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Effective Tips and Tricks for Studying

No matter how old you are, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to studying. Whether you’re taking the biggest exam of your life or you know your teacher or professor is going to give a pop quiz soon, efficient studying is a great way to be prepared.

Create a Routine

One of the best things you can do for yourself, whether you’re in fifth grade or college, is to make studying a habit. One helpful way to do that is to find a way to incorporate it into your daily routine at the same time every day. Perhaps it’s after dinner or right when you get home from school. Find the time that works for you, and make yourself sit down to study and handle any homework you have at that time every day or on as many days as possible.

Break It Up

Everyone’s been there. You wait until the very last minute to study, and you do it all in one sitting. Not only is it exhausting, but you probably also don’t even remember half of what you study. This is why it can be better to break it up and do a little bit each day. If you have a big project coming up in a few weeks, break it down into steps, and take on one of the steps every other day until everything is complete. If you have plenty of reading to do, break it down into chapters or pages, and read one section each day.

Get Some Sleep

While it can be tempting to stay up all night studying before a big exam, you’re better off getting sleep. Your brain and memory function better when you’re rested, so you can retain more of the information and do better on your test. If you didn’t get a full night of sleep, consider napping briefly during the day to help catch yourself up on sleep.

Clear Your Mind

Before you sit down to study, make sure you have a clear mind and that you’re not focused on something else. Take a walk, listen to some music, read a book or do some stretches. Try meditation. Do whatever it takes to get your mind in the right mood for study time. Be sure to take breaks while you study too. Resting for five minutes every 30 to 60 minutes may help you retain the information.

Create the Right Environment

Finally, create a good study environment. It can be hard to pay attention when the TV is on or when you’re constantly receiving texts from friends. Turn off your devices. If you don’t do well with quiet, use a fan for background noise, or turn on a radio. You may find it more effective to study to music that doesn’t have lyrics. Make sure you’re comfortable and organized. You’ll also want to make sure you have plenty of water and a few healthy snacks on hand if you’ll be studying for a while.


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How to Conduct Field Research Study? – A Complete Guide

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There is a challenge in undergoing a research which involves a vast understanding of the environment and the study of subjects staying in that environment. Although the outcome of this study will help fill in the gaps evidently seen in the literature but the process involves a lot of planning. How does one plan such a humongous research study?  In this article, we will discuss how to conduct a field research and what are the different methods used to streamline the field study !

Research is much more than performing the experiment and analyzing results. It involves gathering raw data and understanding the subject of research in its environment. These type of researches are more elaborate and are the reason for producing real information on a large scale.

Table of Contents

What is Field Research?

Field research is a process where data is collected through a qualitative method. The objective of field study  is to observe and interpret the subject of study in its natural environment. It is used in the field of study of humans and health care professions. Furthermore, it connects theory and practical research study by qualitatively analyzing the data.

Why to Conduct Field Study?

Field study allows researchers to identify and observe the subjects and helps draw correlations between subjects and surroundings, and how the surroundings may influence the behavior.

It gives an in-depth information on subjects because they are observed and analyzed for a long period of time.

Field study allows researchers to fill the gaps in data which can be understood by conducting in-depth primary research.

How is a Field Research different from a Lab Research?

Different methods of field study research.

field research study

There are four main types of methods for conducting a field research .

1. Ethnographic Field Notes

This type of field work is particularly associated with field work that records and analyzes culture, society or community. Most commonly this method of research is used in social anthropology, societies and communities.

2. Qualitative Interviews

Qualitative interviews give researchers detailed information. This vast information is segregated in order to make inferences related to the sample group. This data is gathered by conducting interviews either informally, conversationally or in an open ended interview.

3. Direct Observation

Researchers gather information on their subjects through close visual observation. The researcher can record the observations and events as field notes holistically without a guided protocol. This form of research approach is termed as unstructured observation. However, in a structured observation the researcher uses a guide or set protocols to observe people and events. Furthermore, in direct observation the observer is detached and does not obstruct the research setup. It does not work as an alternative method for conducting field research , and rather works as an initial approach to understand the behavior of the research. This type of method is extensively used in fields of sociology and anthropology wherein the researchers focus on recording social life details in a setting, community, or society.

4. Participant Observation

In this research method, the researcher takes part in the everyday life of the members chosen for observation. This gives the observer a better understanding of the study. Additionally, these observation notes are a primary type of data which the researchers later develop into detailed field notes.

field research study

Steps to Conduct a Field Study

1. identify and acquire researchers of the field.

