Fieldwork and resources for doing it

I recently got an email on one of the lists I was on from a graduate student seeking advice about getting her dissertation project through her university’s IRB board. She wrote

I’m finding the process of trying to squeeze my round pegged ethnographic methods into the unwieldy square holes of the IRB form both frustrating and demoralizing … Partly because it can’t account for uncertainty, for instance by wanting a script of interview questions and to know already how many subjects I’ll have – both things I can’t know ahead of time. But then, its also the problem of the nature of participant observation itself. … where do we (and the IRB) draw the line between “observations” that require consent and those that don’t? It seems clear cut for people I might formally interview with a tape recorder in hand. But what about the people we interact with who may or may not “formally” become part of the research, the gray areas of interaction that might have a huge impact on our thinking – the people we meet in the street, at the local store, the friends of friends who drop by, the secretary or colleague or mother of the official “informant” who we hear about but never meet in person…?

I wrote back to her and tried to offer some advice (and she consented to let me reproduce her email here), mostly to emphasize that one of the problems she might be having with the IRB was that they wanted her to be doing something in the field that was demonstrably different from just living there:

…do you _really_ not have _any_ clue about what sorts of questions you want to ask people while you are there? Do you _really_ not have _any_ sense of how many people you will have to talk to before you get a sense that you know what is going on? I bet you do — even if only have a rough idea right now, you can at least tell the IRB that you will iterate over your research, refining your questions and the people you talk to through different stages of research as you figure out what you’re about… The same stands for everyday interactions — are you planning on pulling a notebook out at the dinner table with a host family? Or with total strangers? If you stratify your lifeworld out in even this very rough way you’ll not only have a better sense of what you’ll do in the field, you’ll be able to turn your confusion and anxiety into righteous indignation when the IRB keeps bugging you about venipuncture forms!

This student had a problem that a lot of cultural anthropologists have: a real lack of training in field methods.

There are lots of reasons anthropologists are notoriously lax in learning field methods. We value fieldwork as a transformative experience which makes the anthropologist not just more informed, but wiser — and this means we may sometimes find pile sorts and sampling procedures stifling. We do work in a staggering variety of places and in lots of ways, and this makes field-wide consensus about what to do in the field difficult. But what resources are there for students who want to learn more about methods?

The obvious book here is the ‘bible’ — “Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches”:^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0759108684 which is part of the massive H. Russell Bernard empire in anthropological methods. But, to be honest, I’ve never really cottoned to the book. First, at US$100 it is ridiculously expensive and, to be honest, the smorgasboard “and now 5 pages on Lickert scales” approach is just too scattered for me. Plus, the sections on technology have still never recovered from DOS.

I can’t claim to have waded through the welter of books on qualitative research, but I do have to say that I sort of like the Lofland’s “Analyzing Social Settings”: which is unapologetic about the idea that you can do ethnographic fieldwork which is rigorous and qualitative.

One other meta-resource: I’m not sure who these people are, but “This collection of well-chosen and high quality links on methods”: is superb. Lickert scales FTW!


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

8 thoughts on “Fieldwork and resources for doing it

  1. You might also direct this student to Zachary Schrag’s excellent Institutional Review Blog
    which raises both fundamental and practical issues about IRBs for social scientists and humanists. Having often bumped up against an IRB that assumes that all “social and behavioral science” research is just like medical research and drug tests, I find Schrag’s perspective refreshing, and hope that it leads to more rational application of basic principles.

  2. I couple months ago I completed my IRB approval for dissertation research I will be conducting this summer. I described my interaction with informants as constituting informal interactions and semi-structured interviews. I also included a list of possible questions for interviews with a disclaimer attached which noted that I might ask questions that were not on the list. I got approval to conduct my research without signed informed consent in a matter of days.

    In contrast, at my master’s institution, I had to go through several rounds of revisions to get approval to use only verbal consent. My topic at my master’s university was comparatively less controversial. Both professors and other grad students had similar problems at this institution.

    I think there needs to be more consistency between IRB’s. It should not be the case that at some universities the process is quick and relatively easy while at others the process is slow and fairly complicated.

  3. My Uni’s IRB is pretty friendly, helped along by a well cut division of labour, and some well placed quals.

    Although I had to apply for IRB approval basically to live in my apartment, I was able to argue for participant observation consent on the grounds that as a genuine participant in the community under observation, my research and interests were manifestly overt. Potential respondents could decide to tell me what they liked by deciding to befriend or not to befriend that guy that moonlights as a sociologist.

    I could see this argument breaking down, however, if I held a position of power in the community, say as an employer or what not. Not an issue for me though. I’m also not interested in slinging any dirt (at least at my respondents), so you could say that my research is pretty low risk.

  4. I’m not sure I would boil anxiety about the IRB down to lack of training in field methods. Sure, you can suffer from both, but the latter doesn’t necessarily cause the former. As I ask older students about the methods course in our department, some people tell me it teaches you how to do fieldwork, and some people say it teaches you how to talk about the fieldwork you’re proposing to do. I think most people would agree that they would prefer being able to employ methods (or engage with methodology in order to get worthwhile ethnographic description) over being able to describe methods for which they can’t practically use. Of course, those people may change their minds when it comes time to write a grant proposal or submit an IRB. Given that so many people say that writing the IRB is so far afield from what they do in the field, it seems to me that the practical knowledge of what to do in the field is as useful in negotiating bureaucracy as bureaucratic knowledge of your institution is in the field.

  5. I didn’t know about the Lofland book. Looks good! Also, I think there are various summer programs that give students a chance to learn-by-doing which is probably the best way.

  6. apropos of nothing in this post:

    great blog, guys, but it really is time to update the blogroll. many of the links are dead or inactive. i mean, the politicaltheory site (which i always preferred to the aldaily site) still has headlines on its front page like: “Global investment banks are taking ever more risk, and are devising ever more sophisticated ways of spreading it. Is that reassuring or worrying?.” this hasn’t been news, or something that could be phrased as a question, for a while now. you guys must have some favorite contemporay links you could put up here. it would increase your traffic too.

    i don’t mean to be rude, because this is (often) a great blog.

    but, you know, while i’m kvetching, let me suggest a way to enliven the blog and to help the blog enliven anthro: a debates series. what are some big issues in anthro that significant groups disagree about? i, dunno, like what’s really the deal with the pirahã and recursion? are the much publicized claims true?– or, whatever. i love anthro, but it’s hurting for some good debates.

  7. Indeed, it is time for a change at your blogroll. Indeed, as stated before (don’t remember from whom though), a lot of smaller, peripheral anthro blogs could seriously benefit by appearing at your blogroll – and in turn you/we could benefit from them. I mean, you do the ‘savage minds around the web’, how difficult a blogroll refresh could be?

  8. I would like to chip in and say that yes, many irbs are totally clueless as to anthropology methods. Yes, I do interviews, but I also talk to random people on the bus. Where does that fit into the IRB?

    Also, I do my fieldwork in a place where most anthropologists do informal interviews, as taking notes or tape recording people makes them very nervous: although they know what anthropology is and generally support it. Where do informal interviews fit in here? how does one record oral consent in this case? Doesn’t the very fact of having a recording of someone’s voice identify them, or signing a sheet with their name? Where the danger is political repression rather than side-effects from medical experimentation, the IRBs methods simply don’t work.

    Your ethics need to be judged by people competent in the methods they are evaluating.

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