The SAGE Handbook of Fieldwork


Edited by: Dick Hobbs & Richard Wright

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright


    To Bridgette Mack and Janet Lauritsen, for their wise counsel and enduring friendship


    To Sue, Pat and Nik



    Fieldwork refers to the research practice of engaging with others on their own turf, exotic or otherwise, in order to describe their cultural practices, understandings and beliefs. It takes many forms and is conducted in a myriad of settings by social scientists working within a wide variety of academic disciplines. Common to all fieldwork is a desire to understand the social worlds inhabited by others as they understand those worlds, that is, in terms of the meanings they ascribe to their everyday actions and experiences. As such, fieldwork is a profoundly personal research strategy; even in its most passive forms, it typically requires some participation in the lives of others, often on unfamiliar ground, with all of the unforeseeable contingencies that characterise any human interaction.

    As a result, fieldworkers operate on uncertain terrain, in essence acting as ‘professional strangers’, though the extent of their marginality will depend on such things as their personal history and the specific culture being studied. Strangeness and distance were distinguishing characteristics of nineteenth century anthropology. The colonial context of anthropological studies carried out during this era meant that fieldworkers typically did their ‘research’ abroad and seldom shared cultural perspectives with members of the studied population. Fieldworkers were detached from their informants and tended to regard native cultures as exotic and essentially inferior. As a consequence, the gathering of data often comprised little more than the acquisition of cultural artefacts.

    A more self conscious, less colonially-oriented approach to fieldwork emerged during the first half of the twentieth century. This development can be linked to the rise of the so-called Chicago School of sociology, which combined the rigour of European theory and classical anthropology, with a concern to locate and engage with the social problems of rapidly evolving urban settings. Fieldworkers became members, associates and fringe members of urban subcultures, groups, and gangs. They lived in urban neighbourhoods and filtered cultural activity through the lens of their own experiences of complex and rapidly changing social settings. Echoing Henry Mayhew's forays into nineteenth century London, and influenced by the campaigning work of Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens, a fertile academic tradition was born.

    That tradition is alive and well, as the contributions to this volume amply demonstrate. Today, even the quantitatively oriented social scientists are beginning to recognise the critical importance of fieldwork for understanding how people perceive and interpret their own actions and experiences in the context of distinct cultural and subcultural settings. They have come to understand that fieldwork can expose and explain social worlds that are veiled by their cultural or geographical remoteness or camouflaged by over-familiarity. This is not to suggest, however, that fieldwork is without its problems and critics. The inevitable involvement of fieldworkers in the lives of those they study poses vexing methodological and ethical questions. In regard to method, for example, there is a longstanding concern that the presence of a fieldworker unavoidably alters the social situation being studied, and that the more successful fieldworkers are in reducing the perceived distance between themselves and those they are studying, the less ‘objective’ they become in gathering and reporting their data. In writing up accounts of their research, fieldworkers inevitably must pick and choose what to report and serious questions have been raised about the extent to which such choices reveal more about the observer than the observed.

    But the methodological questions associated with fieldwork pale in relation to the ethical dilemmas arising from its practice. Immersion in the field implicates the fieldworker and places a range of responsibilities on the fieldwork enterprise that are not apparent in the everyday practices of alternative, less personally involving methodologies. In addition, the ethnographic realities of everyday physical and emotional existence in the field can involve negotiating hazards that are often exacerbated by the fieldworker's non-familiarity with the physical and cultural environment.

    Many of the contributors to this volume have struggled with these issues in real world field-work settings and their reports make for compelling and instructive reading. Perhaps more than any other social science research methodology, fieldwork can only be fully appreciated through the interpretive lens of the investigator, which is hardly surprising given that it is the only method in which researcher and instrument are one and the same. That realisation is what prompted us to propose a handbook devoted exclusively to the practice of fieldwork. Part science, part art, there likely will never be an accepted standard for what constitutes firstrate fieldwork. Instead, that ground will remain hotly contested, with various ethnographic camps offering differing perspectives on and approaches to the fieldwork enterprise. All of those camps are represented in the chapters that follow, as are the new and emerging fields in which they have staked their claims.

  • Author Biographies

    Elijah Anderson is the Charles and William L. Day Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. An expert on the sociology of black America, he is the author of the classic sociological work, A Place on the Corner: A Study of Black Street Corner Men (1978; 2003) and numerous articles on the black experience. Dr. Anderson is director of the Philadelphia Ethnography Project, associate editor of Qualitative Sociology, and other professional journals, a member of the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the past Vice President of the American Sociological Association. He was a member of the National Research Council's Panel on the Understanding and Control of Violent Behavior, which published its report in 1993.

