The Researcher’s Guide: 10 Ways To Do Better At Field Work

Posted: May 29, 2014

For any researcher in the public, private or social sector, these 10 ways to do better at field work can make a big difference to the quality of your data and insights.

“I have a thousand stories hidden under my shield to share, those told and those untold…”

“I sit here at the chulha, cook for hours, apart from doing the other household tasks”, she said in Hindi, as I penned down every word cautiously in my interview schedule. I had traveled across 3 villages that day, done 25 interviews, and three focus group discussions. I wanted a cup of tea. I wanted to sit down, as my body was giving up in the scorching heat.




The lady from the neighbouring home dragged me to her house for  tea. I sat down with her near the chulha, looking around, sipping my tea, as the many children jumped in and around to get a glimpse of me. I felt like a celebrity even in my most rural-dressed avatar. I realised that even though I took care of dressing and language, I was still a stranger, an alien to them.

I realised that even though I took care of dressing and language, I was still somewhere a stranger, an alien for them.

As I walked down the narrow lane of the village to get to the motorcycle we had been using for traveling around, I couldn’t easily ignore the looks I was getting from the village people. Every look smiled at me, a smile hard to not smile back at. The sweat was getting to me as I draped my dupatta around my head and walked through the dusty, broken streets, with kids running after me. I loved it but my body was giving up. I grabbed a cookie from my bag and piled up my sugar count just to keep the body functional. There I was, doing what excited me the most in my Ph.D – my fieldwork.

It has been more than 7 years of my life since I have been hopping on to different lands, talking and listening to people I might not have ever met in my life, otherwise. I have loved it, hated it, felt exhausted, felt deprived, felt selfish, felt privileged, along with many tearing emotions that have crossed my heart and mind during this process.

Every moment that I have spent in my field has been an experience to cherish and learn from. I have emerged much stronger and informed, aware and amazed at the immense knowledge pool that exists in this world, to immerse myself in. And of those many lessons that I have learnt, there are a few of them, which as a researcher I find very crucial to be shared; crucial because they might be the tipping point for data collection, and for a soul to collect the right memories.

My 10 point list on how to approach field work

Though I am no pro at the field, my field experiences have taught me a lot of pointers and places where many  researchers go wrong. So, here is a 10-pointer list (though the list is never ending) that might change the way researchers approach a field.

1. Speak less, listen more

When I work with women, I realize that before I start throwing my questions, I have to spend a little time listening to them – to their stories, to their bits and pieces, to their dilemmas, to their anxieties – there is much more than just stories there. The key point to be remembered here is that we are here to learn from them first and then help fill the gaps if required.

They are the source and we are here for learning. If a researcher reinforces this time and again, he/she will never go wrong. They will be more open, more friendly and you might dig up some very deep, realistic information that might not be possible otherwise. Be polite, not preachy!

2. Communicate your purpose well

One of the many ways researchers fail is when they don’t pre-inform  the purpose of their visit clearly to their field sample (I hate calling people sample/subject!) When we are out conducting a survey or taking an interview, we often forget that our first responsibility is to be honest with them about our purpose.

Very often I have been asked questions like, “We hope you won’t ask about contraception”, “Who is paying you for this?”, “Did you come from the government?” and so on. So my first task  is to clarify who I am, why I am there, and what I will do with this information. Once that is done, they choose to answer or not, and depending on that, I take it forward.

3. Say No when you need to

“Here, have some water”, she said and I took the glass from her hand, and kept it beside me. It is  common courtesy to offer water to visitors. And I am not asking you to trouble your system and drink water whenever offered to you. But we often forget that when we say no, we create an image in their head that we find them inferior.

While working with slums and in villages in India, this has been my biggest challenge. I have graduated from a NO  to taking the glass and even sipping it though to later repent when I’m down with stomach troubles. But the challenge here is to do this right. Never drink from a mineral water bottle in front of them. Never refuse. Ask for tea (it’s boiled and a much better option). The important lesson is to not mess with your system as you are there on an agenda but more importantly to not dishearten them or be offensive. We are there as a part of a research army and often, unintentionally, we mess it up for the rest of the soldiers.

4. Get your language right

Traveling and working in India and abroad, you realize that one of the biggest challenges  is language. You can’t know them all. And so, before you enter the field, get a hold of a few related words,  or a few phrases in that language. As somebody who does this every time, I can vouch that it’s the best way to instantly form a rapport. They see that the you are taking initiative.

