Through the Looking Glass (regarding field research)

Field research is a skill honed through practice. Not only does interviewing take some time to develop a level of comfort and confidence, but so too does our ability to actively observe. Active observing necessitates that the researcher not only engage the object of his studies in complete sensory digestion, but also balance the recording of field notes. After all, it is these notes to which we return after we have retired from our field studies. It is our recorded observations which we rely on to jog our memories and fuel the spark from basic notation to vivid experience.

Above all, our purpose as ethnographic researchers is to “describe a social world and its people.” (Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, p. 68)

We recently had the pleasure of putting these skills to work as part of our Research Methods for Writers course (see Bowling for…Research!). Part of our responsibility was to upload, share and discuss our field notes transcriptions and the experience itself. As is to be expected, the experiences and reactions of my peers were widely varied.

This seemed to hold true especially for a perceived feeling of general animosity toward us as outside “observers” and a discomfort level with conducting interviews. Understandably, interviewing is a developed skill. Approaching complete strangers and getting them to open up to you requires a measure of trust, and a mutual thread of reward. You gain valuable information, while the interviewed enjoys the value placed upon their information and the interest with which it is gathered.

I did not perceive this same feeling of animosity that a majority of my peers felt. Neither did I find myself unwilling or hesitant to approach any of the bowlers with questions. I was not alone in this, but it did seem that we few were the minority. Now, it is interesting to me, as I reflect on my own levels of research, that perhaps those who are on the more cautious side have a self-preserving shield.

As discussed in J.W. Creswell’s book, Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design (2nd ed.), ethnographic research carries with it an implied risk. Proper data collection requires longer time in the field, longer time living amongst your research subjects. The danger is in the researcher losing himself in the process, or as Creswell states, “going native” or “compromising oneself.” I wonder if it is easier for those lacking this hesitation in interview approach or ease of comfort in field situations to succumb to such compromising? Do we, who do not know this level of separation, place ourselves in jeopardy of losing ourselves in the very same culture that we elect to observe and report upon?

It’s an interesting thought. It’s akin to a gun that has lost its safety. There is no fail safe. These are the dangers of the ethnographic researcher. There is that desire to creep closer to our research. Closer. Closer, until we teeter on the edge of responsibility and hope that we’ll fall back the other way, onto “our side of the fence.”