Experiencing Fieldwork: An Inside View of Qualitative Research


Edited by: William B. Shaffir & Robert A. Stebbins

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Part I: Getting in

    Part II: Learning the Ropes

    Part III: Maintaining Relations

    Part IV: Leaving and Keeping in Touch

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    View Copyright Page


    To the memory of my father, M. M. Shaffir.

    To Karin.


    Reports about field research usually describe the methods and techniques of the research. Less often do they tell of the researchers' social and emotional experiences: anxiety and frustration, as well as exhilaration and pride in achievement. These topics are discussed more often in personal conversations between field researchers than written about in the literature. But in field research the social and emotional side of the endeavor is more problematic than in any other form of inquiry. Frequently the formal rules and canons of research must be bent, twisted, or otherwise abandoned to accommodate the demands of the specific field research situation and the personal characteristics of the investigator.

    Learning about the research experiences of others is essential for students because it enables them to anticipate more accurately the trials and rewards of their own research efforts. In this book field researchers discuss their personal experiences and, less prominently, the methodological decisions and choices behind their studies of society.

    The present volume is patterned after a previous one—Fieldwork Experience—that we edited in 1980 along with our colleague and friend Allan Turowetz. Based on reactions from colleagues and students, we believe that it was well received and, by focusing on the social and emotional dimensions of field research, contributed toward understanding a neglected dimension of field research. Indeed, the decision to edit the present volume was prompted by several requests from colleagues for permission to photostat the earlier text for their courses because it was no longer available in print. Although we have retained the general format of the Fieldwork Experience volume, each of the contributions in the present work is original, specially solicited for publication here.

    The organization of this volume is focused around four dimensions of the field research process that can be distinguished usefully for analytical purposes only: getting in, learning the ropes, maintaining relations, and leaving and keeping in touch. As is well known, these dimensions are interwoven intricately in the actual dynamics of field research. In fact, such interconnectedness is reflected in the majority of the selections, which could just as easily have served to illustrate adjacent sections. Our general introduction discusses the nature of field research and addresses some of the essential issues researchers have to confront; the introductions to each of the sections further discuss specific aspects of field research.

    We wish to thank each of the contributors for the promptness, and even enthusiasm, with which he or she responded to our request for the original article as well as suggested revisions. Their response made our task as editors more than bearable. Finally, we appreciate the cooperation and support of Sage Publications.

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    About the Authors

    Patricia A. Adler (Ph.D., University of California, San Diego) is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado. She has written and taught in the areas of deviance, social theory, and the sociology of children. She has published Wheeling and Dealing (Columbia University Press), The Sociology of Financial Markets (JAI), and “Intense Loyalty in Organizations” in Administrative Science Quarterly.

    Peter Adler (Ph.D., University of California, San Diego) is Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Denver. His research interests include social psychology, qualitative methods, and the sociology of sport and leisure. Recent publications include Membership Roles in Field Research (Sage), “Everday Life Sociology” in the 1987 Annual Review of Sociology, and “The Gloried Self” in Social Psychology Quarterly. Together, Peter and Patricia Adler edit the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography and Sociological Studies of Child Development. Their most recent book, Blackboards and Backboards, a five-year participant-observation study of college athletes, is in press.

    Ramona M. Asher (Ph.D., University of Minnesota), independent scholar and sociology practitioner, develops personal-growth workshops for public and corporate presentation. She currently is researching changing definitions of selves and situations over the life course, continuing her interests in life transformations and constructions of reality that originated in her doctoral study of the moral career of becoming a wife of an alcoholic. She has published works on alcohol studies and codependency. Formerly Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, she now centers her research and practice in Minneapolis, where she occasionally teaches at the University of Minnesota.

    Robert G. Burgess is Professor of Sociology and Director of CEDAR (Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research) at the University of Warwick. His main teaching and research interests are in social research methodology; especially qualitative methods and the sociology of education, and particularly the study of schools, classrooms, and curricula. He currently is writing an ethnographic restudy of a comprehensive school on which he already has published several papers. His main publications include: Experiencing Comprehensive Education, In the Field: An Introduction to Field Research, Education, Schools and Schooling, and Sociology, Education and Schools, together with fourteen edited volumes on qualitative methods and education. He is President of the British Sociological Association.

