Reflections on Field-Work

One of the new aspects of my job at CBPS, which I have enjoyed, has been field work.  The GrOW project, in particular, has provided me many opportunities to do field work. Previously, I had either worked on secondary or primary data, which I had played no role in collecting.  This experience led me to write this article; I thought it would be interesting to examine the phenomenon of fieldwork, in particular, the freedoms gained and the constraints imposed by the conditions on the field.

In the beginning, the prospect of fieldwork was exciting and intimidating – exciting, because I would have an opportunity to experience the phenomenon that gave rise to the patterns observed in the data.  Or what I suppose ethnographers would call, richer data that would provide a more “nuanced” understanding. However, on the other hand, it was intimidating because in some sense you become a part of the data collecting process. Somehow you can’t help getting that feeling that you are data too, or in a milder way influencing the data collected.

I wanted to get an idea of how people felt about fieldwork, and their perspective on the issues faced.  These impressions are based on semi-structured interviews with most of the staff in the CBPS office; both colleagues who engage in fieldwork as well as those who don’t participated in the interviews. It must be noted that in our organization women far outnumber men. While men’s opinions are also presented here, most of the observations made in this article will be based on women’s perspectives of field work.

This article is a summary and analysis of responses based on a few semi- structured interviews. Some of the themes that emerged from these discussions are illustrated below.

The extent to which you change the way you present yourself

It was generally acknowledged that when most of us go to the field, we often change the way we dress and the way we talk. There is also a change in the kinds of information that we reveal about ourselves. This appears to be a part of the larger issue of fitting in socially. This need to blend in appears to arise from both personal and research considerations.

From a personal angle, it is a sense of gratefulness for being allowed to inhabit another person’s space. So, very often people would also be willing to change the kind of clothes they wore to fit the context regardless of whether they are on field visit or on a non-data collecting visit. While field researchers are aware that in spite of changing their appearance, they will still be considered as outsiders, appearances are still changed from what they would be in non- field spaces.

I think in addition to changing appearance to respect another person’s space, a part of the motivation for transforming one’s appearance also comes from a desire to attract the least attention possible. There seems to be a belief that certain ways of dressing would attract less attention than others. This, I believe, helps the field researcher feel more comfortable on the field at a personal level.

At the research level, it arises out of concern for not biasing a respondent’s answers and therefore affecting the type of data collected.   Field researchers acknowledge that their presence in the field itself creates excitement and they can never be sure how this is biasing responses. Certain types of appearance, more than others, can be something of a novelty, distracting attention away from the survey or questionnaire.

Before starting the semi-structured interview process, I thought that confirming to a certain expected appearance would primarily be a constraint faced by women. However this appears not be true. A male researcher also said he changed his appearance to fit in more and not to be conspicuous.  For instance, he wore clothes that covered the tattoos that he had on his hand.

With regards to information regarding researchers’ personal information or opinions, researchers would prefer evasion rather than an outright misrepresentation of facts.  So field investigators would prefer to evade questions, for example, about a particular political or world view, when they felt their view was diametrically opposed to that of respondents. Field researchers were aware that evasion of questions could be regarded as impoliteness. Moreover, there appeared to be degrees to which respondents felt comfortable with this evasion.

Most of the field researchers interviewed appeared to be more ethically comfortable in changing the way they dressed rather than their opinions.  It seemed to be generally believed that it would be unethical to misrepresent your views in an attempt to fit in.

Quantitative versus qualitative data

The approach to fieldwork seems to be influenced by the nature of data collected: quantitative versus qualitative data, and the researcher’s training.

Researchers with training in qualitative methods appear to be more anxious about the qualitative data; there is anxiety about missing details. Perhaps training in qualitative methods leads to a realization that everything can be regarded as data. And therefore, details that can help weave a story can be easily missed.

I am not as anxious about the collection of qualitative data as I am of the quantitative data. The only data I have to work with is the data based on the survey instrument. Since the scope of the data collected in this manner is in some sense is narrower than that of the ethnography I experience nervousness about whether this data is collected properly.  I don’t still, in some sense, share an ethnographer‘s anxiety of missing details that are crucial in building a story.

The freedom that the field provides

Often people find that the field provides certain freedoms that are not available in their day- to-day life. These liberties could be related to the freedom of being an outsider, or it could just be related to the structure of the field space.

In the field, it was generally felt that in spite of putting in a lot of effort to fit in, a researcher is typically an outsider.  Therefore, there are fewer preconceived notions about how she/he should behave, and hence greater acceptance of what might be considered aberrant behavior in non- field spaces.  So, while a researcher might be hesitant, as a woman, to smoke in certain parts of Bangalore, she may feel that on the field this behaviour may be accepted more easily, because she is perceived to come from a different context.  However, it is recognised that this may also attract attention, and therefore may also be risky. Regarding structural spaces, for me, often it has to do with the size of the places that I inhabit. For example, I find the size of Haveri town much smaller than Bangalore. This creates a sense of everybody knowing everybody, and therefore, I am more willing to take risks in Haveri than I would be in Bangalore. I feel there are fewer restrictions on my mobility.

 Ease or Security

While comfort appeared to be important in field work, what constituted comfort varied among researchers interviewed. For some, it meant comfort at the place they were staying, for others it meant availability of facilities in the field, for example, the presence of clean bathrooms.

Security also meant different things to different people. Field researchers not leading a project reflected on individual security on the field, whereas field researchers who were leading or coordinating a project reflected on the security of their team members on the field. They also reflected on processes that should be put in place to ensure the security of team members in the field- particularly, with regards to instances where they would not be onsite and hence coming up with security procedures for the team would be important. However, what was considered unsafe varied among researchers. For instance, waiting for the bus at the Haveri bus-stop alone late at night was considered unsafe by certain researchers while other researchers felt quite safe in these situations.

Women especially seemed to feel that an established connection with people and the place helped them feel more secure. It was also felt that an established connection with people also helped in breaking the ice and creating access to the field members.

In this article, I have tried to explore some of issues that I feel make field work both interesting and challenging.  The process of being in the field has I think affected the way I understand and think about data.  Writing this article has led to the understanding that various factors influence a person’s attitude to the field and the data that emerges as a result. Data, in some sense, has become more elusive and mysterious and therefore more interesting to me.

Padmaja Pancharatnam
Research Advisor, CBPS


One thought on “Reflections on Field-Work

  1. Puja

    Really reflective peice. Another major challenge, which I often face, is the co-ordination and logistics during field work, especially while visiting different places, trying to meet varied people (either from different areas or departments) and ensuring that we are equipped with phone numbers, addresses etc.


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