Fieldwork is the collection of data in a natural environment, usually in person by a single, or a team of researchers. Its aim is to collect data (quantitative, qualitative, ethnographic, etc.) of high ecological validity in a natural location. This does not necessarily mean that it will be an “exotic” location. It can be anywhere the study dictates: if the research topic is on mixed-martial-arts, it will probably be an urban neighborhood. If it is on the cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã, then the location will probably be the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil.
Some academics and research students consider fieldwork to be a “Rite of Passage”, which will enable successful pilgrims to join The Club, writing about experiences of the wild, wonderful world of fieldwork research. Others see it as an educational opportunity, and rightly so. Others yet are so profoundly affected by it that they go on to write superb books about the experience of conducting fieldwork on the Ethnographic Self. Unfortunately (warning: spoilers ahead) there is no club that fieldwork researchers receive an invitation to, unless the fieldwork itself is done in a night club.
As part of the Music and Science Lab of Durham University, many of us conduct original research involving human participants very frequently. We put new theories to the test, and discover findings that push the boundaries of how music affects us in our everyday lives and beyond. Based on the needs of each individual research project, we will recruit participants and bring them to the lab, conduct our research online (arguably an option to be seriously considered, provided the experiment parameters actually permit it), or travel far afield and recruit participants on location. There is no question as to which method is better – a study’s design and output goals determine which method is the most appropriate one. Apart from the objective of the research project itself, the availability of time, financial resources, the overall number of participants the study aims at engaging, as well as the feasibility of the final target also play an important role.
I have just returned from conducting fieldwork in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region of north-west Pakistan, in an area that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) currently advise against all, or all but essential travel. This was not my first fieldwork trip; in the past I have conducted research in Papua New Guinea, Japan, and Greece. Each trip was significantly different from the other ones, and required different measures of preparation. That being said, there are some questions which all researchers should ask themselves, regardless of the destination and fieldwork site. It is these questions that I would like to focus on in this entry, for the benefit of other researchers who are about to embark on fieldwork research in the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Before you go
- Are you absolutely sure you have to do fieldwork to obtain your data?
Conducting research in the field is done so as to obtain data which would otherwise be unavailable in any other way (particularly if the aim is to collect data from a specific remote population) and can only be obtained by physically travelling to where said population is located; no-one, no-one should even consider on-site fieldwork in their right mind if any other method of collecting data is available (e.g., if it is possible to conduct the research via an online platform such as MTurk or Prolific, or in the lab at your home university). Fieldwork is expensive, potentially dangerous and sometimes even life-threatening, and should be considered only after all options have been weighed and measured in consideration of their potential benefit to the topic of investigation. If fieldwork is the only way so as to gain insight into a specific topic or in order to collect data from a specific population, then and only then should it be considered as a viable option, followed by very careful planning.
2. Are you in an excellent physical condition and mental state to conduct fieldwork research?
Consider this thoroughly before you even submit an application to your Departmental Ethics Committee. Fieldwork will put your body and mind to the test, and the longer the duration that you will be out in the field, the harder it will get. If you have any permanent medical condition or physical disability, take it into consideration how it may affect your fieldwork. I am referring to your general well-being, not to getting the right vaccinations, malaria pills or travel insurance – I will discuss these things further down. You should be able to carry your own weight (literally), the weight of your equipment, and be fit enough to travel to and from your base of operations to your fieldwork site as often as required. Mentally, you will need to stay on track and on top of situations which will probably be beyond your control. Fieldwork can be extremely monotonous and emotionally demanding. The way to stay on top of things is not to lose track of your main objective (and the bigger picture) without compromising your well-being: you are there to collect fieldwork data – you do not have to prove anything. For this reason, it is of vital importance that your data collection goals are realistic. If things do go wrong, maintain a positive attitude – see if you can address the situation on your own, and if necessary, ask for help: be willing to improvise, and compromise if necessary. If you feel unsafe or are unwell, follow the contingency plan you should have prepared beforehand. You should have adequate travel insurance in place to enable rapid medical treatment or emergency extraction from the country that you are conducting your work in, and you should ensure that you have in place a detailed contingency operation and evacuation plan if necessary. If you need help, ask for it.
