The Fieldwork Process in Qualitative Research (Do’s and Don’t’s)

Preparing for fieldwork in qualitative research

Qualitative research involves primary data collection hence adequate planning of the fieldwork both before and during the data collection stage is critical.

This post highlights some of the things that researchers should do and not do when doing fieldwork for qualitative research.

Pre-fieldwork planning

Before embarking on the actual fieldwork, the researcher must plan on various factors:

a) Sites to be studied

These include the organisations, cultures, societies etc that are the subject of research. The researcher should:

  • Select sites that will provide rich information about the phenomenon under investigation.
  • Consider the time when the sites will be studied e.g will it be morning, afternoon, evening? Will the study take place during weekdays or weekends? Will it be studied during school session or school holiday? The time chosen will depend on the objectives of the research.
  • Consider the number of sites that will be studied: for qualitative research, the smaller the size, the better.
  • Consider issues to do with gaining access to the study sites: will the researcher easily access the sites or will he need gatekeepers?
  • Seek permission to carry out the research in the study sites selected: it is one thing to have access to the study site, but another thing altogether to get permission to do the research.
  • Consider the length of stay in the study sites: the researcher should not stay too long as his presence will disrupt the normal functioning of the participants in the study sites. For instance, if the research is to be carried out at a workplace, staying in the workplace for a whole day will hinder the participants from doing their work.

b) Recruiting participants

Once the researcher has identified the study sites and has gained access and permission to carry out the research, the next step is to recruit participants for the study. The researcher should:

  • Clearly set the criteria that will be used to select the participants.
  • Consider the number of participants that will be recruited.
  • Consider how he will contact the potential participants e.g will the introduction letter be sent through email, in person or by post?
  • Articulate the aim and objectives of the study, the researcher’s expectation of the participants, how the participants will benefit from participating in the study, and how their privacy will be respected.
  • Articulate the measures he will take to protect the data collected e.g will the data be password-protected or de-identified?
  • Be clear that participation in the study is voluntary and the participants are free to withdraw from the study at any point in time without any negative repercussion.
  • Have a strategy for replacing participants who prove not to be useful for the study.

c) Negotiating access to study sites and participants

The ability of the researcher to get adequate and appropriate data will depend on his ability to gain access to the potential participants.

Gaining physical access to study sites and participants may be challenging because of several factors:

  • Time and resources constraints: participating in research takes time and sometimes financial resources, which may pose as a barrier to gaining access.
  • Lack of perceived value of the research to the organisation or individual: this is why it is important for the researcher to clearly articulate the benefits of the research to the individuals and organisations being studied.
  • Sensitivity or confidentiality of information required: this applies to some research topics. The researcher should therefore articulate how such information will be protected.
  • Perceived lack of credibility of the researcher.

In order to gain access to the study sites and participants, the researcher can use the following strategies:

  • Allow adequate time between request for access and the fieldwork: Most organisations and individuals will not respond immediately therefore giving oneself enough time helps to follow up the potential study sites and participants before the actual fieldwork begins.
  • Use gatekeepers: If the researcher has existing gatekeepers then he should use them to speed up the process. If not, then he can look for them and start creating a rapport with them. Gatekeepers really help in gaining access although they come with a cost.
  • As much as possible address the concerns raised by the study sites and participants especially with regard to the amount of time and resources that they will incur because of engaging in the fieldwork process. For instance, if the research has to take place away from their area of residence or workplace, then the researcher should compensate the participants for transport.
  • Articulate the potential benefits of the research to the organisations and individuals taking part in the study.
  • Gain access incrementally rather than requesting for all sorts of access at a go. For instance, request for permission to undertake interviews. Then during the interview you can request to carry out observation as well as record the conversations.

d) Informed consent

The researcher should obtain informed consent before embarking on the fieldwork.

The informed consent should contain the following information:

  • The purpose of the study, the duration it will take and the procedures that will be followed during the study.
  • The rights of the participants particularly with regards to voluntary participation and withdrawal from the study at any point in time without suffering consequences.
  • How confidentiality of the participants will be upheld.
  • Any known risks that may accrue from participating in the study and how the researcher will address them.
  • Potential benefits of the study to the participants.
  • Signature of the participant and the researcher as well as their contacts.

Preparations for the actual fieldwork

The researcher should consider the following:

  • Have a contact person in the place where the fieldwork will be done: This is useful in case the researcher gets stranded.
  • Carry all the necessary documents e.g. identification document, ethical clearance, research permit, as well as data collection tools such as interview or FGD guides.
  • Carry all the necessary equipments and supplies e.g. writing pads and pens for taking notes, audio recorders (and charger) for recording the interviews, personal effects, snacks in case of hunger pangs etc.
  • Wear the right clothing: the right clothing will depend on the place where the fieldwork will be done. It will also depend on the culture of the people in the study sites. For instance, some cultures shun wearing of tight clothing by women so the researcher should be aware of what is permissible and what is not permissible by that particular culture and adhere to them accordingly. Failure to do so will be offensive to the potential participants and may negatively affect their response rate.
  • Mental preparation is key: having a positive attitude towards the fieldwork process is useful because things sometimes go against the researcher’s expectations, for instance, some interviewees may fail to show up, others may postpone their appointments to a later date etc.
  • The researcher should build and maintain relationships once in the field. This is useful especially if the researcher needs to return to the field either to confirm some information or for validation and verification of the study’s results.
  • The researcher should also think about the information he needs to collect and prepare accordingly. The type of information will vary depending on whether it will be collected through interviews, observation, documents or audio-visual materials.

Post-fieldwork considerations

After collecting the required data from the field, the researcher is now ready to exit fieldwork.

Preparing for fieldwork exit is as important as preparing for entry into the field.

  • The researcher should be mindful of the relationships he built and endeavour to maintain them even afterwards.
  • The researcher should also keep any promise he made to the participants. For instance, if he promised to share the results of the study after fieldwork, then he should.
  • The researcher should also take contact details of some persons where necessary.

In conclusion, this post discusses important considerations that a qualitative researcher should make when preparing for fieldwork. It has touched on pre-fieldwork, in-fieldwork and post-fieldwork preparation.

Related posts

Qualitative Research Methods: An Introduction

Sampling Strategies for Qualitative Research

Grace Njeri-Otieno

Grace Njeri-Otieno is a Kenyan, a wife, a mom, and currently a PhD student, among many other balls she juggles. She holds a Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Economics and has more than 7 years' experience with an INGO. She was inspired to start this site so as to share the lessons learned throughout her PhD journey with other PhD students. Her vision for this site is "to become a go-to resource center for PhD students in all their spheres of learning."

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