(Bailey) A Guide to Qualitative Field Research. Intro, Chapter 1 [James]

Bailey, C. A. (2007). A Guide to Qualitative Field Research 2nd Edition

Baily (2007) starts in the preface by stating that it is hard to prepare students for all circumstances that they will encounter while doing fieldwork, and that success sometimes depends on timing or luck. She also states that there are innate characteristics such as “good social skills, an ability to cope with ambiguity, patience, and flexibility” (Bailey, 2007, p. xii) that you can’t learn by reading a book. She continues that the best way to learn fieldwork is to do it.

In order to conduct fieldwork the researcher needs to have a good understanding of the different methods and techniques that are available. Researchers need to have the flexibility to switch methods midstream depending on the circumstances that come up. Also, field research is nonlinear, and researchers need to be able to fluidly move between the different “stages” at any time.

Survey research investigates a limited number of predefined variables. Alternately, fieldwork takes a more holistic view of the circumstances, interactions, and history of the subjects. Change over time also plays an important part of field research. Baily (2007) equates survey research to a photograph, and fieldwork to a movie, stating “life is, metaphorically, better captured by a movie than by a photograph” (Bailey, 2007, p. 3).

“Field researchers usually begin their study with an overarching question” (Bailey, 2007, p. 4).  Once the research has started this overarching question is usually refined and additional research questions can be added. These refinements lead to more focused investigation.

Data is collected by the direct interactions and observations of the researcher, interviews (unstructured, semi-structured, and structured), and surveys. With the exception of surveys, the data is stored as filed notes, and is a collection of words, sentences, and phrases, and notes about specific observations. Interviews are typically recorded and transcribed. In order to analyze their data; researcher apply codes that allow them to group and organize data that is useful in addressing the research question. They usually report the findings of their data in a narrative format.

The researcher is a critical part of the research. The unique characteristics of the researcher will determine the depth of responses from subjects, judgments on what is important enough to be recorded in filed notes, personal history, and values. Reflexivity is the practice of the researcher looking at him/her self and evaluating how these characteristics could have affected the research. Depending on the paradigm used results from this evaluation are sometimes included in the final report. The positivist paradigm is committed to objectivism; whereas, the interpretive paradigm holds “social reality is not independent of the social meaning” (Bailey, 2007, p. 7). Those using the positivist paradigm are less likely to include reflexivity in their report.

Discussion questions:

  1. Do you have the characteristics that are needed for fieldwork?
  2. Do you subscribe to the positivist or interpretive paradigm? Why?
  3. If you were doing fieldwork; what tools would you use to record field notes?
  4. What are some unanticipated circumstances that would require the researcher to change methods?

24 thoughts on “(Bailey) A Guide to Qualitative Field Research. Intro, Chapter 1 [James]

  1. 1. The type of fieldwork determines which status characteristics are needed to be successful. If I (being a white male) were to conduct fieldwork studies at Naomi’s House (an agency devoted to helping homeless women), I might be seen as an outsider. The types of observations I see will be through a guarded barrier and the true nature of this setting might be hidden.
    2. I’m not sure one could claim they subscribe to an value-free type of observation, because the morals and values are the filters through which we see our world. To deny your own morals in your observations is the same as claiming you are color-blind to race or gender.
    3. I’ve used unstructured interviews in a lot of the work I have done, because I feel it is important to empower the parents or students I work with. I want to respect their opinions and not come in to an interview with a set direction or purpose and allow the respondent to determine where the conversation is headed.
    4. There are times during unstructured interviews when the topic becomes stale or off-topic. During these situations it is important for the person conducting the interview to ask a guiding question to make the interview more relevant to the study’s goals/objectives.

      • This is where experience comes into play… a good interviewer is able to keep the discussion relevant, just like a teacher has control of the students to keep the content focused on the topics.

  2. I do have the characteristics of observation and self reflection, but I don’t see myself becoming a researcher who spends one year in intense study of living in an outside setting. I have zero desire to live as a college freshman for the purpose of research, as the author of My Freshman Year did.
    Having observed many students in the beginning stages of learning about Deaf culture, I see how much one’s own culture creates a lens for viewing another culture. As a result, when I am reading others’ work, I want to know more about the researcher’s reflections as I am considering the work. I have much to learn in utilizing qualitative research techniques and will need to be critical in evaluating my own biases and perceptions in the work.

    • I would agree that culture creates a lens for viewing another culture. I would also add that there are cultures within cultures and judgment is often made because there isn’t a clear understanding of the various cultural norms. I’ve read many articles relating to Hispanic male studies in which the researcher(s) failed to address the uniqueness within the culture. It’s not a one way street. I feel that I have the characteristics needed for fieldwork because of the way I take the time to self-reflect.

