Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Field Research

Female archaeologist digging up ancient pottery object at an archaeological site.


Once when I sent out questionnaires for a research project, the CEO of a manufacturing plant collected and worked through the questionnaires completed by his employees.

There were probably 100 to 200 completed questionnaires. He removed all the questionnaires that he felt could put him in a bad spot and sent me the rest.

Of course, I did not use any of them.

I was fortunate that one of his employees phoned and told me what he did.

Field Research

For many researchers, the collection of data involves or at least includes fieldwork.

Not all field research deals with people.

Also, fieldwork is not limited to research in nature only.

Field research can require the use of quantitative or qualitative analysis.

Preparing for field research

You should first refine your research project and develop your data collection instruments before you embark on fieldwork.

This is because your topic and the context in which your research will be done will determine if you should do fieldwork or not.

Where field research will take place

Field research, or fieldwork, means conducting empirical research in real-world settings.

You can do fieldwork in a classroom, observing students or lecturers, in factories, on ships, in aircraft and many more.

Doing fieldwork is not a must for all research.

You will use fieldwork if your research topic demands it, if you feel that it will enable you to do accurate and valid research, if your study leader expects it from you, if you can afford it, and if it is something that you will enjoy doing.

The research process

In the spirit of grounded theory, you should be open-minded about the realities that you encounter.

Let the data that you collect lead your thinking processes.

Don’t try to bend what you see and experience to fit your preconceived ideas.

Preconceptions that you should get rid of include personal beliefs and initial theoretical propositions.

It might be necessary to divide your observations into different categories.

Don’t categorise your observations and events prematurely, though.

The first days in the field are often seen as the most challenging and emotionally rewarding.

Meeting a new group of people in their environment, about which you might not know much, can be uncomfortable, perhaps even intimidating.

Remember that such people might not trust you in the beginning.

People are suspicious of the unknown and they may resist you and your research in the beginning.

Your research will be as strange to them as their environment to you.

If your doctoral studies are an extension of your previous studies, you might feel more comfortable with the environment in which you will do research.

Even so, you will probably encounter some new experiences and observations.

Doing site visits is a formally recognised way of doing fieldwork.

Site visits can be the only data collection method that you may use.

However, it is mostly necessary to collect other data as well.

You should be able to develop categories, propositions and eventually meaning based on what your experience and observe in the field.

Participant observation takes place during a site visit and a site visit may include other data collection activities.

Can you see how you can integrate different research methods?

Experimental methods, for example, can fit in well with fieldwork.

An advantage of site visits is that they enable data to be collected from many field settings as part of the same study.

The data from any single setting or site may be limited in terms of quantity, quality, and variety.

Studying cross-site patterns might be necessary for comparison, to identify trends or patterns in phenomena or behavior and for corroboration of data.

Not just any field setting will be suitable for research and data collection.

Difference In functions, context, time and size can render some sites irrelevant to your research topic.

It might sometimes be necessary to visit the same site at different times.

An example of this is where you do research on the effect over time of global warming on glaciers, rivers, vegetation, etc.

Site visits are likely to be more rigid than participant observation.

Site visits usually follow a pre-established schedule, as well as an agenda while you are in the field.

Site visits can be time-consuming and require substantial preparation.

It can also require good timing, for example, if you were to do research on the migration of salmon up rivers to spawn.

Interviewing, conversing with participants, and observing them while they do something that you do research on will also require good planning and timing.

Members of a field setting for interviewing may have helped you to arrange the schedule.

They will probably use the opportunity to schedule the interviews so that it will suit them.

The disadvantage of this is that they can also prepare their responses to your questions in advance, thereby making it artificial and probably not valid.

Their responses may be idealized and what they think you would like to hear.

This is an example of reflexivity.

Reflexivity in this context means that the presence of the researcher affects the people being studied.

The same kind of situation can happen in the case of participant observation.

A further complication arises when you are accompanied by your host during the site visit.

The host may wish to monitor you and see and hear what you learn from his employees.  

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with field research include behaviorism, constructivist, critical race theory, critical theory, functionalism, neoliberalism, positivism, pragmatism, radicalism, and scientism.


Field research can deal with people, phenomena in nature or even history.

It may require qualitative and/or quantitative research.

You will need to do literature study and decide how you will collect further data first before you will know what kind of field research you should do.

Fieldwork can be done almost anywhere.

You need to be open-minded and objective about the data that you collect through fieldwork.

Also, be prepared to go through a process of mental adjustment. You will need time to grow accustomed to strange people and an unknown environment.

The contextual conditions between participant observation and interviewing are not the same, but both can be damaged by reflexivity.

You can integrate fieldwork with most other research methods.

Fieldwork is not always necessary for all research on doctoral level.

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