After you have addressed the above question, then consider that prior to your proposed trip (at least two months, if not more), you should visit a health care professional and ensure that you have all appropriate vaccinations. Depending on the location of your fieldwork, you may need to get vaccinations or boosters for measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, chickenpox, polio, and an annual flu vaccine. These can also include hepatitis A, typhoid, hepatitis B, rabies, malaria and yellow fever, among others. If you are against vaccinations out of personal volition or religious beliefs, I strongly advise you against travelling and conducting fieldwork abroad for your own safety and for others’.
If you are a female researcher, or a member of the LGBTQ+ community, you may be advised to take extra precaution during your fieldwork. There are locations around the world where women are advised not to travel alone, and adhere to a specific dress code. There are also locations around the world where members of the LGBTQ+ community will feel unwelcome, or even face persecution for the public display of their sexuality. Always check what the local customs are before travelling and take them into serious consideration, and evaluate how these may affect your fieldwork. I have always followed a very simple rule on my fieldwork trips in moderate-high risk locations: keep a low profile, never travel alone, and if possible, never travel at night.
3. Is the location that you intend to travel to safe enough to carry out research?
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office offer detailed information for all countries and provide up-to-date advice about safety. Nevertheless, you should conduct research into the current domestic political situation of your proposed fieldwork location, and establish a local point of contact. You must understand that the regulations in place by Universities on ethics and fieldwork are necessary so as to avoid harm to researchers, among other issues (e.g., that your research is done in an ethical manner). Their ethics and safety review processes are NOT in place to censor and control research, but to assess the very real threat of sending an individual to a potentially perilous field site. And no, there is no conspiracy by Universities to stop researchers from conducting research on sensitive topics via daunting ethical, methodological, and institutional challenges.
You should provide your University (colleagues, supervisor), your friends and your family a copy of your travel itinerary, and maintain regular communications with them, as often as possible. You should always have access to an independent emergency communications system – a basic Nokia phone (practically indestructible with a battery life of a week, starting price around £20) may come in handy. Try to obtain a local number as well. If you intend to travel for a long period of time at a location outside the grid consider investing in a satphone (for £200 or more). Also, register your trip with your country’s embassy, and consider tracking your movements online as well, if you can. Further to this, ensure that you are travelling with “clean” devices devoid of personal identity information and sensitive files, and implement a Full Disk Encryption (FDE) on your computer.
4. Do you have all the paperwork in place?
Your fieldwork research proposal will need to be approved by your University. Some universities assess proposals centrally via their Research Offices; others allocate the task to separate departments, which each has its own Ethics Committee. If your research requires you to submit a risk assessment as well, you will also need to provide one. You will need to have travel insurance – check if you should obtain it via your institution. For Durham University, you may find further information on VIATOR travel insurance here and here. My personal risk assessment for NW Pakistan, which is ranked as a high security risk area by Global Response, was ten pages long, and touched upon a wide variety of topics, ranging from medical, infrastructural, political and overall safety issues. In order to prepare for a trip to this high-risk area before travelling, I watched a series of videos made available by my insurance provider covering a wide variety of health & safety issues during fieldwork (including, among others, terrorist attacks and kidnapping). Hopefully, you will need none of this information. Nevertheless, watch it, and take it seriously.
If you are travelling abroad you may need to obtain a research VISA for your destination. Apply as early as possible, and take into account that there may be delays. It took me 5 months to get my VISA in order to conduct research in Pakistan. Some countries may require you to obtain a No Objection Certificate (N.O.C.) before carrying out research as well. Others will require an invitation letter from a research institution based in their own country. If you want to avoid delays, ask your university’s International Office for assistance. The International Office will be able to offer invaluable advice on any paperwork you may need, and guide you through your research VISA application. For more information on Durham University’s International Office, see here. Keep in mind that if you do not have the correct paperwork with you (i.e., you get a tourist VISA instead of a research VISA, just because it is easier) the local authorities may not take this lightly, regardless if you consider the topic of your research to be “harmless”. This is not for you to decide and evaluate. Most journals will require you to submit proof that you have obtained your data following appropriate protocol. This includes obtaining permission by the country in which you have carried out your research. Once you have all necessary paperwork in place, make sure that you carry at least one copy of these documents (e.g., your passport, research VISA, N.O.C.) on your person at all times. In Pakistan – especially if you are travelling on the Peshawar to Chitral road via the Lowari Pass –-you will encounter an army/police checkpoint every 20 miles or so. Be prepared to show copies of your documents upon request (and the originals as well if they asked for them) as often as required to any member of the country’s security forces who demand to see them.
5. Do you have a local contact on site? Can you carry out your proposed research with their help/assistance?
You should have established contact with someone at your fieldwork site before you travel, either with an institution, or with local individuals whom you know very well personally and have known for a very long time. For my fieldwork in Japan, my point of contact was the Kyoto City University of the Arts, and the Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku, both of whom I approached via the Japanese Consulate in Edinburgh, U.K. For my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, I approached the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. For my most recent fieldwork among tribes in NW Pakistan, my contact was a local whom I had known for over a decade, and had met every summer. Your local point of contact will offer you an insight into the location which you intend to travel to from a more pragmatic side, provide insider knowledge on the local culture and the feasibility of your research goals.
It is very important that you set realistic goals for yourself, after you have consulted your contacts. If you are dealing with human participants, you will have to adhere to their customs so as to approach them on equal terms and not abuse your position of power as a researcher. Further to this, it may be very easy to locate willing participants at your host institution, but this may not be the case at your fieldwork site. Local practices may deem it counter-productive, offensive, or even dangerous to your safety to offer monetary compensation for participation, so always listen to your local contacts and the advice they have to offer. This will help you address the following question:
6. How familiar are you with the conditions on the ground? Can you conduct fieldwork in those conditions?
Apart from assessing health and safety, clearing necessary paperwork, establishing realistic research goals, respecting local customs and practices, and establishing local contacts, learn all you can about the conditions on the ground. Ask yourself:
- Is the water safe to drink? If not, how will you sanitize it? In Papua New Guinea and Pakistan I used chlorine capsules to make the water drinkable. The safest thing to do is to boil the water. Do not drink tap water, nor use it for brushing your teeth, unless you are 100% sure that is safe to do so. DO NOT drink water from a river, stream or lake, because you have seen the locals do it. Remember: safe, drinkable water is your no.1 priority at all times. You cannot do research if you are physically unwell.
- Can you eat the local food? If not, what will you eat? Is it possible to buy ingredients for cooking? Are there facilities for you to prepare your own food, without consuming too much time, effort and resources? Do not consider bringing your own food from abroad, unless you intend to stay on site for a very short time. Food is heavy, and so is your equipment. Do not put yourself in a position where you need to choose between the two.
- Where will you sleep? Will you be sleeping alone or with others? Can you survive the hot/cold weather? Have you brought appropriate clothes with you? Have you brought insect repellent (and malaria pills, if necessary)?
- If you require medication, have you brought enough with you? On this point, NEVER hand out pills/medication to anyone.
- Can you maintain an adequate level of hygiene? Ask your local contacts about this. If you have ever been wild camping you know exactly what I mean. I went wild camping for many years in my 20s, and acquired skills which served me well during fieldwork. For example, see the following steps here on how to use a squat toilet. A hole in the ground follows the same principle. Are you ok to do this?
- Is there electricity widely available? Can you charge your equipment so as to carry out your work? If not, where is the closest electricity grid? If there is none, can you obtain solar panels easily, and will these be powerful enough to cover your energy supply? Should you obtain a current converter (DC to AC, including an ups device) so as to charge equipment from a car battery without melting it at the same time? How many batteries can you physically carry? Remember that batteries are usually heavy. Can you carry them? Consider adapting your methodology if necessary to minimize your energy requirements. If an analogue method of recording your participants’ responses is available without compromising your results, consider if adopting it is a viable solution. If you are a music psychologist and you have to play sound samples to your participants, keep in mind that an mp3/iPod player’s batteries last for at least 10 hours, they are a lot faster to charge than a laptop, and with a headphone splitter both you and your participant can hear the stimuli playing. I do realise that this may even sound archaic to some, but consider that in some locations of the world AA/AAA 1.5V batteries are a lot easier to find than an AC power socket.
