Field research is a somewhat dated term that is used to describe research conducted under the naturally occurring contingencies of unmanipulated or naturally manipulated contexts. In this usage it is contrasted with laboratory research, which is to be conducted under highly controlled circumstances and in fully manipulated contexts. In this contrast, field research is considered to provide relevance to everyday life, and laboratory research rigor to the conclusions drawn. In the traditions of law-seeking sciences, laboratory research returns findings of the highest generalizability and, therefore, of greater value. This attribution, of course, politicizes the relationship between different research methods and the sciences that depend on them.
Types Of Field Research
Setting the political issue aside for the moment, old-school field researchers catalogue objects, places, and spaces, do content analysis, perform surveys, do case studies, hold interviews, conduct focus groups, do protocol analysis, perform nonparticipative observation of naturally occurring behavior, or use similar research methodologies. The cataloguing of objects, places, and spaces generally has to do with their role in some activity. Objects might be a tool, a ceremonial element, or ritual implement; a place might be a geographical or architectural configuration that facilitates an enactment or set of beliefs, for example, a study of the cathedrals of Europe as a cultural expression or the role of the ancestral Puebloan ruins of Chaco Canyon (New Mexico) in New Age practices; a space might be a classroom or office designed to materialize practice of control or the expression of status.
Content analysis focuses on the components and elements of texts of every sort – written, spoken, visual, linguistic, and nonlinguistic. A survey is a descriptive methodology that, as its geological and geographical heritage suggests, attempts to catalogue the demographic and/or psychographic attributes and traits of a group of people or ideational domain. A case study is an extensive description of a (usually) single exemplar of some social behavior, group, organization, etc. It ordinarily involves nonparticipant – and sometimes covert – observation of the targeted behavior and individuals. Interviews can be highly structured short-form, where the answers require little additional coding prior to analysis, or open-ended long-form, with answers of several paragraphs that require extensive coding prior to analysis. Focus groups are usually conducted by bringing individuals of interest to the researcher together for a session in which they will participate in a guided discussion on a researcher-chosen topic. Protocol analysis takes a variety of forms, but each involves collecting information during the process of some respondent-initiated, ongoing activity (protocol) for the purpose of learning something about the activity itself or the activity’s consequences for the practitioner. Nonparticipant observation is any sort of covert (e.g., behind a two-way mirror) or overt (fly-on-the-wall) observation, in which the observer is neither part of the group nor a participant in the activity being observed.
The significant components in all of these methods are: (a) the targeted object, place, space, or text is considered an actuality whose existence does not depend on the research; (b) the respondent retains a high level of autonomy of action; (c) the researcher is considered a neutral element and not a stakeholder in the object/place/text/action; (d) the relationship between the researcher and the respondent is not part of the results; (e) the respondent’s behavior is unconsidered and not deliberately enacted to achieve some agenda (other than the researcher’s); and (f ) the responses given are (therefore) ingenuously true. The purpose of the researcher is to collect information about an object/place/space/text, the respondent or the respondent’s state of mind, and/or about the course or consequences of some action. The data are descriptors of the respondent and/or the action, and the findings are considered descriptive rather than causal in character.
The fundamental limits of the sort of research are that the findings are always contingent on the particular – the particular objects, persons, or actions that are the source of the data. Given proper sampling procedures, one is justified in generalizing to larger populations but one is still limited to the particular conditions of that population. Populations shift, attitudes change, social practices evolve, technology intrudes, economies fail, governments fall out of favor. One would be hardly justified in using a survey of political attitudes taken as few as 10 years ago to describe a current situation. The findings may still be applicable, but the evidence would be missing.
The generalized claims that are advanced from descriptive data are considered tentative until they can be demonstrated under controlled experimental conditions conducted in the laboratory (gold standard) or in the field (lesser quality). Field experiments attempt to take advantage of differences that develop across some natural divide. For example, we might be interested in attitudes toward aggressive behavior for families with video game technology (VGT) and families without. Based on claims in the literature that participation in violent video games leads to a desensitization toward aggression, we might hypothesize that families with VGT will show more accepting attitudes toward aggression than families without VGT.
Such field experiments suffer from a common vulnerability in that the respondents self-select into the treatment categories. In our example, the very circumstances that led one family to buy VGT and another not may be associated with attitudes toward aggression. People who say “oh, it’s all harmless fun” might be very different from those who say “I will never allow that stuff in my house.” Laboratory experiments would achieve much higher rigor by being able to randomize assignment across the “harmless” and “never” folks, but in turn their findings would lose relevance to how people actually live.