A hundred women have chuckled at me in the villages of Tamil Nadu as I spoke in Tamil, and in Haryana, as I sported the little Haryanvi I know. From Maithili in Bihar to Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, little phrases have helped me gather effective data. After all, even when you work along with a translator, you can’t always merge in. And so, language empathy is a must for acceptance. Don’t converse in front of them in English or any other alien language amongst each other as that creates a wall difficult to break.

5. Stay locally

For me, the whole idea of fieldwork is to immerse myself into the life there to gather and observe the details and learn from them. So, most of the times my agenda is to find a place to live as locally as possible. In fact, many a times I stay with a family in the field. The experience that eating, sleeping, and living with them gives goes way beyond merely going and observing for a day or two.

Time constraints are a major thing but sharing a meal might make it one of the most memorable learning and data collection experiences for you. For instance, my trip to Tamil Nadu – where I stayed with a family in the village for ten days changed the way I saw data collection – as much more than mere information gathering in an hour or so. Sit with them. Not on a chair. Eat from the plate. Not from a packet. Walk around with them. Everything helps you get closer and realistic towards your goal.

6. Don’t lose focus, but be flexible

On the field, time is key. Everyone goes on a scheduled agenda with do’s and don’ts, to-dos and time frames. And as a researcher we have to always keep reminding ourselves to not lose track of the work goals we set for ourselves. But as we do that, we have to be flexible. Keep spaces open for things that might go wrong.

When one is on field one ends up listening to things that might not be a part of the interview schedule or agenda of research but might give you an insight much deeper than usual. So, flexibility in your schedule might help in learning some things for life. An extra day might take you a long way.

7. Be empathetic, not sympathetic

Often, I realize how blessed I am with the right education, freedom, and choices to do what I want, when I meet people who are struggling for the basics. But I always remember that I should try to never sympathise. The idea of fieldwork is to create empathy in you (beyond data collection) rather than sympathy.

We are all one. Living and sharing their experiences should not be a day task you do. In order to understand deeper issues, challenges and struggles, especially when working on sensitive issues like prostitution, contraception and sexual health, empathy goes a long way.

8. No fake promises

As one of the most crucial pointers of the lot, one of the many ways researchers fail is that they end up making promises to the people knowing that they will not be meeting them, ever. What we forget is that we leave a road closed for many others who might come after us.

Once a woman asked me  to give her some money in exchange for the interview, I politely told her why I couldn’t do that. Another woman had asked me to take her along to the city; I was sweet enough to make her understand why that can’t be done. It is the moral duty of every social work researcher and field worker to understand that we cannot use people for our selfish reasons.

We need to be thankful for them to be helping us and we need to be clear in being honest and avoiding any fake promises. “No, I might not come back ever, though I would love to someday” might just be honest and humble enough to help them understand.

9. Smile, often

The barriers in communication are often created through body language. One of the many things that I think work on field is a smile. Every time I face a challenge, I smile. Every time people say no, I smile and try to work it out. Every time I am told something offensive, I smile to calm down the anger in the person.

They have their inhibitions to change, their barriers to new things, their anger of life not working out. And during that process, asking them to listen to us, help us, or share their stories is asking a little bit more than they can easily give.

People have their challenges and struggles. They have their inhibitions to change, their barriers to new things, their anger of life not working out. And during that process, asking them to listen to us, help us, or share their stories is asking a little bit more than they can easily give. Smiling helps break a lot of barriers. It’s tried, tested, and works every single time.

10. Dress right 

One of the major places where most of us go wrong is entering the field dressed in an attire that creates the first barrier for the people with whom we plan to interact. We are aliens for them coming from the city they might never get to see, the city they have heard only stories about. And so, dressing in the local way is important to merge in the crowd and make them feel we are one of them. Throw away your branded shades, shed those bags and become one of them. Trust me, you will feel the difference in the way rapport turns easier. It’s the first level of impression, after all.

While there are a thousand lessons that I have learnt from books in college to real life on field, the above 10 tips summarize a lot of the ways we as researchers might go wrong. Next time you are on your field, think of these 10!

Everyone has their own set of experiences but many times, sharing these might help others to deal with situations effectively. Worked with people? Share your stories here in the comments section! Would love to hear them!

Pic of a focus group discussion near Trichy courtesy waterdotorg

A Development Communication & Social Work professional working in the field of gender, health and technology

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