Field Research

Despite the risk of coming across as rather biased, sociologists believe that their discipline is one of the most important in the academic world. They explain that while it's important to understand the laws of physics and human bodies at the cellular level, our man-made systems, everyday interactions and normalized behaviors are just as important. 

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Table of contents

    For this reason, sociologists often step out into the 'real world' to ask and answer difficult questions about the human condition. This is known as field research.

    • In this explanation, we will explore the method of field research (sometimes referred to as 'fieldwork').
    • We'll start by unpacking a field research definition, and then we'll explore the importance of field research in the social sciences.
    • Next, we'll look at the various types of field research, as well as their relative uses in sociology.
    • To cement our understanding of this method, we'll then take a look at some famous field research examples.
    • Finally, we'll look at the various advantages and disadvantages of field research.

    Definition of Field Research

    Field research goes by a few different names depending on the specific aims and methods used in the research process. For instance, fieldwork, ethnography and observation are all often used interchangeably with the term 'field research'.

    Field Research, books in wooden bookshelf, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Fieldwork is a common and well-suited method to discover sociological insights.

    What is Field Research?

    Field research is a qualitative method in which researchers observe how people live their real lives in their natural environments.

    Fieldwork tends to take a qualitative form because researchers are usually interested in collecting rich and detailed primary data. They tend to observe and analyze existing social situations to develop theories and concepts, which can potentially be generalized to broader populations.

    Building theories from data is known as inductive research. This is the opposite of deductive research, which involves testing existing theories with research methods and data.

    The field researcher also has to be willing to explore, participate in and experience new environments. Examples of fieldwork topics include:

    • the work environment in a corporate office,
    • the learning methods used in a middle school classroom,
    • the work dynamics in a popular restaurant's kitchen, or
    • the daily life of a homeless person.

    Conducting Field Research

    As we will come to learn, there are various kinds of field research that have their own uses, advantages and limitations. However, there are certain steps that are universal to field (and other types of) research, including:

    • Identifying a social problem or 'puzzle' that is misunderstood or unexplored.

    • Examining whether it would be possible to gain access to the site of that problem, whether this is a large corporate office or a remote tribe.

    • Deciding which method(s) would be suitable for your research aims.

    If you were to study a corporate office culture, you might gain more insight by hiding the fact that you are a researcher to gain the trust of the research participants. On the other hand, when studying a remote tribe, overt, participant research would be more ethical, and unstructured interviews could provide more insight.

    Another factor which influences the choice of methods is the ability to note down findings. If participants are aware of your presence as a researcher, you can take note of your observation out in the open.

    However, if you are 'undercover', you may need to step away every once in a while to take notes in private, or retain your observations throughout the day, so you can make note of them at home in the evening.

    • Analyzing the data after it has been collected, and drawing conclusions from the findings.

    • Communicating your research findings and evaluating your methods for any strengths or limitations that came up throughout the process.

    The Importance of Field Research

    Field research is an important method because it involves observing people's behaviors in their natural environments. For example, when research subjects participate in laboratory research, the awareness of being in a laboratory (and knowing that they are being evaluated) may cause those subjects to behave in unnatural ways. Field research helps make up for this lack of validity by taking away the artificial environment and its unintended effects.

    Regardless, it is still difficult to narrow down the causes and impacts of particular aspects in a natural environment - because it is totally uncontrolled! For this reason, fieldwork is important not for establishing cause and effect, but for making correlations.

    When studying relationships between multiple variables, causation implies that some variables are the result of others. A correlational relationship simply suggests that the variables are connected in some way.

    Types of Field Research

    As mentioned earlier, there are various types of field research - each suited to unique aims, practicalities and research orientations.


    Field Research, crowded street, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Ethnography is a field of study, which makes use of methods such as observations and interviews.

    Ethnography is the systematic study of human cultures, communities and livelihoods.

    The main aim of ethnography is to understand how research subjects understand their livelihoods on their own, as well as in relation to the broader community. While ethnographic research is a field of study, it can use of participant observation, which is a research method. It often takes place over an extended period of time - perhaps even up to a few years.

    Some examples of different types of ethnography include:

    • Institutional ethnography, which looks at how various institutions impact our day-to-day lives and activities.

    • Business ethnographic research targets consumer behavior by examining markets, target markets and demands.

    • Educational ethnographic research helps researchers observe and analyze teaching and learning methods.

    • Medical ethnographic research tells researchers about the needs of those seeking healthcare.

    To learn more about ethnography, take a look at the dedicated explanation on the StudySmarter web-app!

    Participant Observation

    In participant observation, the researcher integrates themselves into a group to study their way of life, their culture, and how they structure their community.

    This research method is useful for field researchers who want to understand the workings of a particular environment as an insider in that community. The researcher will take part in the group's daily activities and routines to understand (and perhaps even take up) their perspective.

    This also means that the researcher should try to avoid influencing any group behavior or opinions. For this reason, the researcher might go undercover and carry out a covert participant observation.