It is essential to acquire researchers who are specialized in the field of research. Moreover, their experience in the field will help them undergo the further steps of conducting the field research .

2. Identify the topic of research

Post acquiring the researcher, they will work on identifying the topic of research. The researchers are responsible for deciding what topic of research to focus on based on the gaps observed in the existing research literature.

3. Identify the right method of research

After fine tuning the research topic, researchers define the right method to approach the aim and objectives of the research.

4. Visit the site of the study and collect data

Based on the objectives, the observations begin. Observers/Researchers go on field and start collecting data either by visual observation, interviews or staying along with the subjects and experiencing their surroundings to get an in-depth understanding.

5. Analyze the data acquired

The researchers undergo the process of data analysis once the data is collected.

6. Communicate the results

The researchers document a detailed field study report , explaining the data and its outcome. Giving the field study a suitable conclusion.

Advantages of Field Study

The major advantage of field study is that the results represent a greater variety of situations and environments. Researchers yield a detailed data analysis which can be used as primary data for many different research hypotheses. Furthermore, field research has the ability to find newer social facts which the setting or community and the participants may be unaware of. Most importantly, there usually is no tampering of data or variable, as data is collected from the natural setting.

Disadvantages of Field Study

Various methods of field study involve researchers conducting research study and immersing themselves on the research field to gather data. This collection of data can be expensive and time consuming. Moreover, the information acquired is usually undertaken through observation of small groups and this may lack understanding and implications to the larger group of study.

Did you ever conduct a field research? How did you find the process? Which type of field research method did you use? Let us know about it in the comment below.

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What is Field Research: Definition, Methods, Examples and Advantages

Field Research

What is Field Research?

Field research is defined as a qualitative method of data collection that aims to observe, interact and understand people while they are in a natural environment. For example, nature conservationists observe behavior of animals in their natural surroundings and the way they react to certain scenarios. In the same way, social scientists conducting field research may conduct interviews or observe people from a distance to understand how they behave in a social environment and how they react to situations around them.

Learn more about: Market Research

Field research encompasses a diverse range of social research methods including direct observation, limited participation, analysis of documents and other information, informal interviews, surveys etc. Although field research is generally characterized as qualitative research, it often involves multiple aspects of quantitative research in it.

Field research typically begins in a specific setting although the end objective of the study is to observe and analyze the specific behavior of a subject in that setting. The cause and effect of a certain behavior, though, is tough to analyze due to presence of multiple variables in a natural environment. Most of the data collection is based not entirely on cause and effect but mostly on correlation. While field research looks for correlation, the small sample size makes it difficult to establish a causal relationship between two or more variables.

Methods of Field Research

Field research is typically conducted in 5 distinctive methods. They are:

In this method, the data is collected via an observational method or subjects in a natural environment. In this method, the behavior or outcome of situation is not interfered in any way by the researcher. The advantage of direct observation is that it offers contextual data on people management , situations, interactions and the surroundings. This method of field research is widely used in a public setting or environment but not in a private environment as it raises an ethical dilemma.

In this method of field research, the researcher is deeply involved in the research process, not just purely as an observer, but also as a participant. This method too is conducted in a natural environment but the only difference is the researcher gets involved in the discussions and can mould the direction of the discussions. In this method, researchers live in a comfortable environment with the participants of the research, to make them comfortable and open up to in-depth discussions.

Ethnography is an expanded observation of social research and social perspective and the cultural values of an  entire social setting. In ethnography, entire communities are observed objectively. For example,  if a researcher would like to understand how an Amazon tribe lives their life and operates, he/she may chose to observe them or live amongst them and silently observe their day-to-day behavior.

Qualitative interviews are close-ended questions that are asked directly to the research subjects. The qualitative interviews could be either informal and conversational, semi-structured, standardized and open-ended or a mix of all the above three. This provides a wealth of data to the researcher that they can sort through. This also helps collect relational data. This method of field research can use a mix of one-on-one interviews, focus groups and text analysis .

A case study research is an in-depth analysis of a person, situation or event. This method may look difficult to operate, however, it is one of the simplest ways of conducting research as it involves a deep dive and thorough understanding the data collection methods and inferring the data.