      • I agree Sophia. I think we also have to know when that self reflection leads us to an understanding that we are not equipped to consider certain cultural norms or differences because our depth of understanding is just not present.

  3. There are various unanticipated circumstances that would require the researcher to change methods. One would be the death or injury of a research participant. Some researchers may have difficulty in obtaining access to participants. Others may become engaged in a political battle. Sufficient flexibility is needed in order to adapt to unanticipated circumstances. These unanticipated circumstances may directly affect the research itself. If it presents a potential risk to participants, the research may need to be discontinued.

    • What could the researcher do if they “difficulty in obtaining access to participants?” How might they go about gaining access to suitable participants?

      • This reminds me of some of our summer field projects. We discussed in class that many of us had a difficult time gaining access to participants. There were many roadblocks present. I’m thinking of Nan’s project with the university this summer. Her group had to find an alternative way of accessing participant. They went out and found them on their own. The number of participants anticipated for the project probably wasn’t as large as they had anticipated, because these roadblocks forced them away from the path they originally intended to take (obtain a list from the client). There are various ways to adjust.

  4. 1. I do posses the characteristics of what’s needed for field work but a fundamental question is what setting your research takes place in and are you able to gain access to to the particpants “world”.
    2 Interpretive- I believe so because there is no one solid answer that is correct. Refelction is key to interpretation in my opinion.
    3. If I were doing filedwork- the method I would use would match the data gathering. If it were interviews, I would use a notepad and possible recordings. If it were quantitative data, I would use existing results and so forth.
    4. Any risk to participants, ethics and values come into play as unforseen raod blocks. These issues may not occur until initally in the beginning but possibly as the reserach continues.

    • Some reading I have done on IRB talk about how most non-experimental Qualitative research doesn’t pose real risks to subjects, and because of the nature of the research things change over time. Some places have instituted a two-stage IRB process, that includes a shorter process for non-experimental and qualitative studies, and a more rigorous IRB process for experimental studies.

      What do you think about this?

      • My current knowledge of IRB is not extensive but from what I do know, a shorter process was put in place because of the absence of potential risks. With that said, a two stage process would benefit the researcher and its particpants.

  5. 1. For true qualitative field research that takes a significant amount of time, I lack a number of qualities that would make make me effective. For my personality, it is much too unfocused.

    2. I think the interpretive paradigm has it right; I believe that anyone who thinks they can turn their biases on and off to be objective is misguided. We should be aware of and acknowledge our views and biases so that our findings can be effectively interpreted by others.

    3. Most likely notepads where possible; if taking notes seemed to modify conversations, then I would try and write down everything as soon as the conversation was over; I think that the method of collecting data is dependent on what you are trying to accomplish.

    4. In qualitative research, data and patterns can easily emerge that completely change research questions, focus, and your methods in finding information.

  6. Do you have the characteristics that are needed for fieldwork?
    Well I would hope so at this point.
    Do you subscribe to the positivist or interpretive paradigm? Why?
    I align more closely to the interpretive paradigm mainly because I feel it is always useful for both the researcher and the reader to examine and understand how our unique experiences influence decisions and judgements we make throughout the process and know how that may ultimately influence the results we obtain.
    If you were doing fieldwork; what tools would you use to record field notes?
    Initially I think it is powerful to jot down those quotes, impressions and observations obtained and then begin to categorize these after all notes are collected. I also believe tape recording interviews allows the researcher to revisit interviews and examine the interview at a later time and place which lends itself to greater objectivity.
    What are some unanticipated circumstances that would require the researcher to change methods?
    I think the subjects response to collection methods could require the researcher to change methods. If subjects are influenced or inhibited by a research writing too much or utilizing a tape recorder to the extent that it changes the quality or breadth of their response then a research would need to change the methods.

  7. In some fields, such as historical analysis, the interpretive paradigm reigns due to the nature of what is being studied. The researcher must entertain a variety of possible explanations for events in the past due to an inability to observe the long past event or interact directly with the participants. However, in the field of educational research, the debate between positivist and interpretive paradigms results in theoretical differences affect both approach and application of research. If a hermeneutic, or interpretive paradigm is held fast, the resultant research lacks the generalizability and utility to support educational reform. If the primary goal of contemporary educational research, as I see it, is to discover and expand our understanding of best practices that may be applied to a variety of environments to reform education. Then a positivist way of thinking that seeks to describe and codify observations to produce theories that predict causal (or at best relational) relationships that can be tested is more applicable to this primary goal. Therefore, for the purposes of contemporary educational research, I subscribe to a positivist approach.

  8. 1. Do you have the characteristics that are needed for fieldwork? — I would say, despite my own personal inclination towards purely quantitative research, I would say that according to Bailey I would have these characteristics. My willingness to suspend assumptions for the purpose of qualitative data collection, patience, and an overall disposition to listen more than speak all make me a moderately decent candidate for conducting fieldwork.

