, we prepared a list of prompts to conduct the interview but oftentimes, the conversation would naturally evolve.

Focus Groups:

Focus groups are an excellent way to gage people’s reactions in a group setting. You decide upon a theme that you wish to explore (such as caste) and then draft questions to prompt the discussion. Focus groups are usually conducted with no more than 10 people sitting in a circle. One researcher leads the discussion as a moderator and the other observes and takes note of the people’s answers and also reactions. People reveal a lot in the form of their reactions and this can be more tell-tale than the actual answers themselves.  A moderator should ensure that the same people are not dominating the conversation and that people who are more timid should be asked to speak also. It is very important that researchers maintain a neutral stance during these discussions.

Observations

Observation is just that – observing people and noting down your findings. The researcher must adopt a neutral stance and be cognisant of their own biases. Try as far as possible not to read your own meaning between the lines of people’s actions as it could lead to erroneous conclusions.

Homestay:

Homestay is a technique where a researcher goes to live with the respondent for a period of time. This is invaluable as it premised on the belief that people are more at ease and will behave more naturally in their own home, thus opening up to the researcher and giving them a holistic view of the person’s circumstances. Homestays allow you to somewhat live the daily reality of the person whom you are researching and provides a great deal more context. You cannot just ask someone if you can stay with them, it is better to first build a rapport or go through an organisation (if you are affiliated to one) which have long-standing relations with the community. A researcher should always bear the costs of their stay to cover food etc. The aim is to live and partake in the daily activities of the household so as to gain a deeper understanding.

  1.    Ethics

Ethics are an essential component of your research. It is imperative that each researcher commits themselves to conducting their study as ethically and as sensitively as possible. Confidentiality should be ensured at all times, sensitive questions should be asked compassionately and data should be kept securely. Sometimes, when you are recording interviews, a person may open up to you about sensitive information, start to cry or disclose deeply personal things. These things can be extremely pertinent to your research and you can be torn between wanting to continue filming but at the same time, wanting to comfort the person and give them their space and privacy to process their emotions. Your responsibility should always be to the person that you are interviewing first and your research second. Should you need to stop filming, take a call and stop there and then, even if it means losing out on valuable data.  Use this information that you gather to inform your thinking rather than compromising the person’s privacy or identity. You should always treat those around you with the utmost empathy and humanity.

  1.   Identify your Limitations

Identify the limitations that you and your team have. A limitation could be if you are a team of all men, conducting a study about women, you may assume that some women will not be as comfortable opening up to you about sensitive information. It may be, like us, as a team of three women, that travelling on trains for long distances to unknown places can make us wary of our safety. It may be, like our team, that since I am not a Hindi speaker, provisions have to be made so that I am not left alone to conduct surveys. All teams will have some limitations. Come up with a list and then figure out the best route to minimize them.

  1.      Plan 

Planning is everything. You need to plan how much time you have, plan when you will go to the field, plan what transportation you will take, plan how you will get to the field and then plan your sessions on the field. Ensure that you are carrying enough print-outs of surveys and any other equipment you may need, such as portable speakers if you are going to play music or camera equipment should you be filming. Always carry water, mosquito repellent and suncream.

  1.     Minimize your ‘Otherness’

Without making too many judgements about the community which you are going to, try to think about how best to blend. If you are going to a rural community, think about wearing ethnic dress. Be respectful of people’s customs so always carry extra layers and shawls should you need to cover your hair. If the community is not English speaking, think about minimizing your communication to each other in English. Should you be arriving in cars to rural villages, ask to be dropped a bit away from the village and walk in to the village. If they have laid out a special place for you to sit, ask can you sit with everyone. We have found that these measures greatly help in removing the barrier that exists when we are received as guests.

  1.   Context is Everything

Anyone would be skeptical if someone arrived, whipped out a folder and started asking a load of questions. Who are you? What is this information to be used for? Spend the first 5 minutes talking about who you are, what the purpose of your research is and how you are going to conduct the next 1 or 2 hours. Let them know that they are not obliged to answer any questions that they do not want to and that their answers will be kept confidentially and securely. Ask them if they have any questions for you and facilitate the flow of interchange. There is always anxiety in the initial stages of meeting, for the group and for the researcher also, so starting this way does wonders for dispelling this anxiety, which leads to better research outcomes.

  1.    Ice-breaker Sessions

Come up with some creative ice-breaker sessions, which help people to loosen up. Ice-breaker sessions which use names are particularly good for you to learn the names of the people you are interviewing so that you can address them individually.

  1. Data Collection

Have a discussion as a team about how you are going to store the data that you have collected. Usually, people input data on to Excel, but figure out a method that works for you. Once you have a method, organize and categorize your data meticulously. In my opinion, one person should take on this role and ensure that they are kept up to date. Should you have a control and test group, ensure that both sets of data are kept separately. You will thank yourself later when it comes to analysing trends and patterns. Any interviews you take should also be transcribed in to text. Transcribing an entire interview can take a huge amount of time. If you are pressed for time, it is advisable to listen back to the interview and only transcribe that which is relevant to your work.

  1.      Expect the Unexpected

Despite planning your sessions, you must be prepared for things to go off track or take another direction. People can stray from the questions being asked of them and there can be interruptions. Go with the flow and don’t be too strict on time or sticking to the original format.

  1. Give Back

Think of a way in which you can present your research to those who were kind enough to participate in it. Should the community be largely illiterate, think about presenting it visually, such as in the form of a documentary.

  1. Have fun!

Apart from teaching me a whole set of skills, field work has given me the opportunity to explore rural villages in Uttar Pradesh and to interact with a range of truly inspiring women. I am deeply indebted to my team mates, Rabsimar and Isha, as well as Swati, Monica and Ravi-ji of RGMVP, for supporting me on this journey.

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