Steps in Conducting Field Research

Due to the nature of field research, the magnitude of timelines and costs involved, field research can be very tough to plan, implement and measure. Some basic steps in the management of field research are:

Field Research Notes

Keeping an ethnographic record is very important in conducting field research. Field notes make up one of the most important aspects of the ethnographic record. The process of field notes begins as the researcher is involved in the observational research process that is to be written down later.

Types of Field Research Notes

The four different kinds of field notes are:

Reasons to Conduct Field Research

Field research has been commonly used in the 20th century in the social sciences. But in general, it takes a lot of time to conduct and complete, is expensive and in a lot of cases invasive. So why then is this commonly used and is preferred by researchers to validate data? We look at 4 major reasons:

Examples of Field Research

Some examples of field research are:

Advantages of Field Research

The advantages of field research are:

Disadvantages of Field Research

The disadvantages of field research are:


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Field research.

Field research is a qualitative method of research concerned with understanding and interpreting the social interactions of groups of people, communities, and society by observing and interacting with people in their natural settings. The methods of field research include: direct observation, participant observation, and qualitative interviews. Each of these methods is described here. Terms related to these and other topics in field research are defined in the  Research Glossary .

Direct Observation

Participant observation, qualitative interviews.

Direct observation  is a method of research where the researcher watches and records the activities of individuals or groups engaged in their daily activities. The observations may be unstructured or structured. Unstructured observations involve the researcher observing people and events and recording his/her observations as field notes. Observations are recorded holistically and without the aid of a predetermined guide or protocol. Structured observation, on the other hand, is a technique where a researcher observes people and events using a guide or set protocol that has been developed ahead of time.

Other features of direct observation include:

Participant observation  is a field research method whereby the researcher develops an understanding of a group or setting by taking part in the everyday routines and rituals alongside its members. It was originally developed in the early 20th century by anthropologists researching native societies in developing countries. It is now the principal research method used by ethnographers -- specialists within the fields of anthropology and sociology who focus on recording the details of social life occurring in a setting, community, group, or society. The ethnographer, who often lives among the members for months or years, attempts to build trusting relationships so that he or she becomes part of the social setting. As the ethnographer gains the confidence and trust of the members, many will speak and behave in a natural manner in the presence of the ethnographer.

Data from participant observation studies can take several forms:

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to direct and participant observation studies. Here is a list of some of both. While the advantages and disadvantages apply to both types of studies, their impact and importance may not be the same across the two. For example, researchers engaged in both types of observation will develop a rich, deep understanding of the members of the group and the setting in which social interactions occur, but researchers engaged in participant observation research may gain an even deep understanding. And, participant observers have a greater chance of witnessing a wider range of behaviors and events than those engaged in direct observation.

Advantages of observation studies (observational research):

Disadvantages of observation studies:

Qualitative interviews  are a type of field research method that elicits information and data by directly asking questions of individuals. There are three primary types of qualitative interviews: informal (conversational), semi-structured, and standardized, open-ended. Each is described briefly below along with advantages and disadvantages.

Informal (Conversational) Interviews

Advantages of informal interviewing:

Disadvantages of informal interviewing:

Semi-Structured Interviews

Advantages of semi-structured interviewing:

Disadvantages of semi-structured interviewing:

Standardized, Open-Ended Interviews

Advantages of standardized interviewing:

Disadvantages of standardized interviewing:

Both standardized and semi-structured interviews involve formally recruiting participants and are typically tape-recorded. The researcher should begin with obtaining informed consent from the interviewee prior to starting the interview. Additionally, the researcher may write a separate field note to describe the interviewee's reactions to the interview, or events that occurred before or after the interview.

See the following for additional information about field research and qualitative research methods.

The content on this page was prepared by Jerry West. It was last updated March 2019.

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Field studies.

Summary:  Field research is conducted in the user’s context and location. Learn the unexpected by leaving the office and observing people in their natural environment.

By Susan Farrell

on 2016-10-23 October 23, 2016


It’s difficult to identify gaps in one’s own understanding . Reading and discussing issues with other UX professionals and subject-matter experts can help; but, especially when designing new things with new technologies and capabilities, it’s best to begin by taking an open mind to where the action is.

UX researchers are responsible for learning about users, their goals, challenges, and activities, and for bringing that understanding to the organization. Lab-based studies and analytics can help only to the extent that you ask the right questions and look in the right places for the right data. Studying users and tasks in context can inform design decisions and can put the focus on outcomes, not features . When you notice gaps in your knowledge or understanding, it may be time to get out of the office and investigate, watch, and learn.

