2. Fieldwork as a ‘messy’ process

Fieldwork is a messy process.

Here are two ways in which fieldwork can become messy:

(a) When things don’t go to plan.

 Your research plan can be disrupted or taken in new directions in the course of conducting fieldwork in a number of minor and major ways. This can include:

  • challenges with recruiting participants that can delay your research timetable,
  • failure of recording equipment or loss of your data in the course of your fieldwork,
  • encountering people engaging in political, social or cultural practices that you disagree with (Davis and Craven 2016, p. 110), or,
  • breakdown in key relationships in the field.

Fieldwork can also include more serious challenges, such as facing harassment or violence in the course of conducting fieldwork (Baxi 2014, p. 147; Pandey 2009), witnessing traumatic or horrific events in the field (Davis and Craven 2016, p. 108),  significant shifts in political and social conditions in your field (Davis and Craven 2016, p. 102), or, making findings that throw your research question or methodology into doubt and require you to reconceptualise your methodology and methods.

It’s important to remember that, although you may not experience all of these issues, facing unexpected challenges in the field is part of the process of conducting fieldwork.

The experience of being made uncomfortable by your encounters and events in the field can be an important way in which you learn more about your research topic and about your own position as a researcher in the field (Davis and Craven 2016, p 112).

What can we learn from this?

We can learn that we need to be flexible, that we need to be reflexive about the research process, and be open to revising our approach, our research questions or strategies in the field.

It is also important to be prepared to deal with various kinds of challenges by ensuring that you have adequate support while conducting your research in the field. This includes ensuring you have support from your supervisors and your university, or the institution you are working with, so that you know what steps to take if you face problems in the field.

(b) Connections between different stages of your research.

Research plans often have a structure for the order in which different stages of the research process will be conducted.

However, research is not always a linear process that proceeds smoothly from one phase to the next (for example, from planning to recruitment, to fieldwork, to analysis and writing). In reality, several stages of the research process may have to occur at the same time, or may need to be repeated at different stages of the research process. For example, recruitment of research participants, carrying out interviews in the field, data analysis and writing may happen at the same time (Browne 2005, p. 53).

What can we learn from this?

We can learn to see research as a holistic, ongoing and iterative process, in which research questions, meanings, and analytical insights are being developed, tested and revised at every stage of the research process. This process of questioning and revision of our ideas is central to developing a complex and well-rounded analysis.

Fieldwork is a stage of the research process where our ideas and assumptions are often tested, opened up and extended by the realities we encounter in the field. The potential for surprises, serendipity, challenges, crises, and doubts in fieldwork can also be the most rewarding aspect of fieldwork, and the reason why it is so central to the research process.

Be prepared for the mess of fieldwork; embrace it and learn from it!

Case Studies:

    1. Conducting empirical research in urban settings can often take researchers to unexpected places and unplanned findings. Feminist urban scholar, Ghazala Jamil, explains why the unplanned encounters in the walking interviews she conducted with participants through the streets of Delhi were an important part of her ethnographic research.

      “During a walking interview, the participant and I would sometimes bump into someone the participant knew, who became curious as to the activity and its purpose. Metaphorically, this situation could turn the walk into an infinite number of directions, but literally, it was always a boon for the ethnographic project, and I learnt that even a trip on a tangent may prove to heighten the serendipitous element of fieldwork” (2017, p. 103).

    2. Feminist scholar, Amina Mama, reflects on conditions in African contexts that complicate the process of carrying out research:

      “Conventional understandings of research, and the methods developed to carry out research, presume conditions that are not only largely imaginary, but, at the very least, assume a level of infrastructure and stability that often does not characterize African contexts. Political and economic instability, militarism, resource scarcity and conflicts, situations of extreme poverty and livelihood insecurity, costs and difficulties of communication and transportation, poor infrastructure, conditions of war and violence all affect research in ways that can not be ignored. At the very least they render many research methods irrelevant or impossible to use in any textbook fashion.” (2011, p. e13).

    3. In some situations researchers may find themselves confronting ethical dilemmas when conducting research on practices that conflict with their political commitments as feminists. As Mama explains:

      “…locally connected feminist researchers may often find themselves working in areas where secrecy and fears of disclosure complicate conventional methods and make it very difficult to honour feminist epistemological considerations that require us to carry out research in a manner that is respectful towards participants whose beliefs and practices may include aspects that may be oppressive to women. Connections to the communities also engender responsibilities that surface questions of reciprocity and social obligation that also vary from one location to another, requiring a degree of sensitivity and tact that may elude the casual investigator” (2011, p.  e17).

      For example, in conducting research on Ssenga, a Buganda cultural practice dealing with the sexuality of young women, the Ugandan law professor Sylvia Tamale found her feminist activist commitments to be at odds with the tenets of group loyalty and discretion that she owed to the community she was researching (Mama 2011, p. e13):

      “As an activist she is not only committed to demystifying the institution overall, but also to challenging conservative versions of Ssenga and advocating for more liberatory discourses of sexuality, a process that requires openly discussing and debating the details of the institution. Her identity as a professional academic demands that she publish her research, thus documenting the changing and contested nature of an institution that, like many ‘traditions’, has moved far from its roots in the ancient Buganda kingdom” (Mama 2011, p. e15).


      For discussions of challenges faced by student and early career researchers in the field see the website:  [INSERT HYPERLINK] (from Davis and Craven 2016, p. 109).


      Baxi, P. 2014. Sexual violence and its discontents. Annual Review of Anthropology, 43 (October), pp. 139-154.

      Browne, K. 2005. Snowball Sampling: Using Social Networks to Research Non-heterosexual Women. International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 8(1), pp. 47-60.

      Davis, D and Craven, C., 2016. Feminist Ethnography: Thinking Through Methodologies, Challenges, and Possibilities. Latham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman & Littlefield.

      Jamil, G. 2017. Real-life methods: Feminist explorations of segregation in Delhi. In: K Kannabiran and P. Swaminathan eds. Re-Presenting Feminist Methodologies: Interdisciplinary Explorations. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 91-112.

      Mama, A. 2011. What does it mean to do feminist research in African contexts? Feminist Review98(1), e4–e20.

      Pandey, A. 2009. Unwelcomed and Unwelcoming Encounters. In: P. Ghassem-Fachandi, ed. Violence: Ethnographic Encounters. New York: Berg Publishers, pp. 135-144.