Fieldwork: Ethical Considerations, Funding, and Data Collection Methods

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany

Photo by Ryan Tauss on Unsplash

The recent MPSA conference offered many valuable roundtables related to professional development for a variety of populations including graduate students. I had the opportunity to attend the roundtable about how to do fieldwork, an important one for any researcher needing to travel to a particular place to collect data, whether in one’s home country or abroad. The roundtable offered several useful insights for graduate students, many of which I have found helpful during my own fieldwork.

Ethical Considerations

First and foremost, researchers needing to collect data from the field must consider the impact of their research on their subjects. Of course, this need applies more to researchers conducting interviews, focus groups, surveys, participant observation, or using other ethnographic techniques than archival work. Many vital questions in social science involve vulnerable populations, which can include marginalized communities, survivors of sexual assault, former members of a terrorist organization, and many others. It is the researchers’ responsibility to consider the ways in which their research may impact the lives and safety of their subjects. Considerations might entail keeping the subject’s identity anonymous in the publication of the research or even where an interview takes place.

A consequential question raised during the roundtable was what to do if an interviewee reveals something unexpected that might be damning to a public figure. Should a researcher publicize everything reported to them by their interviewees? While it might be tempting to drop a proverbial bombshell and provide a surprising insight, the panelists cautioned against rushing to judgement about such revelations. One should carefully consider the ramifications of making that revelation public. It may or may not be true; the researcher should try to verify the claim through other sources. Even if the claim is true, the researcher should consider the implications for their interviewee. Will it put the interviewee’s safety at risk? Will it otherwise harm the interviewee (i.e. reputational costs, employment impacts)?

The Logistics of Fieldwork

The panelists on the roundtable also brought up several logistical considerations important for researchers going to the field to consider, from funding to how to get the data. Most of the panelists did their fieldwork over the course of several trips (the majority did research abroad). Many began their projects with a preliminary trip of a few weeks and then returned to their site; most of the panel stayed in their research site consecutively no more than a year, often less.

An audience member also asked about one of the most imperative parts of doing fieldwork: getting it funded. As one panelist noted, it is difficult to get funding for fieldwork, depending on the type of research one is doing and the institution with which one is affiliated. Fortunately, there were a few roundtables in the #MPSA19 program dedicated solely to research funding, one of which I will cover in a future blog. One tip that a panelist mentioned was one that I have heard from many experienced researchers; for researchers staying at their research site for a semester or more, it is sometimes possible to draw an income by teaching at a host university. Those doing research outside of their home countries often seek institutional affiliations for a variety of reasons, including access to resources such as libraries or teaching opportunities. Researchers not affiliated with a local university or college can also contact nearby institutions about teaching opportunities.

The roundtable also included various points about collecting the data itself. The panelists cautioned against “parachuting” into a research site. Researchers (should) go to the field not to quickly gather data and leave (“parachuting”) but to go to the field to get a better sense of the area and the culture. Understanding the research site, of course, should begin long before one actually arrives. At the same time, understanding the research site through secondary sources cannot substitute for firsthand experience. In my experience, immersing yourself in the culture, sometimes called “soaking and poking”, is as important to the research as the data collection is itself. Understanding the context is essential for understanding the data one collects: how do the insights from the interview fit into the big picture? Furthermore, gaining knowledge about the area through experience may make interviewees more likely to open up; it shows a respect for their home country and community.

Preparation prior to each interview is integral to data collection as well. The panelists emphasized “doing one’s homework” to get the most out of each interview. Are there questions for which a certain person can give better insights than others? Not only can preparation maximize the utility of the interview, but adequate preparation also signals to the interviewee that the researcher is serious and knowledgeable about the topic of interest, which may make them more comfortable to share information.

The format of the data collection may also influence how open interviewees are. One panelist mentioned that their experiences with focus groups yielded some insights that a one-on-one interview may not have. The researcher interviewed military personnel, a group from which it may be difficult to garner unfeigned answers, and found in a few instances that when one person was candid, the rest of the group also opened up.

The roundtable on fieldwork was one of my favorite sessions at #MPSA19, offering insights from researchers who have valuable firsthand experience in conducting fieldwork from which graduate students and researchers at all levels can benefit. I hope that similar roundtables continue to be offered at future MPSA conferences.

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.