What Is a Field Study?

Definition: Field studies are research activities that take place in the user’s context rather than in your office or lab .

The range of possible field-study methods and activities is very wide. Field studies also vary a lot in terms of how the researcher interacts (or doesn’t) with participants. Some field studies are purely observational (the researcher is a “fly on the wall”), some are interviews in which the questions evolve as understanding increases, and some involve prototype feature exploration or demonstration of pain points in existing systems.

Examples of field studies include:

Field research is usually done with one of the following goals in mind:

When to Leave the Lab for the Field

Any of the following are good reasons for running a field study:

When You Might Want to Use Other Methods

If money were no object, we would probably all do much more field research. Unfortunately, field methods have not become cheaper at the same rate as other usability methods, and they can be challenging to budget or schedule. Field studies are still worthwhile, for example when you’re researching how and whether to make a new product, but it’s best to gather as much data as possible with cheaper methods. Beyond reasons of resource constraint, you might decide to stay out of the field in certain other cases.

Research in the Lab or Office

It’s sometimes best to conduct in-person research in labs, conference rooms, or other spaces that are not where people normally do the activity you want to study. For example: When what you are testing or researching is particularly confidential , sensitive, or private; when you have many observers for the research sessions; when you need to record but you can’t do that where participants work; when you’re testing systems or prototypes; or when the research focus is mainly on the usability of the system , rather than on people’s context, nature, and situation.

Remote, Attended Usability Research

UX researchers can get some of the advantages of both field and lab studies by conducting research live, using various audio–visual tools, with participants and facilitators each in their chosen locations. The remote, interactive approach can often be cheaper and faster than field or lab studies. Everyone avoids expensive and time-consuming travel to unfamiliar places. Being in your own space also offers comfort, familiar tools, and convenience.

A tradeoff with remote research is that you can’t see what the user’s camera doesn’t show you. That missing context is often important when you are trying to understand people and their environment.

Remote, attended studies make sense: When your participants are all over the map , and traveling to meet in person is too difficult or expensive; when it’s important to get some specific answers quickly and cheaply, and you already understand the people, tasks, and contexts in depth ; when you need to conduct sessions a few at a time , for example when testing early designs with only a couple of users for each iteration.

How to Plan a Field Study

Make a research plan .

Location. Decide where best to observe people in action . Go where your potential users are most likely to be found: workplaces, schools, shopping centers, airports, and so on.

Assistance. When applicable , work with an ally onsite . When visiting a business, for example, you might need help recruiting, scheduling, reminding, rewarding, and briefing participants. An onsite helper can escort you, introduce you, and help you with equipment or space issues. You may need to get permission in advance to conduct research in public or commercial spaces.

Participants . Study people who are representative of your target audience groups. Depending on the research method you use, you might need a professional recruiter or a team member to help you screen and schedule people.

Observers . Decide whether to allow stakeholders to watch. Although it’s often strategically important and desirable to involve stakeholders in observing user research , it’s not always possible with field studies.

Sometimes observers won’t fit in the space, or they would make the research situation too intimidating or otherwise create a weird situation for the users. When that happens, you won’t get to observe the most natural behavior and you might not get the candid information that you need.

On the other hand, with B2B site visits to customer companies, it’s common for stakeholders from both companies to want to be present for the research sessions to some extent. Sometimes outside researchers can’t be left alone with participants, so observers must be present. Observers often need a place to sit, talk, and work through issues raised in your debriefings. Observers may also need guidance in how to observe and how to help collect data , so they won’t behave badly .

When you encounter problems or behavior that you don’t understand around existing products or services, field studies can help you take a step back and find a new perspective, in order to correct your own mental models .

Doing research where people are can be crucial to understanding whether new products and services will help, hinder, or fall flat for the people you aim to assist. Set aside assumptions and allow insights to reframe what you’re creating and how that will affect the experiences of the people you’re designing for.

(We can come to your team and teach a full-day course on how to conduct ethnographic field studies in your UX projects.)

About the Author

Farrell joined All Turtles, an AI product studio, in 2017, where she leads UX Research and Strategy for chatbots and smart-device systems. She was previously an early member of Nielsen Norman Group, from 1999-2017, where she consulted with dozens of companies —  multinationals, government, open source, and early startups — regarding website and mobile device usability, interaction design and information architecture. She conducted the User Experience Careers survey, co-authored the E-Commerce User Experience research series, conducted accessibility research for the Usability Guidelines for Accessible Web Design report, and contributed to many other NN/g research reports.

