Planning Fieldwork in the Social Sciences

At first glance, fieldwork in physical and human geography seem oh-so different. A few people in the department have been blogging about their fieldwork, with Alex out on a glacier in Iceland and Ellie immersing herself in Bangladesh. Of course, what we are all doing for our fieldwork is very different, but how we go about planning and coordinating it, can be all much the same. There are decisions to be made, lists to write, equipment to gather, travel to book and people to liaise with. How much of this is done in great detail, far in advance, or at the last minute varies considerably. I know some people prefer to plan the basics and deal with the rest later and others like to plan to a tee, whilst the majority of us would probably admit to being somewhere in the middle.

For my own fieldwork, I have had to be almost entirely at the plan to a tee end of the scale. This isn’t necessarily how I normally work. I’ve had to plan details in advance though because of the nature of my study, because I’m working with a charity who are anxious of me being let loose on their supporters and rigorous ethical procedures has (quite rightly) meant that nothing has been able to pass me by. But it has meant that some decisions have had to be made fairly blind – I do not know for sure how they will work out until I’m there, in the thick of it, trying to get people to answer my questionnaire or agree to be interviewed. The decisions I’ve had to make have been shaped by these five factors, most of which affect anyone doing fieldwork, but I am particularly thinking of the social sciences and human geography.

Things to consider when planning your fieldwork

  1. Research Questions. It sounds obvious but it’s easy to get caught up in particular ideas without thinking about whether that research method will actually enable you to answer your research questions. Do you need intensive qualitative work or extensive quantitative work? Or perhaps, like me, you will attempt to do both (the trials and tribulations of which need a whole other blog post).
  2. Budget. There’s no way around it, everything comes down to money. If I had more money I could hire research assistants to run a larger survey, travel to further corners of the country and collect my responses on flashy iPads. It’s always surprising how much things add up, so keep costs in mind before setting out your research design. Incidentally, if anyone knows of opportunities for extra student funding for social science fieldwork please let me know, because I know I’ll be over budget!

    © Copyright Salford Sal

  3. Time. Is much similar to budget, there is a limit. You need to strike a happy balance between gathering enough data and knowing when to stop and write up your thesis. Due to the nature of my fieldwork, ethnography of events which only happen twice a year, I am very much restricted with timings and have had to plan around this accordingly. It important to think about how these constraints and outside forces affect your time plan.
  4. Collaborators/Funders. If we are lucky enough to have funding, we should expect them to have a say in how we go about doing our fieldwork. In my case, working with a charity I have a predefined and captured sample which in many ways makes my life easier. Again, if you are in this boat too, you have to think about how you will get the balance between providing research which has a real use to them, and formulating unbiased, widely publishable results.
  5. Gate Keepers. When planning your fieldwork it’s essential to be aware of gate keepers – the people you have to keep sweet, for want of a better word, between you and your subjects. How will you make initial contact? Is it realist that these people will talk to you? Never underestimate how much time and energy this stage takes. If you think organising yourself is hard enough, organising other people is never easy.
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