Topics Appropriate for Field Research

  • Topics that defy simply quantification
  • Attitudes and behaviors best understood in their natural setting
  • Social processes are better understood over time in their natural setting
  • Elements of Social Life Appropriate to Field Research
  • Practices
  • Episodes
  • Encounters
  • Roles and Social Types
  • Social and Personal Relationships
  • Groups and Cliques
  • Organizations
  • Settlements and Habitats
  • Social Worlds
  • Subcultures and Lifestyles

Special Considerations in Qualitative Field Research

  • Roles of the Observer
  • Participant, Researcher, Observer
  • Participant observation – participating in what you are studying while you are studying it
  • Not all field researchers do this. You don’t have to participate in order to observe.
  • Reactivity – The problem that the subjects of social research may react to the fact of being studied, thus altering their behavior from what it would have been normally.
  • Relations to Subjects
  • Objectivity – describes the researchers’ ability to draw conclusions based on facts rather than personal feelings or beliefs.
  • Emic perspective – adopting the point of view of those being studied.
  • Etic perspective – maintaining a distance from what is being studied to enhance objectivity.
  • Reflexivity/awareness of bias – affects both researchers and subjects; describes how your own characteristics affect what you see/pay attention to and how you interpret it.

Some Qualitative Field Research Paradigms

  • Naturalism
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Grounded Theory
  • Case Studies
  • Institutional Ethnography
  • Participatory Action Research
  • Naturalism – An approach to field research based on the assumption that an objective social reality exists and can be observed and reported accurately.
  • Ethnography – A report on social life that focuses on detailed and accurate description rather than explanation.
  • Ethnomethodology – An approach to the study of social life that focuses on the discovery of implicit meanings.
  • These are usually unspoken assumptions and agreements.
  • Grounded Theory – an inductive approach to the study of social life that attempts to generate a theory from the constant comparing of unfolding observations.

Note that this differs significantly from traditional hypothesis testing, in which theory generates hypotheses which are then tested.

  • Guidelines:
  • Think conservatively
  • Obtain multiple viewpoints
  • Periodically step back and assess what you know
  • Maintain an attitude of skepticism
  • Follow the research procedures
  • Case Studies – The in-depth examination of a single instance of some social phenomenon.
  • Extended Case Method – A technique in which case study observations are used to discover flaws in and to improve existing social theories.
  • Institutional Ethnography – A research technique in which the personal experiences of individuals are used to reveal power relationships and other characteristics of the institution within which they operate.
  • Participatory Action Research – An approach to social research in which the people being studied are given control over the purpose and procedures of the research.
  • Emancipatory Research – Research conducted for the purpose of benefiting disadvantaged groups.

Conducting Qualitative Field Research

  • Preparing for the Field
  • Be familiar with relevant research
  • Discuss your plans with others in the area
  • Identify and meet informants (when appropriate)
  • First impressions are important
  • Establish rapport (an open and trusting relationship)
  • Ethical considerations
  • Qualitative Interview – Contrasted with survey interviewing, the qualitative interview is based on a set of topics to be discussed in depth rather than based on the use of standardized questions.
  • “Miner” or “Traveler” roles
  • Stages in Complete Interviewing Process








  • Focus Group – A group of subjects interviewed together, prompting a discussion.
  • Advantages: real-life data, flexible, high degree of face validity, fast, inexpensive
  • Disadvantages: not representative, little interviewer control, difficult analysis, interviewer/moderator skills, difficult logistically
  • Recording Observations
  • Take detailed notes, but balance with observations
  • Rewrite notes with observations soon after observations with filled in details
  • Record empirical observations and interpretations
  • Record everything
  • Anticipate observations

Strengths and Weaknesses of Qualitative Field Research

  • Strengths of Qualitative Field Research
  • Effective for studying subtle nuances in attitudes and behaviors and social processes over time
  • Flexibility
  • Inexpensive
  • Weaknesses of Qualitative Field Research
  • No appropriate statistical analyses
  • Ethical issues
  • Validity
  • Greater validity than survey and experimental measurements
  • Reliability
  • Potential problems with reliability
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