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Primary Research

Learn when and how to conduct field research.

Some research question(s) cannot be answered by consulting print or Internet sources. Field research allows you to generate knowledge that otherwise would not exist. This section introduces three common modes of conducting field research: interviews, surveys, and ethnographic observations (of communities, performances, or laboratory experiments).

Enhance your ability to observe and make reliable judgments about communities

Ethnography involves studying a specific culture or community. By living among the members of a culture and playing the role of participant-observer, ethnographers attempt to define the beliefs, rituals, symbols, problems, and patterns of behavior that distinguish this culture from other dominant cultures. For example, ethnographers have attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and written about the culture of alcoholics. Ethnographers have studied the community of prostitutes and drug dealers on inner-city streets and in housing projects.

Identify a culture to study, one that you are relatively unfamiliar with.

An important aspect of ethnography involves the types of questions that a researcher tries to answer. Some ethnographers begin their research with a central question that guides their exploration. Others prefer to find their research question after they've been in the community for a while, or even after they've left the community. An ethnographic approach can be particularly appropriate for short-term projects like the ones assigned in a relatively brief college courses. Even though some professional ethnographies last for years, studies with a limited scope can be conducted in a matter of weeks.

Enhance your interpretive skills by learning about the culture before visiting, perhaps by reading other researchers' ethnographic accounts of the culture. Ethnographers vehemently disagree about the degree to which library research must support field study. Many well-respected anthropologists have written ethnographies that contain few if any references to secondary sources. The job of entering a culture, living as an insider, and then writing to outsiders is already so demanding that they do not have the time, energy, or zeal to connect their work to the work of others. In addition, because ethnography is a fairly new methodology, many ethnographers are truly breaking new ground and other scholarly references may simply be unavailable.

Write notes in the field, seeking interpretive patterns.

While true ethnographers have the luxury of spending large chunks of time in the field and can discover their purpose after lengthy observations, you may find it necessary to focus on a more clearly defined purpose early in your research. Writing a proposal for your study and sharing it with your classmates and instructor is a good starting point. Although it is possible (although not recommended) to put off the writing until the last minute when writing a report based on library research, questionnaire, or even interviews, such a strategy is nearly impossible when writing an ethnography.

Secure access to the community without poisoning the waters.

Experts typically agree that the way you are introduced into the community plays a crucial role in the overall success of your study. If the people in charge introduce you to the community and ask participants to do what they can to help you, you may be perceived as a spy or enemy. It is, therefore, often better to enter a community less obtrusively. Because being introduced to the community by someone in power or by someone considered to be a member of an "opposing faction" can irreparably taint your results, you may have to reject the role implied by your introduction or withdraw from the community and select another site to conduct the research.

Broaden your understanding of ethnographic research tools.

The ethnographer's eyes and ears are two very important tools for collecting information, but documentation is key. Any instrument that can record, store, or sort information is of primary use to the ethnographer. Tape recorders, cameras, and note pads are some of the most commonly used tools for ethnographic research.Recording interviews with key informants is more preferable than taking notes; by listening to recordings over and over you will discover important details that you might otherwise miss if you simply take notes.

Wisely choose key informants and triangulate the informants' perspectives.

When conducting an ethnography, the researcher closely observes the key informants in a particular culture because they tend to define the qualities of their group. Every culture includes leaders and followers.

When choosing key informants, you may not necessarily want to select group leaders. Other members of the community may serve as more effective key informants because they are more accessible or more willing to share information or more observant.

Enrich your ethnographic interpretation by accounting for community artifacts.

Archeology is the study of past civilizations based upon artifacts, physical objects that are characteristic of a particular culture. We are all familiar with the Egyptian tombs and Roman ruins. These artifacts provide a great deal of information about ancient civilizations and help to recreate a picture of what life was like for these people.

Enhance your ethnographic interpretation by identifying and observing customs and rituals that members of the community routinely perform.

Unlike artifacts, rituals and customs are not physical objects that can be held in one's hands and described according to their shape and function. Rituals are activities that people perform according to a predetermined pattern. Even though rituals frequently involve the use of artifacts, the ritual itself is an activity. Because rituals and customs are behaviors, they are sometimes more difficult to describe and analyze than artifacts. However, like artifacts, rituals are very useful for understanding and interpreting a culture.

Understand and value the subjective nature of ethnographic interpretation.

