What is Field Research?
Broadly speaking, field research is a type of data collection that is conducted outside the laboratory, workplace, or library. It can also be defined as first-hand qualitative data collection, such as conducting face-to-face interviews or surveys with local community groups or specific individuals. Field research is almost always a qualitative method of data collection.
Of course there are various types of field research, depending on the context and questions associated with the project.
Lab v. Field
The lab is not a natural setting, but it does try to emulate or represent a natural setting. Sometimes lab work is necessary because it is not possible to find an appropriate outdoor site for our research. The lab is also a lot more easily controlled in terms of any environmental variables, such as temperature, humidity, and pH. Field research observes, analyzes, and describes what actually exists in the real world.
Field research usually involves greater descriptive data and survey-based research compared to the lab; for that same reason, however, field research can be more complex and messy, like real life, compared to lab work.
The results of field research know no bounds – they can be as extensive as you want them to be. Field work could continue on from lab research, making the project longitudinal – meaning, over long periods of time so that patterns and links can be made in a deeply integrative way. One excellent example of longitudinal field research involving children and young adults is the Young Lives project with the University of Oxford.
There are many different approaches to field research, such as ethnographies, direct observation and interviews. More examples of different types of field research can be found here.
Joy of Being in the Field
Why is field research so important and exciting? Each experiment you design and plan in a field setting is unique. Your results may differ from someone else's but as long as another person can apply the techniques and methods you employ in your study, it is replicable. Whether your project includes speaking to people about their opinions on forest protection or going into the forests and counting the number and type of birds, you want to have as many responses or data as possible and repeat your research over time or space. This way, we can make some inferences about any correlations or patterns in the data which may be scaled up or applied in other scenarios.
Another great part of field research is that you, the researcher, are collecting the data. You might be working with other people or have a research assistant, but you call the shots and have a lot of freedom to plan and conduct your research exactly how you like. For example, during my field research, I asked lots of different community members about their opinions of mangrove forests growing in their area. Then I analyzed people’s responses by using an approach called Q-methodology and added this into the interview process as a way to compare people’s responses quantitatively. Q-methodology is interactive and fun for participant’s, and sparks wider conversations about the topic area.
Lastly, the joy of field research is that you get to meet new people, visit new places, and learn new things.
So, how exactly do you get started in field research?
How to Get Involved
One way to get involved is to be a part of a citizen science project: you, the citizen, collect data on, for example, the number and type of butterflies you have observed in your local woodland and then give this information to conservation organizations and local nature boards who add this data to their butterfly consensus.
For other fantastic citizen science projects, check out the National Geographic website here.