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Qualitative Study Design: Field research

Field research

To understand attitudes, practices, roles, organisations, groups, or behaviours in their natural setting

In a way you have probably done field research before – when you’ve been in a doctor’s waiting room, or on an aeroplane. Field research is at its core about observing and participating in social behaviour and trying to understand it. Qualitative field research takes these natural skills and curiosities and refines them to address and answer a research question The “field” is vast, consisting of numerous people, activities, events, and words. When undertaking field research, the researcher needs to determine the exact activities or practices that are of interest to the researcher to answer their research question. Instead of the more artificial environment of an interview or survey, field research lets researchers observe subtle communications, cues, or other events that they may not have anticipated or even measured otherwise.

Field research is often referred to interchangeably as “participant observation”. Participant observation is a type of field research where the researcher is an active participant in the everyday life, habits, or beliefs of the field alongside members. An example of this might be where a researcher goes into a hospital and works alongside hospital staff. A contrast to this is “direct observation”, a type of field research where the researcher observes members in the field but doesn’t actively participate. An example might be a researcher who sits at a hospital cafeteria and observes staff who may not realize they’re being studied.

You may be wondering what the difference is between ethnography and field research. The two terms are often used interchangeably, so it can be a really blurred line! Ethnography is about making sense of culture – it’s about making a detailed overview of the social group and organising your information. Field research is going out into the field – so describing “how” you’re going to conduct research. Ethnographical research can be field research (as in, you’re studying the culture of a hospital by observing within the hospital), or field research can be ethnographic (you’re observing staff in a hospital to see how staff handle crisis intervention). It’s a fine line between the two, and even experienced researchers can be unsure of the difference (or even use the terms interchangeably, depending on discipline), so when in doubt, it is best to talk to your supervisor or an experienced researcher in this discipline

Different studies may benefit from different degrees of researcher involvement. Ultimately, the researcher needs to be sensitive to the impact their presence might have on the data and on participants – and also aware of any ethical requirements around this study type, such as informed consent, duties to report (such as if the researcher observes criminal activities), and confidentiality and privacy of participants.

Observation, unstructured interviews


Example questions

How do student nurses integrate their training into care provision at end-of-life?

Example studies

Babbie, E. (2008). The basics of social research (4th ed). Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth

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Field Research : Definition, Examples & Methodology

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Table of Contents

What is field research.

Field Research is a method of collecting qualitative data with the aim to understand, observe, and interact with people in their natural setting. It requires specialized market research tools . The goal is to understand how a subject behaves in a specific setting to identify how different variables in this setting may be interacting with the subject. Field research is used most in the field of social science, such as anthropology and health care professions, as in these fields it is vital to create a bridge between theory and practice.

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Methods of Field Research

There are 4 main methods of conducting field research, and they are as follows:

Ethnography is a kind of fieldwork that aims to record and analyse a particular culture, society, or community. This method defines social anthropology, and it usually involves the complete immersion of an anthropologist in the culture and everyday life of the community they are trying to study.

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      2. Qualitative Interviews

The goal of qualitative interviews is to provide a researcher with a breadth of information that they can sift through in order to make inferences of their sample group. It does so through interviews by directly asking participants questions. There are three types of qualitative interviews; informal, conversational, and open ended.

     3. Direct observation

This method of field research involves researchers gathering information on their subject through close visual inspection in their natural setting. The researcher, and in this case the observer, remains unobtrusive and detached in order to not influence the behavior of their subject. 

     4. Participant Observation 

In this method of field research, the researchers join people by participating in certain group activities relating to their study in order to observe the participants in the context of said activity. 

Steps to conduct Field Research

The following are some key steps taken in conducting field research:

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Reasons to conduct Field Research

The following are a few reasons as to why field research is conducted, typically via market research tools :

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Examples of field research.

The following are real studies conducted using field research in order to answer questions about human behavior in certain settings:  

Advantages of Field Research

No tampering of variables as methods of field research are conducted in natural settings in the real world. Voxco’s mobile offline research software is a powerful tool for conducting field research.

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Module 2: Sociological Research

Field research, learning outcomes.

The work of sociology rarely happens in limited, confined spaces. Sociologists seldom study subjects in their own offices or laboratories. Rather, sociologists go out into the world. They meet subjects where they live, work, and play. Field research refers to gathering primary data from a natural environment without doing a lab experiment or a survey. It is a research method suited to an interpretive framework rather than to the scientific method. To conduct field research, the sociologist must be willing to step into new environments and observe, participate, or experience those worlds. In field work, the sociologists, rather than the subjects, are the ones out of their element.

The researcher interacts with or observes a person or people and gathers data along the way. The key point in field research is that it takes place in the subject’s natural environment, whether it’s a coffee shop or tribal village, a homeless shelter or the DMV, a hospital, airport, mall, or beach resort.

A man is shown taking notes outside a tent in the mountains.

Figure 1. Sociological researchers travel across countries and cultures to interact with and observe subjects in their natural environments. (Photo courtesy of IMLS Digital Collections and Content/flickr and Olympic National Park)

While field research often begins in a specific setting , the study’s purpose is to observe specific behaviors in that setting. Field work is optimal for observing how people behave. It is less useful, however, for understanding why they behave that way. You can’t really narrow down cause and effect when there are so many variables to be factored into a natural environment.

Many of the data gathered in field research are based not on cause and effect but on correlation. And while field research looks for correlation, its small sample size does not allow for establishing a causal relationship between two variables.

BeyoncÉ and LADY gaga as sociological subjects

Two pictures depict Lady Gaga and Beyoncé performing.

Figure 2. Researchers have used surveys and participant observations to accumulate data on Lady Gaga and Beyonce as multifaceted performers. (Credit a: John Robert Chartlon/flickr, b: Kristopher Harris/flickr.)

Sociologists have studied Lady Gaga and Beyoncé and their impact on music, movies, social media, fan participation, and social equality. In their studies, researchers have used several research methods including secondary analysis, participant observation, and surveys from concert participants.

In their study, Click, Lee & Holiday (2013) interviewed 45 Lady Gaga fans who utilized social media to communicate with the artist. These fans viewed Lady Gaga as a mirror of themselves and a source of inspiration. Like her, they embrace not being a part of mainstream culture. Many of Lady Gaga’s fans are members of the LGBTQ community. They see the “song “Born This Way” as a rallying cry and answer her calls for “Paws Up” with a physical expression of solidarity—outstretched arms and fingers bent and curled to resemble monster claws.”

Sascha Buchanan (2019) made use of participant observation to study the relationship between two fan groups, that of Beyoncé and that of Rihanna. She observed award shows sponsored by iHeartRadio, MTV EMA, and BET that pit one group against another as they competed for Best Fan Army, Biggest Fans, and FANdemonium. Buchanan argues that the media thus sustains a myth of rivalry between the two most commercially successful Black women vocal artists.

Here, we will look at three types of field research: participant observation, ethnography, and the case study.

Participant Observation

In participant observation  research, a sociologist joins people and participates in a group’s routine activities for the purpose of observing them within that context. This method lets researchers experience a specific aspect of social life. A researcher might go to great lengths to get a firsthand look into a trend, institution, or behavior. Researchers temporarily put themselves into roles and record their observations. A researcher might work as a waitress in a diner, live as a homeless person for several weeks, or ride along with police officers as they patrol their regular beat.

Although these researchers try to blend in seamlessly with the population they study, they are still obligated to obtain IRB approval. In keeping with scholarly objectives, the purpose of their observation is different from simply “people watching” at one’s workplace, on the bus or train, or in a public space.

Waitress serves customers in an outdoor café.

Figure 3.  Who is the sociologist in this photo? It’s impossible to tell! In participant observation, researchers immerse themselves in an environment for a time.  (Photo courtesy of zoetnet/flickr)

At the beginning of a field study, researchers might have a question: “What   really goes on in the kitchen of the most popular diner on campus?” or “What is it like to experience homelessness?” Participant observation is a useful method if the researcher wants to explore a certain environment from the inside.

Field researchers simply want to observe and learn. In such a setting, the researcher will be alert and open minded to whatever happens, recording all observations accurately. Soon, as patterns emerge, questions will become more specific, observations will lead to hypotheses, and hypotheses will guide the researcher in shaping data into results.

Some sociologists prefer not to alert people to their presence. The main advantage of covert participant observation is that it allows the researcher access to authentic, natural behaviors of a group’s members. The challenge, however, is gaining access to a setting without disrupting the pattern of others’ beha vior. Becoming an inside member of a group, organization, or subculture takes time and effort. Researchers must pretend to be something they are not. The process could involve role playing, making contacts, networking, or applying for a job. Whenever deception is involved in sociological research, it will be intensely scrutinized and may or may not be approved by an institutional IRB.  

Once inside a group, participation observation research can last months or even years. Sociologists have to balance the types of interpersonal relationships that arise from living and/or working with other people with objectivity as a researcher.  They must keep their purpose in mind and apply the sociological perspective. That way, they illuminate social patterns that are often unrecognized. Because information gathered during participant observation is mostly qualitative, rather than quantitative, the e nd results are often descriptive or interpretive. This type of research is well-suited to learning about the kinds of human behavior or social groups that are not known by the scientific community, who are particularly closed or secretive, or when one is attempting to understand societal structures, as we will see in the following example. 

Nickel and Dimed (2001, 2011)

Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich con ducted participation observation research for her book Nickel and Dimed . One day over lunch with her editor, Ehrenreich mentioned an idea. How can people exist on minimum-wage work? How do low-income workers get by? she wondered aloud. Someone should do a study. To her surprise, her editor responded, Why don’t you do it?

That’s how Ehrenreich found herself joining the ranks of the working class. For several months, she left her comfortable home and lived and worked among people who lacked, for the most part, higher education and marketable job skills. Undercover, she applied for and worked minimum wage jobs as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a retail chain employee. During her participant observation, she used only her income from those jobs to pay for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter.

She discovered the obvious, that it’s almost impossible to get by on minimum wage service work. She also experienced and observed attitudes many middle and upper-class people never think about. She witnessed firsthand the treatment of working class employees. She saw the extreme measures people take to make ends meet and to survive. She described fellow employees who held two or three jobs, worked seven days a week, lived in cars, could not pay to treat chronic health conditions, got randomly fired, submitted to drug tests, and moved in and out of homeless shelters. She brought aspects of that life to light, describing difficult working conditions and the poor treatment that low-wage workers suffer.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America , the book she w rote upon her return to her real life as a well-paid writer, has been widely read and used in many college classrooms. The first edition was published in 2001 and a follow-up post-recession edition was published with updated information in 2011. 

About 10 empty office cubicles are shown.

Figure 4. Field research happens in real locations. What type of environment do work spaces foster? What would a sociologist discover after blending in? (Photo courtesy of drewzhrodague/flickr)


Ethnography is a type of social research that involves the extended observation of the social perspective and cultural values of an entire social setting. Ethnogra phies involve objective observation of an entire community, and they often involve participant observation as a research method.

British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who studied the Trobriand Islanders near Papua New Guinea during World War I, was one of the first anthropologists to engage with the communities they studied and he became known for this methodological contribution, which differed from the detached observations that took place from a distance (i.e., “on the verandas” or “armchair anthropology”). 

Although anthropologists had been doing ethnographic research longer, sociologists were doing ethnographic research in the 20th century, particularly in what became known as The Chicago School at the University of Chicago. William Foote Whyte’s  Street Corner Society:  The Social Structure of an Italian Slum  (1943) is a seminal work of urban ethnography and a “classic” sociological text. 

The heart of an ethnographic study focuses on how subjects view their own social standing and how they understand themselves in relation to a community. An ethnographic study might observe, for example, a small U.S. fishing town, an Inuit community, a village in Thailand, a Buddhist monastery, a private boarding school, or an amusement park. These places all have borders. People live, work, study, or vacation within those borders. People are there for a certain reason and therefore behave in certain ways and respect certain cultural norms. An ethnographer would commit to spending a predetermined amount of time studying every aspect of the chosen place, taking in as much as possible.

A sociologist studying a tribe in the Amazon might watch the way villagers go about their daily lives and then write a paper about it. To observe a spiritual retreat center, an ethnographer might attend as a guest for an extended stay, observe and record data, and collate the material into results.

The Making of Middletown: A Study in Modern U.S. Culture

In 1924, a young married couple named Robert and Helen Lynd undertook an unprecedented ethnography: to apply sociological methods to the study of one U.S. city in order to discover what “ordinary” people in the United States did and believed. Choosing Muncie, Indiana (population about 30,000), as their subject, they moved to the small town and lived there for eighteen months.

Ethnographers had been examining other cultures for decades—groups considered minority or outsider—like gangs, immigrants, and the poor. But no one had studied the so-called average American.

Recording interviews and using surveys to gather data, the Lynds did not sugarcoat or idealize U.S. life (PBS). They objectively stated what they observed. Researching existing sources, they compared Muncie in 1890 to the Muncie they observed in 1924. Most Muncie adults, they found, had grown up on farms but now lived in homes inside the city. From that discovery, the Lynds focused their study on the impact of industrialization and urbanization.

They observed that the workers of Muncie were divided into business class and working class groups. They defined business class as dealing with abstract concepts and symbols, while working class people used tools to create concrete objects. The two classes led different lives with different goals and hopes. However, the Lynds observed, mass production offered both classes the same amenities. Like wealthy families, the working class was now able to own radios, cars, washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators. This was a newly emerging economic and material reality of the 1920s.

Early 20th century black and white photo of a classroom with female students at their desks.

Figure 5. A classroom in Muncie, Indiana, in 1917, five years before John and Helen Lynd began researching this “typical” U.S. community. (Photo courtesy of Don O’Brien/flickr)

As the Lynds worked, they divided their manuscript into six sections: Getting a Living, Making a Home, Training the Young, Using Leisure, Engaging in Religious Practices, and Engaging in Community Activities. Each chapter included subsections such as “The Long Arm of the Job” and “Why Do They Work So Hard?” in the “Getting a Living” chapter.

When the study was completed, the Lynds encountered a big problem. The Rockefeller Foundation, which had commissioned the book, claimed it was useless and refused to publish it. The Lynds asked if they could seek a publisher themselves.

As it turned out, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture was not only published in 1929, but also became an instant bestseller, a status unheard of for a sociological study. The book sold out six printings in its first year of publication, and has never gone out of print (PBS).

Nothing like it had ever been done before. Middletown was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times . Readers in the 1920s and 1930s identified with the citizens of Muncie, Indiana, but they were equally fascinated by the sociological methods and the use of scientific data to define ordinary people in the United States. The book was proof that social data were important—and interesting—to the U.S. public.

Institutional Ethnography

Institutional ethnography is an extension of basic ethnographic research principles that focuses intentionally on everyday concrete social relationships. Developed by Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith, institutional ethnography is often considered a feminist-inspired approach to social analysis and primarily considers women’s experiences within male-dominated societies and power structures. Smith’s work challenges sociology’s exclusion of women, both academically and in the study of women’s lives (Fenstermaker, n.d.).

Historically, social science research tended to objectify women and ignore their experiences except as viewed from a male perspective. Modern feminists note that describing women, and other marginalized groups, as subordinates helps those in authority maintain their own dominant positions (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, n.d.). Smith’s three major works explored what she called “the conceptual practices of power” (1990; cited in Fensternmaker, n.d.) and are still considered seminal works in feminist theory and ethnography.

Sometimes a researcher wants to study one specific person or event. A case study is an in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual. To conduct a case study, a researcher examines existing sources like documents and archival records, conducts interviews, or engages in direct observation and even participant observation, if possible.

Researchers might use this method to study a single case of, for example, a foster child, drug lord, cancer patient, criminal, or rape victim. However, a major criticism of the case study method is that a developed study of a single case, while offering depth on a topic, does not provide broad enough evidence to form a generalized conclusion. In other words, it is difficult to make universal claims based on just one person, since one person does not verify a pattern. This is why most sociologists do not use case studies as a primary research method.

However, case studies are useful when the single case is unique. In these instances, a single case study can add tremendous knowledge to a certain discipline. For example, a feral child, also called a “wild child,” is one who grows up isolated from other human beings. Feral children grow up without social contact and language, which are elements crucial to a “civilized” child’s development. These children mimic the behaviors and movements of animals, and often invent their own language. There are only about one hundred cases of “feral children” in the world.

As you may imagine, a feral child is a subject of great interest to researchers. Feral children provide unique information about child development because they have grown up outside of the parameters of “normal” child socialization and language acquisition. And since there are very few feral children, the case study is the most appropriate method for researchers to use in studying the subject.

At age three, a Ukranian girl named Oxana Malaya suffered severe parental neglect. She lived in a shed with dogs, and she ate raw meat and scraps. Five years later, a neighbor called authorities and reported seeing a girl who ran on all fours, barking. Officials brought Oxana into society, where she was cared for and taught some human behaviors, but she never became fully socialized. She has been designated as unable to support herself and now lives in a mental institution (Grice 2011). Case studies like this offer a way for sociologists to collect data that may not be collectable by any other method.


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