3. Preparing for fieldwork

Before embarking on fieldwork, it is vital to have a clear idea of what you are looking for. It is important to have a guiding research question and research parameters that are as clearly defined as possible. This is necessary in order to use limited time and resources efficiently for both researchers and research participants.

Once the research question is formulated, you should become familiar with the location in which research is being conducted. This can include reading related literature (academic and non-academic), site visits, and interviews or conversations with other researchers.

Advance site visits – when and where possible – can help to shape or revise research questions and tools and to anticipate any potential issues.

It may be useful to make a preliminary visit to the field, or various field sites, before committing to the location. Encounters with research participants in the field, including preliminary conversations, will help guide the research question, the background information needed, and help you determine if this location, and this community, will allow you to investigate your broader research questions.

Fieldwork reconnaissance trips will allow you to consider (adapted from Barrat, Burgess, and Cass (1997)):

  • The experience and knowledge of the researcher (what does the researcher already know?);
  • The nature of the site of the fieldwork (where is research being conducted, and what is it like there? How can you incorporate the place into your fieldwork?);
  • Issues related to accessibility and safety (what considerations and/or accommodations are required to ensure accessibility and safety for the researcher and participants?);
  • Individual needs (what does the researcher need in the field?);
  • Research requirements (what is required for the research to be conducted?);
  • Identifying field tasks (what needs to be done in the field?).

It is also important for you, as a researcher, to exercise self-reflexivity to consider your role in the field – how do you locate or position yourself in relationship to the research participants? Self-reflexivity is central to meeting your ethical obligations to consider the potential impacts of your research on the location and participants studied, and expectations of the researcher after the conclusion of fieldwork.

Some important questions to ask before arriving in the field include:

  • Who am I? How might I be viewed, or positioned, by others in the field?
  • Where can I conduct my research safely?
  • What personal risks am I willing to take?
  • What kinds of risks am I introducing into the lives of my research participants?
  • What privileges am I assuming when I think I can gain access to the field? (Buch and Staller, 2014, p.128).

Case study:  

‘Cultural probes’ are a useful exploratory method for conducting preliminary fieldwork to scope out issues to focus on in your fieldwork. The Probes method was developed by designers at the Royal College of Art in the context of design-based approaches to spatial research to prompt new and experimental thinking (Boehner et al., 2012).

For a project on Domestic Probes researchers provided participants with Domestic Probes kits filled with items for them to engage and play with in their homes. The kits contained ten individual probes, including:

  • A dream recorder: a digital memo-taker with instructions for use after having a vivid dream.
  • A listening glass: to record interesting sounds around the home.
  • A Bathroom Pad: a notepad for jotting reactions to clips of media reports.
  • A disposable camera: with a list of pictures to be taken around the home (for example, ‘take a picture outside your window’).
  • A Floor plan: a piece of paper with a dotted grid to draw a floor plan of the home.
  • A family and friends map: for participants to draw a diagram of family and friends.
  • A workpad: for recording domestic routines.
  • Tags: for recording household rules.
  • A telephone jotting pad: A notepad with prompts or questions (for example, about their neighbourhood) for participants to jot down responses to while doing other things, such as talking on the phone.

Probes are designed not to provide an answer to a research question but to open up new avenues of thinking for researchers. Reflecting on the data they gathered from participants, researchers using the Domestic Probes method explained:

“The richness and diversity of the entire collection invites surprises simply by opening the door to many and varied responses…the unexpected is courted through deliberately undermining traditional research roles of the researcher versus subject […] The motivation of leaving room for the unexpected drives a probe process that is at once destabilizing and playful, provocative and at the same time inviting. Courting the unexpected uncovers subjective truths: interpretive, multiple and provisional ways of acting and making meaning in the world (Boehner et al. 2012, pp. 194-195).


Arthur, S. and Nazroo, J., 2003. Designing fieldwork strategies and materials. Qualitative research practice: A guide for social science students and researchers, 1, pp.109-137.

Barratt, R., Burgess, H., & Cass, D. 1997. An enquiry approach to geography fieldwork. Teaching Geography, 22(2), 77-81.

Boehner, K., Gaver, W., and Boucher, A. 2012. Probes. In: C. Lury and N. Wakeford eds., Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social. London and New York: Routledge.

Buch, E.D. and Staller, K.M., 2014 What Is Feminist Ethnography? In: S. Hesse-Biber, ed. 2014. Feminist Research Practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage. Ch.5.

Parr, S., 2015. Integrating critical realist and feminist methodologies: Ethical and analytical dilemmas. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 18(2), pp.193-207.

Phillips, R. and Johns, J., 2012. Fieldwork for human geography. Sage.

Pillow, W., and Mayo, C., 2012 Feminist Ethnography: Histories, Challenges, and Possibilities. In: S. Hesse-Biber, ed. 2012. Handbook of Feminist Research: Theory and Praxis, 2nd ed. London: SAGE, Ch.10.

Rose, G., 1997. Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics. Progress in human geography, 21(3), pp.305-320.