    Susan Brownell is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She was a nationally-ranked track and field athlete in the U.S. before she went to China for a year of language study, joined the track team at Beijing University, and won the heptathlon in the 1986 Chinese National College Games. This experience was the basis for her book, Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People's Republic (1995). She is also the co-editor of Chinese Femininities/ Chinese Masculinities: A Reader (2002). Her recent research concerns the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

    Carole Browner is Professor in both the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. Her research interests include comparative medical systems and reproductive politics in Latin America and the US.

    Robert Burgess is Vice-Chancellor of UCAS, the University of Leicester and Chair of the Research Information Network, the UUK/SCOP Teacher Education Advisory Group, ESRC/Funding Council's Teaching and Learning Research Programme and the UUK/SCOP enquiry on Measuring and Recording Student Achievement. He has been President of the British Sociological Association and the Association for the Teaching of the Social Sciences, Founding Chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education and a member of the Council and Chair of the Postgraduate Training Board of the Economic and Social Research Council. He has published widely on the sociology of education and social research methodology.

    Joseph Carrier has been a pioneer in the ethnographic study of male homosexuality since the late 1960s. His groundbreaking fieldwork in Mexico, which began in the summer of 1968 and continues to date, paved the way for the ethnographic study of men who have sex with men in Latin America and internationally. Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, his ethno-graphically based fieldwork helped provide the basis for an extension of ethnographic methods to the study of sexual behaviors in relation to HIV prevention programs. He received his Ph.D. in Social Sciences from the University of California, Irvine.

    Ben Crewe is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Criminology, Cambridge, and a Fellow of Robinson College. In recent years, he has been engaged in ethnographic research in a medium-security prison, where his aim has been to explore the everyday social world and culture of the institution. He has written on various methodological and substantive issues in this area, including the role of heroin in the prisoner society, and the ‘inmate code’. In previous work, his focus was on cultures of masculinity within the sphere of media production.

    Mary Dodge is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center. Her articles have appeared in Courts and Justice, Contemporary Issues in Criminology, International Journal of the Sociology of Law, The Prison Journal, Police Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, and the Encyclopedia of White-Collar and Corporate Crime. She and Gilbert Geis co-edited the book Lessons of Criminology (2002) and share authorship on the book Stealing Dreams: A Fertility Clinic Scandal (2003). Her research and writing interests include women in the criminal justice system, white-collar crime, policing, prostitution, and courts.

    Nigel G. Fielding is Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey, co-Director of the Institute of Social Research, and co-Director of the ESRC-supported CAQDAS Networking Project, which provides training and support in the use of computers in qualitative data analysis. He was editor of the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice from 1985 to 1998 and is co-editor of the New Technologies for Social Research series (Sage). His main research interests are in qualitative research methods, new technologies for social research, and criminal justice. He has authored or edited 17 books, 47 journal articles, 47 chapters in edited books and 145 other publications. In research methodology his books include a study of methodological integration/triangulation (Linking Data, 1986, Sage; with Jane Fielding), an influential book on qualitative software (Using Computers in Qualitative Research, 1991, Sage; editor, with Ray Lee), a study of the role of computer technology in qualitative research (Computer Analysis and Qualitative Research, 1998, Sage, with Ray Lee) and a four volume set, Interviewing (2002, Sage; editor). He is presently researching the application of Grid/ high performance computing applications to qualitative methods, and the impact of community policing on public reassurance.

    Nick J. Fox is Reader in Sociology of Health and the Body in the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield. His research interests are in postmodern social theory; health technologies, embodiment and subjectivity; and the social impact of information and communication technologies on health and health care. Beyond Health: Postmodernism and Embodiment was published by Free Association Books in 1999 and other recent journal publications continue to develop constructivist approaches to issues around health, embodiment, governance and research.

    Susanne Friese is director of the IT and media centre at the University of Hannover, Faculty of Philosophy, Germany. She also works as a consultant for Qualitative Research & Consulting. Her special interest is in qualitative data analysis with an emphasis on software supported analysis. More recently she has been exploring the possibilities of collecting and analysing digital multimedia data. Her background is in social sciences and most of her academic research is related to the field of consumer behaviour. Previously she worked in various positions for Qualis Reseach Associates, Oregon, USA; University of Sussex, Brighton, UK; University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany; and Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen, Denmark.

    Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. He is best known for his work on ‘social epistemology’, which is also the title of a journal he founded in 1987 and the first of his nine published books. He recently published The Intellectual (Icon, 2005), which is modelled on Machiavelli's The Prince. His next books are The New Sociological Imagination (Sage, 2006) and The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies (Routledge 2005). Fuller is currently working on the future of the university as a site for knowledge production and a comprehensive history of epistemology.

    Gilbert Geis is a Professor Emeritus, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, University of California, Irvine. He is a former president of the American Society of Criminology, and recipient of the Society's Edwin H. Sutherland Award for Outstanding Research Achievement. Geis has written extensively on white-collar crime, going back to the 1950s. His current books are: Criminal Justice and Moral Issues: Prostitution, Abortion, Drugs, Homosexuality, Pornography and Gambling, with Robert F. Meier (Roxbury, 2005), and White-Collar and Corporate Crime (Prentice-Hall, 2006).

    Jennifer Hargreaves is Visiting Professor of Sport and Gender Politics at the University of Brighton. She has played a pioneering role in the development of sport sociology and is considered a world authority in the field. Her particular interests are sport and gender politics; the social construction of the sporting body; and issues of exclusion and discrimination in sport. Among her publications is the watershed edited text, Sport, Culture and Ideology (1982); and Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women's Sports (1994) which was awarded the best sports sociology book of the year by the North American Society of Sports Sociology (NASSS). Her second monograph, Heroines of Sport: the Politics of Difference and Identity (2000) resulted from several years of original research focusing on women from historically marginalised groups. Jennifer is joint editor of the book series, Routledge Critical Studies in Sport, and is co-editing a book for the series entitled, Physical Culture, Power, and the Body. Jennifer has worked as a guest professor in Germany, Hong Kong and Japan, she lectures in venues around the world, is on the editorial boards of international refereed journals, and does consultancy work for sport organisations and for the media.

    Chris Haywood is a lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He has written in the areas of sexuality, masculinity and schooling and is currently completing his Ph.D. entitled, ‘Sexuality and Schooling: A Cultural Politics of Desire.’ This doctoral work explores the relationship between post-structuralism, epistemology and the possibilities of knowing. Alongside this, he has recently been a joint director with Mairtin Mac an Ghaill, on a Joseph Rowntree Foundation funded project examining young people's transitions to adulthood.

    Dick Hobbs is Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, having previously taught at Durham University. He has published on deviance, ethnographic methods, policing, organised crime, professional crime, drugs, violence, private security, working class entrepreneurship, and the night-time economy. He is currently working on a project looking at female doorstaff in the night-time economy, and a project on organised crime in Europe. His main publications are Doing the Business (1988) which won the Philip Abrams Prize, Bad Business (1995), and, with Philip Hadfield, Stuart Lister and Simon Winlow, Bouncers (2003).

    Bruce A. Jacobs is Associate Professor of Crime and Justice Studies at the University of Texas-Dallas. Jacobs has authored two books and numerous peer-reviewed articles on the decision-making processes of active street offenders.

    Mairtin Mac an Ghaill is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology, University of Birmingham. He teaches in the areas of ethnicity, masculinity and sexuality. He is author of The Making of Men (1994) (OUP); Understanding Masculinities (1996) (OUP); Contemporary Racisms and Ethnicities (1999) (OUP) and Men and Masculinities (2003) (OUP) with Chris Haywood.

    Peter K. Manning holds the Elmer V. H. and Eileen M. Brooks trustees Chair in the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, Boston, MA. He has taught at Michigan State, MIT, Oxford, the University of Michigan and elsewhere, and was a Fellow of the National Institute of Justice, Balliol and Wolfson Colleges, Oxford, the American Bar Foundation, the Rockefeller Villa (Bellagio), and the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Wolfson College, Oxford. Listed in Who's Who in America, and Who's Who in the World, he has been awarded many contracts and grants, the Bruce W. Smith and the O.W. Wilson Awards from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the Charles Horton Cooley Award from the Michigan Sociological Association. The author and editor of some 13 books, including Privatization of Policing: Two Views (with Brian Forst) (Georgetown University Press, 2000). The second edition of Narcs’ Game [1979], appeared in 2004 (Waveland Press). His monograph, Policing Contingencies, was published in 2003 by the University of Chicago Press, and Technology's Ways in 2006.

