Conducting Field Research

Observing in the Field

First-hand observations will often be a key component in your research project. Your task is to take it all in, recording what you observe while being as unobtrusive as possible. You will want to take notes for future reference: interesting facts, telling details and sensory impressions (sights, sounds and smells), all help when it comes time to reconstruct your observations on paper.

Before you begin, it's important to do a little "legwork". Library and Internet research will help you build a list of possible sites from which to conduct your observation. Depending on the type of site you wish to observe, you may or may not need permission. It's important to find out.

A few phone calls or email inquiries will identify the contact person from whom you can get that information and the procedures you will be expected to follow. You may need to schedule an appointment, for instance.

A private business or a school will likely require identification when you arrive, so be prepared. You might ask your instructor for a statement on college or department letterhead declaring that you are a bona fide student and some specifics about your project and what you intend to do with the results.

In addition to note-taking, you may want to take some photographs or video-tape while observing. Permission for this will also likely be required, as well as waivers or releases signed by the human subjects involved.

Finally, before leaving the observation site, it's a good idea to schedule or request permission for a follow-up visit. When evaluating your initial observations it is highly likely that you will find gaps in your information that can only be filled by further observation. It is also quite possible that your evaluation will produce new ideas or expose areas of interest, previously unthought-of, that you may like to pursue. If not, you can always cancel the follow-up.

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