The ethnographic research design involves a number of unique considerations toward the end of the project. Chronologically, the first of these concerns is deciding when to stop conducting field work. Logically, the more time you are able to spend in the field, the stronger your data are likely to be and therefore the stronger your understanding and interpretation of the culture.

Determine your survey design by creating questions with your purpose and audience in mind.

To develop a credible survey, you must first organize a systematic approach to your study. This involves insuring your study sample actually represents the population of interest. For example, if you were conducting a survey of whether or not college students ever plagiarized or cheated on a test, you would not want to submit your survey to teachers or parents; you would want to hear from college students. A well-designed survey will reduce the chances of this type of misuse of the data.

Become an effective listener and interviewer. Interview authorities, conduct slice-of-life stories, and author oral histories.

Follow the strategies below to make the interview environment conducive to self-expression. Clarify your purpose for the interview and devise appropriate questions to solicit the desired information. Finally, maintain sufficient flexibility so you can respond to new issues as they develop during the interviewYou informally interview people on a daily basis. Asking your friends and people you meet about their ideas and day-to-day experiences has sensitized you to how people respond to questions—sometimes opening up, sometimes clamming up. And while you should naturally rely on your innate people skills, as a researcher you also need to develop a strategy to ensure that you get the information you need to write your report.

Learn to write effective survey questions.

After defining the population, surveyors need to create an instrument if a proven survey instrument does not exist. As discussed in more detail below, survey creation parallels the computer axiom "GIGO"--Garbage In—Garbage Out. A well-designed, accurate survey is an excellent way for researchers to gather information or data about a particular subject of interest. When prepared in an unprofessional manner, surveys can also become an inaccurate, misused, misunderstood conveyer of misinformation.

Understand common interview types.

The design of your interview is determined by your goal. Below is an overview of common interview formats.

Writers conduct interviews for many reasons. Interviews can play a role in helping you develop all of the projects presented in this book. Researchers employ interviews to achieve multiple purposes:

  • Oral histories; interview people who can tell stories about life in the past.
  • Expert testimonies; interview experts, such as famous inventors, entrepreneurs, political leaders, or trend-setters

Informed Consent | Behavior of a Field Researcher

The ethics of field research are more complicated than library or Internet research. If your primary modes of data collection are observing, interacting, interpreting, and talking to people, you must carefully consider your actions. It is unethical to see people as subjects of research to further only your own interests. If you are conducting research on a college campus with hopes of making your work public, you must review your school's Institutional Review Board (IRB) guidelines.

Understand the basics of census and random sampling techniques.

A critical step in survey research involves sampling the population. Now that you have narrowed your objectives to something achievable, who are you going to sample? For many, this is a rather simple step: Ask the people who are able to answer your questions! If you want to learn about the educational perceptions of 20-year-olds, ask them. If you want to learn about the parental perceptions of the education of 20-year-olds, ask the parents.

Learn how to manage the interview successfully.

Since the interviewee is kind enough to set some time aside to meet with you, you in turn need to be flexible about where and for how long you meet and whether or not it is acceptable for you to tape-record the session. In general, you should try to conduct the interview away from as many distractions as possible. Establishing a climate of trust and support is difficult when the interviewee is bombarded with the daily distractions of professional life—such as phone calls, piles of messages, and pages of "to do" lists.

Develop effective interview questions.

Ask Open, Closed, Hypothetical, and Mirror Questions

The questions you will ask are determined by the purpose of your research. As a result, be very clear in your own mind about what you hope to discover as a result of conducting the interview. The best way to develop solid questions is to freewrite as many as possible. By refining the purpose of your research and by sharing your questions with other people, you will be able to identify the ones that are most apt to uncover the information you need.

Learn the techniques to get as many responses as possible to your survey.

For the mailed survey there are several tactics you can employ to increase the response rate. Write a letter of transmittal stating the purpose and importance of the study, the reason why the individual was selected to participate, insurance of confidentiality, and an offer of thanks for the individual's participation. If a separate letter is not appropriate, then consider a survey coversheet that contains similar information. Another technique is to send out a mailing informing intended participants that a questionnaire is forthcoming. Advance notification informing individuals they have been selected for your survey may also spark supportive interest.

Develop knowledge that is otherwise unavailable by developing an effective survey.

Surveys are a series of questions, which are usually presented in questionnaire format. Surveys can be distributed face-to-face, over the phone, or over the Internet.

Developing, Designing, and Distributing Surveys

Surveys are usually developed to obtain information that is otherwise unavailable.