© 2016 Joseph Heathcott

Fieldwork Process

Fieldwork is a long established research methodology with a range of protocols and practices.  Researchers make use of fieldwork in many disciplines, from anthropology to archaeology, sociology, historic preservation, design, vernacular architecture, and ecology. 

 

For urbanists, fieldwork offers many advantages, illuminating aspects of human relations and the experience of cities that would be difficult to obtain otherwise.  It is by no means a substitute for other kinds of data, such as images, statistics, archival records, legal and planning documents.  But when fieldwork is used in conjunction with other methods, it can reveal the rich complexity of lifeworlds as they are being lived.  

 

The process of working in the field inevitably changes one's views and perspectives on a subject, particularly when confronting the messy, unstable nature of everyday life.  Ethnographers in particular approach fieldwork as 'participant-observers,' spending substantial time on research sites in order to develop enough of an 'emic' (insider) perspective to write with interpretive authority about cultures and social practices.

While not an ethnographer, I deploy field research techniques in order to understand and learn from perspectives different from my own.  This requires that I not only acquaint myself thoroughly with existing secondary literature on a topic, but that I apply a consistent, rigorous, and systematic process for translating information into data into research into knowledge. Thus, when conducting field research, I generally use a three-step process.  

 

First, I take careful 'field notes' while on site.  These notes consist of observations, measurements, quotes, drawings, diagrams, reminders, and any other information that seems relevant at the time.  I usually go back over the field notes to make additions and corrections.  The making of field notes is a kind of craft; one works constantly to improve it. However, while each person develops a particular style, there are several important commonalties: noting dates, times, and locations; clearly stating goals; establishing context; keenly observing practices and processes; attributing ideas; and, when interviewing people, listening deeply to their words and views so as to represent them properly.   

I am not particular about the medium for note-taking, but I do favor graph paper for ease of drawing, and a combination of black, blue, and red inks.  I almost always have one or two cameras with me, along with a digital audio recorder and sometimes a laser measuring tool depending on the project.  

The next step in the process is to produce a field report.  A field report uses the notes taken on site to create a more detailed account, filling in gaps by consulting reference materials, secondary literature, informants, and colleagues. Though not strictly necessary, a form such as the one I use (left) can prove very helpful for keeping track of field reports, particularly when it comes time to write up research results.

In addition to the ongoing observations of sites, there are a few features and experiences I like to record while in the field.  These include things like sensory information, weather, visual and aesthetic notes, physical conditions of the built environment (including sketches), background noise, language spoken around me, and how sites and interactions affect me personally.

Perhaps the most important part of the field report is the coding process.  Coding allows for rapid querying, finding, retrieval, and comparison.  There are excellent software programs that facilitate content analysis operations, but I find a 'coding column' works perfectly well for my purposes.  Keywords can be added to the coding column at any time.  While I use my own keywords, many ethnographers draw on the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) developed over the last 45 years.  The HRAF use a coding protocol similar to Dewey decimal to narrow down categories of human experience from very broad to very specific.

Finally the time comes to relay the findings of your fieldwork in some product or outcome--what we often call the artifact of research.  Research artifacts can take many forms, from a book or journal article to an exhibit, a public art installation, a set of architectural drawings, a user-led plan for a new facility, a neighborhood revitalization strategy, or a design for a new urban amenity.  The common denominator is the rigorous, ethical use of fieldwork as a mode of inquiry and discovery.

 

Often you will use field reports in several different but interrelated finished products.  In the examples show here, I drew on fieldwork and other methods (archival research, photographic documentation, and plan analysis) to produce two outcomes: an exhibit at the Queens Museum and an essay in Urban Omnibus: The Journal of the Architectural League of New York.  In the future, I plan to use selected field reports from this project in another study of the Newtown Creek Superfund site.

This is only a brief introduction to fieldwork methods.  There is a sizable literature on the subject that should be consulted before entering the field.  It is of vital importance that we conduct field research with the highest ethical integrity, representing ourselves and our goals clearly, attributing words and ideas to their originators, and reflecting people's views, hopes, and aspirations with accuracy and respect.