- If a piece of equipment gets broken/damaged, can you repair it or replace it while you are there? If not, can you get spares, i.e., a second pair of headphones? If you lose a connecting/charging cable or an adapter, can you find one easily at your base of operations? If not, seek alternatives, or get spares BEFORE you leave for fieldwork. Is all of your equipment in perfect working order? What measures can you take so as to ensure that it remains as such? Do you need to wrap it in bubble paper, or seal it in a waterproof bag?
- Do you have to adhere to a local dress code? In NW Pakistan, both women and men follow a very modest dress code (traditional full-sleeved clothes which cover the shoulders) and observe a very specific code of conduct in terms of behaviour and appearance. Will this have any effect on the data collection?
7. Have you run a pilot beforehand?
You are about to go abroad because your need for results with high ecological validity from a specific target-population has necessitated you to conduct fieldwork. Before you go, what you need to realise is that the main benefit of a lab setting (or online data collection) is that you control nearly all of the variables (if you are conducting an experiment), and the results you obtain can be easily replicable, if you have done everything right. In the field, you do not control all the variables. Your results may be difficult to replicate, impossible to generalize, so you need to be very, very well prepared. If you are a student, seek help and advice during the preparation stage and walk through each step with your supervisor BEFORE you conduct your research in the field. Try to pilot the study first, and see if you have missed something. The longer you prepare, the less you leave to chance while you are on site.
While you are there
If you have managed to answer all the above questions, then congratulations, you are ready to approach the fieldwork site. There are many blogs offering advice as to how to go about doing your research, so I will keep the following very short.
- Be open and frank to both authorities and participants about who you are, who you are working for, and what your research is about.
- Back up your work on a daily basis. If it is in digital form, have at least two extra copies. If it is in physical form (i.e. paper) and there is no scanner to be found on a 1000 mile radius, take photographs of the paper or use a handheld scanner. Now your data is in digital form. Make two copies at least.
- Check whether your equipment is in full working order, that you have all necessary cables with you, and that all devices are charged with electricity before you leave your base of operations to your fieldwork site.
- If you can, try to maintain a daily routine and keep a diary of your daily activities. If you don’t write all relevant data down, you WILL forget it, regardless of what it refers to: it may be an important piece of information, or it may be a recipe for baked marmot-pie. Make a note of it. It really pays off to be organized.
- If you are working with human participants, make sure you have their informed consent prior to collecting data, and that you have already discussed how and in what form you will compensate them for their time. This second part is to be discussed with your local contact to make sure that any reimbursement is culturally appropriate and fair for the amount of time they spent taking part in your study. Keep in mind that money is not always the best option.
- Don’t rush. You will make mistakes. When it comes to fieldwork data, quality beats quantity every time. It is better to carry out and obtain three really good interviews/sessions per day, than to try to squeeze six participants in so as to boost your numbers, and forget to hit the record/capture button in the process.
- Prior to collecting and analyzing your data, do not speculate on the results. If the data that you are collecting vary significantly from what you were expecting, contact your supervisor or your colleagues, and talk about it. After you have made sure that you are collecting, recording and documenting everything following the right methodology, then there is a chance that you may be on to something potentially very interesting and revealing. Your fieldwork is never futile, and any result you get is precious.
- BE KIND. If you are working with human participants, informants, anyone really, be kind to them. The people around you have taken time out of their daily activities to interact with you. The least you can do is treat them nicely. Plus, if (or should I say when) things go wrong, it is these same people that will try – and they will try – to help you. While I was facing a third day without electricity in NW Pakistan due to a storm which flooded the local hydroplant, the local tribesmen drove us to the next town to recharge our batteries (a two hour drive). Another time, the local police provided us with a diesel generator (which fried my adaptors, but it is the thought that counts). When I got ill in Papua New Guinea due to some poorly prepared food, the BenaBena tribe I was located at got a doctor from the neighbouring town to come and have a look at me. A smile, a word of appreciation, and a sincere thank-you, can go a very long way. Talk to the local people, and hear what they have to say. These are not just “informants” and “future participants”, these are people living their daily lives. At the very least you will have gotten useful insights into another culture, which will assist you with making sense of your data. Most interactions you will have will be positive, and you will have the opportunity to make life-long friends. Trust me on this one.