    A. Donald Evans (Ph.D., Louisiana State University) has taught sociology and anthropology at Mercer University in Georgia since 1971. His research interests include sociology of language, corrections, and American Indians, in addition to his studies focusing on the language and culture of the deaf. Among his publications are Learning to Be Deaf (coauthored with William Falk) and “Strange Bedfellows: Language, Deafness, and Knowledge” in Symbolic Interaction.

    David M. Fetterman is an administrator and a member of the faculty at Stanford University. He is also a Professor of Education at Sierra Nevada College. Dr. Fetterman is the President of the American Anthropological Association's Council on Anthropology and Education. He has received the President's Prize from the Evaluation Research Society, the Praxis Publication Award from the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists, and the Ethnographic Evaluation Award from the Council on Anthropology and Education. He was recently awarded one of the 1990 Mensa Education and Research Foundation Awards for Excellence. The award was made for his book Excellence and Equality: AQualitatively Different Perspective on Gifted and Talented Education. Dr. Fetterman is also the author of Ethnography: Step by Step; Qualitative Approaches to Evaluation in Education: The Silent Scientific Revolution; Educational Evaluation: Ethnography in Theory, Practice, and Politics; and Ethnography in Educational Evaluation.

    Gary Alan Fine is Professor and Head of Sociology at the University of Georgia. His major research interests include social psychology, collective behavior, qualitative methods, sociological theory, and the sociology of culture. He currently is conducting research on the world of high school debate and is publishing articles on his previous research projects on restaurant cooking and amateur mushroom collecting. He is the author of With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture, the winner of the 1988 Opie Prize, and Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds.

    Charles P. Gallmeier is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Valparaiso University. His research interests include sociology of sport, work and occupations, deviance, and qualitative methods. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Sociological Spectrum and the ARENA Review. He served as a guest editor for the ARENA Review, developing a special issue devoted to ethnographic methods in sport sociology. He is currently the New Ethnographies Editor for the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

    Christine Griffin teaches social psychology at Birmingham University, England. Her research interests include young people's experiences of the transition to adulthood, sex/gender relations, power relations and everyday experience, and qualitative ethnographic research methods. She has been involved in developing youth work provision for young women since 1979. Between 1979 and 1982 she worked at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Birmingham University, on a study of young women's entry to the job market. From 1983 to 1985 she conducted a survey of young adults' experiences of racial discrimination in the local job market at Leicester University's Centre for Mass Communication Research.

    Jaber F. Gubrium is Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida. He has conducted research on the social organization of care in diverse human service settings. Currently, he is engaged in a funded study of institutionalization and life narrative in old age and is continuing to develop a social constructionist approach to the family. He is the editor of the Journal of Aging Studies, author of Living and Dying at Murray Manor, and Oldtimers and Alzheimer's, Analyzing Field Reality, The Mosaic of Care and coauthor of What Is Family? and The Home Care Experience (with Andrea Sankar).

    Joan Neff Gurney is presently Associate Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Her research has included studies of community responses to natural and human-made disasters, the prosecution of white-collar crime, and the utilization of diversion programs for juvenile offenders. Professor Gurney's published work also has focused on the role of the female researcher in a male-dominated setting. Currently her research interests center on the decision-making process within the juvenile court system.

    Ilene M. Kaplan (Ph.D., Princeton University) is Associate Professor of Sociology at Union College, Schenectady, New York, and directs their Marine Studies Term. She is also a visiting researcher at the Marine Policy Center of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and was appointed as Visiting Scientist to the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA. Her research activities and publications include studies of women who fish as well as those who either own or are employed in commercial fishing businesses in New England. She recently has received a grant to examine socioeconomic trends in the New England conch fishery.

    Sherryl Kleinman is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is author of Equals Before God: Seminarians as Humanistic Professionals and articles on symbolic interaction, qualitative sociology, socialization, and sociology of work. Her current interest is in the sociology of emotions, especially links between culture, emotions, and inequality. She is writing a monograph on a holistic health center that analyzes substantive themes as well as the process of research and writing.

    Peter McLaren is Renowned Scholar-in-Residence, School of Education and Allied Professions, Miami University of Ohio. He is also Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Associate Director of the Center for Education and Cultural Studies. Professor McLaren is the author of a number of books, which include Schooling as a Ritual Performance, Life in Schools, and Critical Pedagogy, the State, and Cultural Struggle (coedited with Henry A. Giroux). He is also coeditor of the forthcoming Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter (with Peter Leonard) and coauthor of Sociedad, Cultura y Escuela (with Henry A. Giroux). Professor McLaren is the coeditor (with Henry A. Giroux) of the publication series “Teacher Empowerment and School Reform” and is currently coediting a special issue of International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (with Jim Giarelli) and editing a special issue of Education and Society (Australia). Professor McLaren has lectured in Europe, Latin America, and Canada and currently is serving as Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Brock University in Ontario, Canada.

    Richard G. Mitchell, Jr. (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. He has conducted extended fieldwork as a participant observer among mountain climbers, survivalists, and right-wing paramilitary groups. Presently he is studying automobile racing. Theoretical interests include existentialism and sociology, the linkages between leisure and culture, the linkages between art and science, professional ethics, and marketplace behavior.

    Robert Prus, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo, is intensely interested in how people accomplish their activities on a day-to-day basis. Developing theory by focusing on generic or transsituational social processes, his work has covered a wide range of human lived experience. This includes parole officers working with their clientele, clergy attempting to recruit (and maintain) followings, card and dice hustlers, the people who constitute the hotel community, and people involved in marketing and sales. At present, he is doing research on consumer behavior, the courtship of corporate investors by cities, and the interpretive-quantitative paradigm struggle in the social sciences.

    James T. Richardson is Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. His interests include sociology of religion, sociology of law, social movements, and social psychology. He has published more than 80 articles and chapters along with more than five books, including ConversionCareers, Money and Power in the New Religions, and The Brainwashing Deprogramming Controversy (with David Bromley). He is also a licensed attorney, and directs the Masters in Judicial Studies offered by UNR and the National Judicial College.

    William B. Shaffir is Professor in the Department of Sociology at McMaster University. He is the author of books and journal articles in the areas of professional socialization, Chassidic Jews, and ethnic violence. His current research includes studies of Chassidic communities, the process of defection from Orthodox Judaism, and the relationship between Canadian Jews and Israel. His most recent books include Becoming Doctors: The Adoption of a Cloak of Competence (coauthored with Jack Haas) and The Riot at Christie Pits (coauthored with Cyril Levitt).

    Robert A. Stebbins (Ph.D., University of Minnesota) is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Calgary. He has conducted 12 field studies in the areas of work, leisure, and education and presently is synthesizing into a more comprehensive grounded theory eight of these studies that bear on amateurs and professionals. Professor Stebbins' most recent book is The Laugh-Makers: Stand-Up Comedy as Art, Business, and Life-Style.

    Steven J. Taylor is Professor of Special Education at Syracuse University and Director of the Center on Human Policy, a university-based disability research and policy institute. He has published numerous articles in special education, disability, and sociological journals and has authored several major books, including Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods and Inside Out: The Social Meaning of Mental Retardation, both with Robert Bogdan, and Community Integration for People with Severe Disabilities. His current interests include qualitative research, research ethics, social policy and disability, and deinstitutionalization. He currently is conducting a qualitative study of an extended family of people labeled as mentally retarded. In addition to his research interests, Dr. Taylor is involved actively in the disability-rights movement.

    John Van Maanen is the Erwin Schell Professor of Organization Studies in the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of numerous books and articles in the areas of occupational sociology and organization theory. His recent work includes Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography and editing a special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (Volume 19, Number 1, April, 1990) on “The Presentation of Ethnographic Research.”

    Daniel R. Wolf (Ph.D., University of Alberta). After riding with the Rebels Motorcycle Club as “Coyote,” Dr. Wolf wrote a thesis that focused on how the club accommodated interpersonal differences and conflict while still maintaining the rigid paramilitary discipline needed in order to beat the odds and survive. The Rebels: A Brotherhood of Outlaw Bikers is a contemporary ethnography based on Dr. Wolfs experiences that describes the psychological dynamics, social mechanics, and political intrigue that make up the world of the outlaw biker. He is currently an Assistant Professor with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. His current research interest is the investigation of contemporary urban culture with a primary focus on subcultural deviance.

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