    2. Do you subscribe to the positivist or interpretive paradigm? Why? — I think this question is a canard. We cannot operate within the positivist paradigm without first acknowledging that perception itself is grounded within the interpretive. We must pass through the interpretive to begin playing with positivism. The positivist paradigm is clearly the ideal and something that we must work towards through organized research, but researchers must acknowledge that both operate in conjunction with one another and cannot be separated – hence the ongoing emphasis on methods of to ensure consistency of application.

    3. If you were doing fieldwork; what tools would you use to record field notes? — My principal tools would be an audio recording device, 1 or 2 different instruments that I’ve created beforehand, and a notepad. I don’t think anything else is needed — am I missing something?

    4. What are some unanticipated circumstances that would require the researcher to change methods? — Reluctance on the part of participants to use one or more types of data collection methods in order to preserve anonymity, or perhaps the participant wants to express themselves in a way that has not been anticipated by the researcher

  9. If you were doing fieldwork; what tools would you use to record field notes?
    The tools needed to record field notes would be semi-dependent on the environment. I do believe, however, that traditional notepads and pens would work for me. Still, given the scarcity of time, having a digital device that could transcribe notes would facilitate the process. Voice & video recorders would also be ideal, especially when interviewing focus groups. This would ensure that responses from subjects and/or participants are accurately recorded.

    Do you subscribe to the positivist or interpretive paradigm? Why?
    In describing the positivist paradigm, notice that Bailey states that there is “a commitment to objectivism, value-free research, and reliability” (Bailey, 2007, p. 7). Without getting too philosophical, can anything done by humans be 100% truly objective? I use to think so, but as I learn more about the research process I become more skeptical. What do you think?
    For the sake of responding to the questions, I will way say that paradigm method to use will depend on the actual task.

    • Great point, Paul. How can define what is truly objective? As humans, we focus our perspective through our particular experiences and understanding – which is definitely not objective.

      • I agree as well. I think it is very difficult to be truly objective due to the mental models with which we view the world. I think a way to mitigate this is to acknowledge our own mental models and proceed from there.

  10. Do you subscribe to the positivist or interpretive paradigm? Why?

    The quantitative purists articulate assumptions that are consistent with the positivist paradigm and believe that social observations should be treated as entities in much the same way that physical scientists treat physical phenomena. To the contrary, the qualitative purist, or interprativist, reject the positivist assumption because human beings were not puppets to react to stimuli in a prescribed manner. When researching different cultures, one simply cannot divorce themselves from the fact that humans do not comply with the singular notion that everything can be described quantitatively. Although it would be significantly simpler to push all subjects through pre-developed quantitative ” round holes,” it will lack effectiveness because one simply cannot force the diverse human population of “square pegs” into a specific set of measurable labels.

  11. 1. Do you have the characteristics that are needed for fieldwork? I think these skills can be learned – that they don’t necessarily have to be inherent in order to conduct good fieldwork. That being said, I don’t think I possess the characteristics the author describes as necessary for this type of research.
    2. Do you subscribe to the positivist or interpretive paradigm? Why? Definitely positivist. If I were going to do fieldwork, I would have to look at the research as objectively as possible, and also look at my own biases in order to see my influence on the work.
    3. If you were doing fieldwork; what tools would you use to record field notes? I would have to use both personal note taking and recorded devices in order to review the information multiple times.

  12. At this point, I believe I have the characteristics to conduct fieldwork. This is an area that fascinates me and my original thoughts on a research project included an aspect of this. I see the value in observational data. If I had stayed in special education, my research on co-teaching would have lent itself for me to be a part of the project as an insider. I can still see this happening at some point in the future.

    I agree with Stephanie that you must look at research through the lens of a positivist but also examine your biases and mental models so that you minimize their effects on the research.

    Digital recorders and voice transcribers are the way to go in order to accurately portray the results of interviews. I have found that in writing it down the researcher loses some of the original thought. You miss details that recorders can capture.

  13. While I think I have the characteristics that are needed for fieldwork, I agree with Nan in that I’m not sure that I want to spend a year or more immersed in this type of research. Although I wouldn’t rule it out, I just don’t think that’s my calling.
    I think that I am more of an interpretive paradigm researcher. I think I am this way because because I believe that the social meaning of things is very important. We need to understand the social meaning or the meaning of symbols and codes in order to understand the reality. Having said that, I do agree with others that you need a little bit of the positivist side as well.
    Most recently I used digital recording to tape the focus groups I conducted. I found that to be really helpful when writing up the results of the focus groups. I think video recorders are also helpful. I have used video recorders to capture faculty discussion groups to use when conducting the evaluation and to use as evidence.

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