    Shadd Maruna is a Reader in Law and Criminology at Queen's University Belfast. Previously he has taught at the University of Cambridge and the State University of New York. His book, Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives (APA Books, 2001) was named the Outstanding Contribution to Criminology by the American Society of Criminology in 2001. He is the co-editor of two new books, After Crime and Punishment (2004) and The Effects of Imprisonment (2005), both with Willan Publishing.

    Christine Mattley is Associate Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at Ohio University. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on a variety of topics including battered women, gender performance, the temporality of emotion, stigma and sex work. She continues to explore facets of sex work and is beginning to investigate embodiment, stigma and privilege.

    George J. McCall is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Public Policy Administration University of Missouri-St. Louis. His professional interests include Social Psychology, Methodology, and Conflict Resolution. Recent publications include ‘The Me and the Not-Me: Positive and Negative Poles of Identity,’ (2003) in Peter J. Burke, Timothy J. Owens, Richard Serpe, and Peggy A. Thoits (eds) Advances in Identity Theory and Research. New York: Kluwer Academic-Plenum Press, 2003. pp. 11–26; George J. McCall and Patricia Resick (2003) ‘A Pilot Study of PTSD Among Kalahari Bushmen,’ journal of Traumatic Stress, 5:445–50; ‘Interaction,’ (2003) in Larry T. Reynolds and Nancy J. Herman (eds) Handbook of Symbolic Interactionism. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. pp. 327–48.

    Lee F. Monaghan is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Limerick, Ireland. His ethnographic research draws from, and contributes to, the sociology of the body and embodied sociology. He is the author of Bodybuilding, Drugs and Risk (2001, Routledge) and numerous articles on doorwork and risk in Britain's night-time economy. His current research critically engages with the obesity debate, exploring the ways in which fat is or is not a male relevant issue. His research has been published in The British journal of Sociology, journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Body and Society, Sociology of Health & Illness, The Sociological Review, Health, Risk & Society, Social Science & Medicine, Social & Legal Studies and Gender, Work & Organization.

    H. Mabel Preloran has over 25 years experience working in the field of cultural anthropology in the United States and Latin America. She has published extensively in scientific sources such as the American journal of Public Health; and books like ‘Aguantando la Caída: familias argentinas venciendo la desocupación (‘Enduring the Fall: Argentine Families Conquering Unemployment’). She is currently working as a Research Anthropologist at UCLA Department of Social Psychiatry, Center for Culture and Health. Her current research focuses on decision-making about genetic testing for neurological disorders.

    Teela Sanders is a lecturer in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds and specialises in regulation, illegal economies, crime and deviance. Her main research interests are in the adult female sex industry examining the social organisation of sex work, regulation regimes and men who buy sex. She is also interested in qualitative research methods, in particular ethnography. She has recently published in journals such as Sociology, Urban Studies, the Sociology of Health and Illness and Gender, Work and Organization. She has recently published her first book ‘Sex Work: A Risky Business’ (Willan, 2005).

    Gary Shank is Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Professor Shank has lectured and published extensively in the fields of semiotics and qualitative research methodology, and is the author of Qualitative Research: A Personal Skills Approach, second edition (Prentice Hall, 2005).

    Bob Simpson is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Durham. His research interests are mostly linked by a focus on kinship and family relations. He has carried out research into the transmission of ritual knowledge in Sri Lanka and worked extensively on changing family forms in the UK. In 1998 he published Changing Families: An Ethnographic Approach to Divorce and Separation (Berg). More recently he has carried out research into the ethical social and legal implications of the new reproductive and genetic technologies both in Sri Lanka and the UK.

    Michael Stein is a Professor of Sociology at Lindenwood University, St. Charles, Missouri, USA. His research interests have generally focused on Qualitative Methods, Dramaturgy and Popular Culture. He has a special interest in notions of place, especially as regards the domains of public and private. Published works include an appreciation of Erving Goffman, and have involved such ethnographic settings as adult bookstores, college classrooms, and soup kitchens.

    Richard Wright is Curators’ Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He has conducted numerous field-based studies of offenders actively involved in the commission of serious street crimes such as armed robbery, residential burglary, and carjacking. His current research focuses on the role of criminal retaliation in the spread and containment of urban violence.

    Name Index

    • Loading...
Back to Top

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website