Field research has many benefits, as well as a set of drawbacks. We’ll explore both here.
Field research allows researchers to gain firsthand experience and knowledge about the people, events, and processes that they study. No other method offers quite the same kind of closeup lens on everyday life. This close-up on everyday life means that field researchers can obtain very detailed data about people and processes, perhaps more detailed than they can obtain using any other method.
Field research is an excellent method for understanding the role of social context in shaping people’s lives and experiences. It enables a greater understanding of the intricacies and complexities of daily life. Field research may also uncover elements of people’s experiences or of group interactions of which we were not previously aware. This in particular is a unique strength of field research. With other methods, such as interviews and surveys, we certainly can’t expect a respondent to answer a question to which they do not know the answer or to provide us with information of which they are not aware. And because field research typically occurs over an extended period of time, social facts that may not even be immediately revealed to a researcher but that become discovered over time can be uncovered during the course of a field research project.
In sum, the major benefits of field research are the following:
Earlier I described the fact that field researchers are able to collect very detailed data as a benefit of this method. This benefit, however, does come at a cost. Because a field researcher’s focus is so detailed, it is by necessity also somewhat narrow. Field researchers simply are not able to gather data from as many individuals as, say, a survey researcher can reach. Indeed, field researchers generally sacrifice breadth in exchange for depth. Related to this point is the fact that field research is extremely time intensive.
Field research can also be emotionally taxing. In Chapter 9 "Interviews: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches", I assert that interview research requires, to a certain extent, the development of a relationship between a researcher and her participants. But if interviews and field research both require relationship development, you might say that interviews are more like casual dating while field research is more like a full-blown, committed marriage.
The relationships you develop as a field researcher are sustained over a much longer period than the hour or two it might take you to conduct an interview. Not only do the relationships last longer, but they are also more intimate. A number of field researchers have documented the complexities of relationships with research participants (Arditti, Joest, Lambert-Shute, & Walker, 2010; Keinman & Copp, 1993; MacLeod, 1995).MacLeod, J. (1995). On the making of ain’t no makin’ it. In J. MacLeod (Ed.), Ain’t no makin’ it: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood (pp. 270–302). Boulder, CO: Westview Press; Arditti, J. A., Joest, K. A., Lambert-Shute, J., & Walker, L. (2010). The role of emotions in fieldwork: A self-study of family research in a corrections setting. The Qualitative Report, 15, 1387–1414; Keinman, S., & Copp, M. A. (1993). Emotions and fieldwork. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. On the plus side, these relationships can be very rewarding (and yield the rich, detailed data noted as a strength in the preceding discussion). But, as in any relationship, field researchers experience not just the highs but also the lows of daily life and interactions. And participating in day-to-day life with one’s research subjects can result in some tricky ethical quandaries (see Chapter 3 "Research Ethics" for a discussion of some of these quandaries). It can also be a challenge if your aim is to observe as “objectively” as possible.
Finally, documentation can be challenging for field researchers. Where survey researchers have the questionnaires participants complete and interviewers have recordings, field researchers generally have only themselves to rely on for documenting what they observe. This challenge becomes immediately apparent upon entering the field. It may not be possible to take field notes as you observe, nor will you necessarily know which details to document or which will become the most important details to have noted. And when you take notes after some observation, you may not recall everything exactly as you saw it when you were there.
In sum, the weaknesses of field research include the following: