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GuidesResearch methodsA guide to field studies

A guide to field studies

Last updated

18 April 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Cathy Heath

Field studies allow researchers to observe and collect data in real-world settings. Unlike laboratory-based or traditional research methods, field studies enable researchers to investigate complex phenomena within their environment, providing a deeper understanding of the research context.

Researchers can use field studies to investigate a wide range of subjects, from the behavior of animals to the practices of businesses or the experiences of individuals in a particular setting.

This research method has become increasingly popular in recent years as researchers recognize the limitations of traditional research methods and seek to gain a more holistic and authentic understanding of their research topics.

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What is a field study?

A field study is a research method that involves conducting observations and collecting data in a natural setting. This method includes observing, interviewing, and interacting with participants in their environment, such as a workplace, community, or natural habitat.

Field studies can take many forms, from ethnographic studies involving extended periods of observation and using an anthropological lens to shorter-term studies focusing on specific behaviors or events. Regardless of its form, a successful field study requires careful planning, preparation, and execution to ensure the data collected is valid and reliable.

How to plan a field study

Planning a field study is a critical first step in ensuring successful research. Here are some steps to follow when preparing your field study:

1. Define your research question

When developing a good research question, you should make it clear, concise, and specific. It should also be open-ended, allowing for various possible answers rather than a simple yes or no response. Your research question should also be relevant to the broader field of study and contribute new knowledge to the existing literature.

Once you have a defined research question, identify the key variables you need to study and the data you need to collect. It might involve developing a hypothesis or research framework outlining the relationships between different variables and how you’ll measure them in your study.

2. Identify your research site

A research site is a location where you’ll conduct your study and collect data. Here are the types of research sites to consider when planning a field study:

  • Natural habitats: For environmental or ecological research, you may need to conduct your study in a natural habitat, such as a forest, wetland, or coral reef.

  • Communities: If your research relates to social or cultural factors, you may need to study a particular community, such as a neighborhood, village, or city.

  • Organizations: For questions relating to organizational behavior or management, your location will be in a business environment, like a nonprofit or government agency.

  • Events: If your research question relates to a particular event, you may need to conduct your study at that event, such as, at a protest, festival, or natural disaster.

Ensure your research site represents the population you're studying. For example, if you're exploring cultural beliefs, ensure the community represents the larger population and you have access to a diverse group of participants.

3. Determine your data collection methods

Choosing a suitable method will depend on the research question, the type of data needed, and the characteristics of the participants. Here are some commonly used data collection methods in field studies:

  • Interviews: You can collect data on people's experiences, perspectives, and attitudes. In some instances, you can use phone or online interviews.

  • Observations: This method involves watching and recording behaviors and interactions in a specific setting. 

  • Surveys: By using a survey, you can easily standardize and tailor the questions to provide answers for your research. Respondents can complete the survey in person, by mail, or online.

  • Document analysis: Organizational reports, letters, diaries, public records, policies, or social media posts can be analyzed to gain context. 

When selecting data collection methods, consider factors such as the availability of participants, the ethical considerations involved, and the resources needed to carry out each method. For example, conducting interviews may require more time and resources than administering a survey.

4. Obtain necessary permissions

Depending on the research location and the nature of the study, you may require permission from local authorities, organizations, or individuals before conducting your research. 

This process is vital when working with human or animal subjects and conducting research in sensitive or protected environments.

Here are some steps you can take to obtain the necessary permissions:

  • Identify the relevant authorities, including local governments, regulatory bodies, research institutions, or private organizations, to obtain permission for your research.

  • Reach out to the relevant authorities to explain the nature of your study. Be ready to hand out detailed information about your research. 

  • If you're conducting research with human participants, you must have their consent. You'll also need to ensure the participants have the right to withdraw from the study at any time.

  • Obtain necessary permits from regulatory bodies or local authorities. For example, if you're conducting research in a protected area, you may need a research permit from the relevant government agency.

The process of obtaining permissions can be time-consuming, and failure to obtain the necessary permits can lead to legal and ethical issues.

Examples of field research

Researchers can apply field research to a wide range of disciplines and phenomena. Here are some examples of field research in different fields:

  1. Anthropology: Anthropologists use field research methods to study different communities' social and cultural practices. For instance, an anthropologist might conduct participant observation in a remote community to understand their customs, beliefs, and practices.

  2. Ecology: Ecologists use field research methods to learn the behavior of organisms and their interactions with the environment. For example, an ecologist might conduct field research on the behavior of birds in their natural habitat to understand their feeding habits, nesting patterns, and migration.

  3. Sociology: Sociologists may use field research methods to study social behavior and interactions. For instance, a sociologist might conduct participant observation in a workplace to understand organizational culture and communication dynamics.

  4. Geography: Geographers use field research methods to study different regions’ physical and human contexts. For example, a geographer might conduct field research on the impact of climate change on a particular ecosystem, such as a forest or wetland.

  5. Psychology: Psychologists use field research methods to study human behavior in natural settings. For instance, a psychologist might conduct field research on the effects of stress on students in a school setting.

  6. Education: Researchers studying education may use field research methods to study teaching and learning in real-world settings. For example, you could use field research to test the effectiveness of a new teaching method in a classroom setting.

By using field research methods, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of the natural world, human behavior, and social interaction theory and how they affect each other.

Advantages of field research

Field research has several advantages over other research methods, including:

  • Authenticity: Field research conducted in natural settings allows researchers to observe and study real-life phenomena as it happens. This authenticity enhances the validity and accuracy of the data collected.

  • Flexibility: Field research methods are flexible and adaptable to different research contexts. Researchers can adjust their strategies to meet the specific needs of their research questions and participants and uncover new insights as the research unfolds.

  • Rich data: Field research provides rich and detailed data, often including contextual information that’s difficult to capture through other research methods. This depth of knowledge allows for a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the research topic.

  • Novel insights: Field research can lead to discoveries that may not be possible with other research methods. Observing and studying phenomena in natural settings can provide unique perspectives and new understandings of complex issues.

Field research methods can enhance the quality and validity of research findings and lead to new insights and discoveries that may not be possible with other research methods.

Disadvantages of field research

While field research has several advantages, there are also some disadvantages that researchers need to consider, including:

  • Time-consuming: Researchers need to spend time in the field, possibly weeks or months, which can be challenging, especially if the research site is remote or requires travel.

  • Cost: Conducting field research can be costly, especially if the research site is remote or requires specialized equipment or materials.

  • Reliance on participants: It may be challenging to recruit participants, and various factors, such as personal circumstances, attitudes, and beliefs, may influence their participation.

  • Ethical considerations: Field research may raise ethical concerns, mainly if the research involves vulnerable populations or sensitive topics. 

  • Causality: Researchers may have little control over the environmental or contextual variables they are studying. This can make it difficult to establish causality and then generalize their results with previous research. 

Researchers must carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of field research and select the most appropriate research method based on their research question, participants, and context.


What is another name for field study?

Field study is also known as field research or fieldwork. These terms are often used interchangeably and refer to research methods that involve observing and collecting data in natural settings.

What is the difference between a field study and a case study?

Field study is also known as field research or fieldwork. These terms are often used interchangeably and refer to research methods that involve observing and collecting data in natural settings.

Why is field study important?

Field study is critical because it allows researchers to study real-world phenomena in natural settings. This study can also lead to novel insights that may not be possible with other research methods.

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