Politics Of Method
The debate between rigor and relevance occurs across all science disciplines, but it is particularly pointed in the human sciences where laboratory, field, clinical, and applied sciences all vie for attention and funding. Most of the research generated in the history of the communication discipline has been traditional field research with content analysis and survey methods leading the list (a notable exception has been the message effects studies). This characteristic would put the discipline in the prescientific category using the traditional criterion of ranking sciences by the clarity with which they can attain causal explanations. Communication would be considered still in its descriptive stage with the fundamental axioms of the discipline yet undiscovered and its paradigmatic configuration yet unresolved. Causal claims are certainly advanced, but they are routinely challenged as well.
Naturally, there are practitioners who do not care to think of communication as prescientific. Some of these would argue that solid experimental work is being done and good, causal theory developed. Others might pick up the sociology argument that the relationships of interest are not materially determinant ones but rather contingent, social processes. If that argument is true, then the relationship between field approaches and laboratory approaches reverses itself because the laboratory work can never achieve the relevance necessary to make its findings of value. By being a field science, we are at the top of the game.
Changing Character Of Field Research
In the early 1970s, most of social science was marked by what was called “the interpretive turn” and a distinction between objectivist and interpretivist research began to come to the fore. The term “field research” came to be associated with objective methodologies, and such terms as “naturalistic inquiry” and “hermeneutic empiricism” with interpretive approaches. An additional layering was introduced as postmodern sensitivities for power relationships began to question the justification for imposing researcher-driven meanings on respondent actions and answers. In this paradigm, the researcher was no longer considered neutral but an obvious stakeholder in the outcome; the relationship between the researcher and respondent became a significant element in the character of the data; and the research itself became a social process available for analysis on its own. The respondent lost the cloak of ingenuity and became a modal actor in the research text. The position of postmodernism (to the extent that postmodernism can take a position) was that there was no place for the researcher to stand in order to objectively observe and describe the condition of the other.
This epistemological variation has been called a paradigm shift, in what has been so far shown to be a gross overstatement. There is an engaging group of scholars, who support interpretivism, postmodernism, one or both, but they have hardly swept the field. What has happened is that the term “field research” became further politicized. Now it is burdened not only by being “descriptive” but also by being “objectivist” and “modernist.” The ostensibly harmless, “Oh, I see you are doing field research,” can be akin to throwing down the gauntlet.
Interpretive Field Methods
The principal difference between interpretive field methods and objective field methods is the former’s commitment to member understandings and the latter’s dependence on some form of literal meaning. Interpretivists hold that nothing reads itself; the meaning of things is rarely obvious; and what can be understood through impersonal observation is merely a surface reading. To understand objects, space, place, texts, beliefs, and actions, one must be involved in the social processes that are the source of their meaning. Consequently, passive observation becomes participant observation (surveys, especially attitude surveys, are rarely used); texts are understood not only in their content but also in the activation of that content; and objects and space are considered not only in their static properties but also in their dynamic use.
Participant observation begins by establishing membership with the social grouping that sustains the action or belief set of interest. Interpretivist epistemology holds that it is the relational terms of the group that establish the meaningfulness of what the group does or holds true, or what group members acting as members do or believe. Consequently, to tap into that meaningfulness, the observer must achieve some level of a member’s understanding through participation.
A similar prior assumption directs the analysis of texts. The facts of the text (this word rather than that word) are necessary to know, but are insufficient to understand, the force or power to influence of the text. That information comes through analyzing the interpretive processes through which the text is activated or made available to the action. Further, these processes are not simply cognitive engagement; interpretation does not begin and end “behind the eyes.” It is in the social processes of interpretation that texts achieve their full significance.
Objects, space, and place are treated in the same way as texts: an inventory of the static components cannot by itself lead to an understanding of their meaningfulness. That meaningfulness arises and is made apparent when the object/space/place is put into play.
Status And Politics Revisited
If one were to do field research on the techniques and tactics of objective versus interpretive field researchers, one might find, in the middle of things, little difference in what they do. It is not a question of a special set of methods that defines the two groups, although there are some clear differences. The primary difference in method is the prior preparation of membership required of the interpretive approach, but there is a behindthe-scenes, epistemological structure that turns the whole thing upside down.
In interpretivist epistemology, field research is always preferred to laboratory research, and grounded approaches that move up from the action are always preferred to hypotheticaldeductive approaches that move down from prior theory. This configuration seems to echo the sociology argument about the primacy of filed methods, but, in fact, objectivists and interpretivists will both make the sociology argument and then disagree on epistemological grounds. The result is a mutual rejection of what the other holds dear. Ideas compete and so do their adherents. In the real world of science, things are neither neat and tidy nor necessarily friendly.
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