“There is no road map”
Field research is not limited to the natural sciences. Fieldwork is often conducted in the humanities and social sciences, too. But how? Professor Georg Breidenstein and two of his colleagues describe how it is done in the textbook “Ethnografie – die Praxis der Feldforschung” (Ethnography – the Practice of Fieldwork). In an interview, the educationalist discusses why participatory observation is necessary and what makes social science fieldwork special.
Natural science fieldwork often literally means standing in a field. What field does the social scientist go to?
Georg Breidenstein: They have many research fields to choose from and the field largely depends on the researcher’s interests. For teachers this means the classroom or school yard, for example. For educationalists the field might be the youth welfare office. Even streetball can be a field of research. The traditional idea of fieldwork means observing onsite the social practice that one is interested in, taking part in it and speaking with the people involved. However, many of the phenomena that we are interested in today cannot be easily connected to a particular location. Where is the field for social practices that mainly occur online? This is currently being intensively discussed.
What is your position on this matter?
I am certain that fieldwork has to involve digital communication for many studies because it is, naturally, a social practice. On the other hand, I also tend to maintain the traditional definition of fieldwork where one leaves the desk and engages as an individual in the field of research and its environment. It enables you to gain experience in research-relevant things. Your own experience in the field becomes an object of reflection.
What insights can only be gained by being on location?
Some things can only be experienced by actually participating. You get a completely different view about what is happening. For example, you can only find out how perspectives change in the classroom when you change seats. Once I played tag as part of a childhood research project and gained the insightful knowledge of what it means to not be tagged. You’re left in peace, but you also don’t feel involved. You are obviously not attractive enough for the tagger. This is the result of participatory observation.
How is this experience reflected in your research?
First I try to describe it. Then I can systematically think about how the different roles in the game are distributed or what these roles have to do with gender division, for example.
You also influence what happens as an observer. Can this influence be relativised?
No, you have to take this reactivity into account. However, I can learn a lot from how the field reacts to the observer. Usually the scientist is only of interest at the beginning. With time the people get used to the situation – even the recording equipment. You become more inconspicuous the longer you are in the field.
What are the greatest challenges of fieldwork?
Access to the field is often a big challenge. I don’t just mean gaining formal consent to do the research. I believe access also includes obtaining the trust of the participants so that you are allowed to see what they are doing under the desk in class, for example. You have to develop this trust and this depends a lot on the individual fieldworker.
How can the researcher maintain the necessary distance?
In the area of school research, you have to be able to see the field with new eyes. Everyone has already had 12 years of fieldwork experience. First you can distance yourself by writing down your experiences, impressions and ideas. The next step is to analyse the data. Various sequencing and analytical methods can be used to think methodically about your own protocols in order to develop an analytical perspective of the events.
How do you teach students the methods of field research?
I think you can only learn fieldwork by doing it. It can’t be standardised and the process heavily depends on the object of research. Many decisions are made during the process. There is no road map; however, there is a need for instructions. The first edition of our textbook on the practice of fieldwork was quickly snatched up. Students put methods of ethnography into practice by doing small class projects, for example on the market square or in the tram. There they learn how to observe and record information. Afterwards we talk about how to develop research questions and theories from this. However, intensive field research lasting several weeks can only be conducted in the context of examination papers.
What makes a good ethnographer?
The right mixture of being open to what is happening in the field and, at the same time, working very intensively on one’s own scientific perspectives. On the one hand there is the danger of “going native”, meaning completely assuming the perspectives of the “natives” and, thereby, not being able to develop an analytical distance to the object of research. The opposite danger is that one does not engage in events at all and remains within one’s own theoretical building without being surprised by the fieldwork. The purpose is to discover something that was previously unknown.
For many scientists, fieldwork is the highlight of their work. Does the same hold true for you?
Yes, I enjoy it. Unfortunately, I don’t get around to doing it much anymore because I am usually responsible for overseeing it. But I try to be onsite for at least a few days for every project and every time it warms my heart. The whole complexity of what is going on can only be felt in the field. In order to get a sense of this, you have to be onsite yourself. Protocols, in and of themselves, are not enough. Interview: Corinna Bertz