    • In covert research, the participants aren't aware that there's a researcher present among them.

    • In overt research, the research participants are aware of the researcher's presence and their task.

    A field researcher may also choose to carry out a non-participant observational study. In non-participant observation, the researcher doesn't join the group being studied, but simply observes that group in their natural environment.

    To learn more about observation, take a look at the dedicated explanation on the StudySmarter web-app!

    Case Studies

    In-depth explorations of a particular person, group, community, organization, situation or event are called case studies.

    Case studies are conducted with a narrow focus in mind, so they can't be used to make wide, generalizable claims about particular situations.

    A sociologist might use this method to study a particular case in-depth. Examples of cases they might explore are:

    • gang members,
    • a cancer patient,
    • adoptive parents,
    • victims of abuse, or
    • a special needs carer.

    Case studies can be considered fieldwork because they involve a close, often lengthy investigation of a situation. The researcher might immerse themselves in the case study's day-to-day lives. They might also use relevant personal documents, like diaries or letters, to help their analysis.

    To learn more about case studies, take a look at the dedicated explanation on the StudySmarter web-app!

    Field Research Examples

    Let's take a look at some examples of field research in sociology.

    Ethnographic Study Example: The Making of Middletown

    Robert and Helen Lynd (1924) conducted an ethnographic study in Muncie, Indiana. They aimed to examine the day-to-day lives of the average American. The ethnography involved the use of observation, interviews, surveys and secondary data analysis.

    Two types of classes were identified in Muncie - business class groups and the working class groups. These class groups had very different lifestyles, levels of wealth, and life goals.

    Participant Observational Study Example: On the Run

    A very famous participant observation was conducted by Alice Goffman (2014) over the span of six years. Goffman observed the lives of a poor, Black, community subjected to high levels of surveillance, in West Philadelphia. Goffman had a community member introduce her as his sister to gain access for a covert, participant observation.

    Case Study Example

    Another famous example of field research - this time, a case study - was conducted by Stephen Ball (1981). Over a span of three years, Ball closely observed two groups of students at the Beachside Comprehensive school. He aimed to find out why working-class students underperformed, particularly in the context of this specific school.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Field Research

    As is the case with all sociological methods, field research has several advantages and disadvantages. Let's take a look at these now.

    Benefits of Field Research

    • The main appeal of fieldwork is that the research subjects can be observed in their own environments carrying out their regular, daily routines. This increases the validity of results.

    • From this, researchers can obtain detailed and accurate information in real time.

    • Field research may involve combining various methods (such as observation and interviews). This is known as methodological pluralism or triangulation. It also helps generate high levels of validity and holism.

    • Through fieldwork, researchers try to get access to important information and experiences by gaining the trust of their research subjects. This can help researchers understand what people do, as well as why and how they do it.

    Limitations of Field Research

    • Fieldwork, especially as case studies and participant observational studies, tend to examine a particular situation. This means the results don't tend to be generalizable to wider populations or groups.

    • Notably, field research is subjected to many ethical considerations. A researcher who immerses themselves into the lives of a community, particularly if they are doing so covertly, raises questions about informed consent, privacy and confidentiality.

    • Some researchers suggest that all observation is theory-dependent. This means that, to understand the behavior and environment they are observing, the researcher already needs to have a certain level of knowledge about it. Not having this knowledge may lead to misinterpretations and inaccurate findings.

    • If conducting fieldwork on a dangerous or deviant situation, there is a risk that the researcher will get involved in such behavior in order to avoid being exposed as a researcher.

    • On the other hand, if the presence of the researcher is known, the validity of the study is compromised because of the Hawthorne effect. This is when research subjects change their behavior because they know they are being observed.

    Field Research - Key takeaways

    • Field research can be defined as a qualitative method in which researchers observes how people live their real lives in their natural environments.
    • Fieldwork tends to take a qualitative form because researchers are usually interested in collecting rich and detailed primary data.
    • Types of field research include ethnography, participant observation and case studies.
    • Field research is beneficial because it provides high levels of validity due to the natural conditions in which it is conducted.
    • On the other hand, field research is subjected to limitations such as a lack of generalizability, ethical breaches and the Hawthorne effect.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Field Research

    What is field research in sociology?

    Field research can be defined as a qualitative method in which researchers observe how people live their real lives in their natural environments.

    What is an example of field research?

    A famous example of field research was conducted by Alice Goffman (2014), who observed the lives of a poor, Black community subjected to high levels of surveillance in West Philadelphia. She used covert participant observation as her main research method.

    What are the three types of field research?

    The three types of field research are ethnography, participant observation and case study.

    What can you get from field research?

    The main appeal of fieldwork is that it tends to generate high levels of validity within rich, detailed and accurate information in real time. 

    Why is field research important?

    Field research is an important method because it involves observing people's behaviors in their natural environments. This makes for high levels of validity by removing the barrier of artificial environments and set ups. 

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    Team Sociology Teachers

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