A Guide to Qualitative Field Research


Carol A. Bailey

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    To Skip, Nicole, and Nicolai Fuhrman

    About the Author

    Carol A. Bailey is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech. She has won numerous teaching awards, including the university-wide Alumni Award for Teaching Excellence. She teaches undergraduate research methods and graduate-level courses on qualitative methodology and pedagogy for college teachers. Once the Director of the University Writing Program, she now primarily focuses on evaluating programs that serve children with severe mental illnesses and their families.


    Although I wrote A Guide to Qualitative Field Research to provide students with clear, specific instructions about how to conduct field research, I find this purpose somewhat difficult to fulfill, because in many ways such a how-to guide is an oxymoron. Intangibles, such as luck, feelings, and timing, often are crucial features of research in natural settings. In truth, this volume cannot teach students who undertake field research how to deal with the unexpected, other than to warn them to be prepared for the inevitable. Nor can it teach many of the characteristics demanded of field researchers—good social skills, an ability to cope with ambiguity, patience, and flexibility. Basically, I believe that if you want to learn how to do field research, you have to do field research. Nonetheless, in spite of all the difficulties associated with writing a how-to guide to field research, I am going to blunder forward, because that is the sort of thing a field researcher does.

    A second purpose of this guide is to help students develop analytic tools that they can use outside of the classroom. By becoming informed consumers of research, students gain the skills needed to evaluate the claims of politicians, advertisers, media pundits, parents, peers, and scientists of all types. Good research skills can help all of us be skeptical about conclusions that are based on limited and unsystematic observations. A little less certainty in our views about why people behave as they do is probably healthy.

    This guide stresses how the same social forces that influence the rest of our lives affect field research. Ironically, the social nature of the research enterprise is often ignored in discussions of methodology. For example, although sociologists offer entire courses on stratification, those of us who teach social research methods sometimes act as though systems of inequality are irrelevant to methods. By understanding that field research is a social product, we become more capable of conducting and evaluating research.

    Written from a sociological perspective, this book focuses on five major themes. First, because field researchers are simultaneously social scientists and human beings involved in long-term interpersonal relationships in natural settings, I emphasize ethical issues in every chapter. Once field research is rightfully situated in the larger social world, the salience and complexity of ethical issues in field research become acutely visible and can no longer be relegated to a single chapter.

    Second, I do not separate the research process from the characteristics of those involved in it. Instead, I emphasize the myriad ways that status characteristics—age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social class—affect the process of field research. For example, one's race may make gaining entrée in one setting difficult but facilitate entry in another setting; one's similarity in social class background with members in a setting may lead to levels of rapport and disclosure that could not be achieved by someone from another social class. Thus, I argue that what we learn as field researchers is, in part, a function of our personal and academic biographies.

    Third, I view research as a nonlinear process. Field research is not performed in a series of stages or steps. In other words, the researcher does not complete one step or stage and then move on to the next one. Rather, the processes involved in field research are overlapping, ongoing, reciprocal, and embedded in each other. Although conventional book publishing techniques require that I present issues in a linear fashion, throughout this guide I stress the synergistic and reciprocal nature of the processes involved in research.

    Fourth, I attempt to highlight the complexities, ambiguities, and diverse ways of conducting field research. Rather than masking the difficulties inherent in such research or concealing the academic controversies and debates internal to the field, I prefer to give beginning researchers a more realistic picture of its realities. Many of us believe that higher education should help students learn skills for adjudicating differences, resolving conflict, seeing other perspectives, weighing evidence, and valuing diversity. I do not believe we can help students learn these skills if we hide the messiness within our own academic gardens.

    Finally, I hope to convey in this guide my passion for teaching so that it will inspire in students a passion for learning.

    This second edition contains numerous additions and what I hope are improvements in the ground covered by the first version. In this edition, I

    • provide more coverage of diverse ways of conducting field research,
    • include a discussion of the American Sociological Association code of ethics,
    • extend the overview of paradigms,
    • upgrade examples and include more from dissertations,
    • expand the section on how to perform analysis,
    • enlarge the presentation on evaluation criteria.

    In the process of editing and reevaluating this version of the guide, I am prompted to reconsider my own position as its creator. For that, I turn to the demands of field research itself. Good research often requires reflexivity: critically thinking and writing about who we are and how the choices we make affect our results. In addition, for me, it also calls for the sharing of one's values. Reflexivity and an awareness of one's values also are useful when one is writing a book about field research. As a slightly more than middle-aged, White, female sociologist, I take the value stance that sociology is at its best when it is contributing to improving the human condition. I suspect that by the end of the book the careful reader could determine that I focus primarily on ethnographies and evaluation research and that I value graduate education.

    When I engage in reflexive thinking about this book, I realize that I have unintentionally selected and incorporated examples that reflect my interests but are not representative of the wide array of topics that field researchers study. Although I have worked to add examples from other specialty areas, I know that what I read for my classes and my research continues to dominate this text. Further, even though I have actively tried to pay more attention to the different ways of conducting field research, the book still reflects my areas of expertise. By engaging in this reflexive process, I have tried to produce a version more balanced than was the first edition. However, in the end I have come to accept the fact that in spite of these efforts, writing a book is much like conducting field research. Since there is no one right way to write it or one “truth” to be told, ultimately what is presented is a function of my training, worldview, and life experiences.


    In addition to individuals acknowledged in the first edition, others assisted in the production of this version, and I want to extend my gratitude to them. I appreciate the thoughtful and helpful comments by numerous reviewers—Ronald Lukens-Bull, University of North Florida; George Martin, Montclair University; Larry Neuman, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater—and the infinite patience and assistance of Jerry Westby, Kim Suarez, Tracy Alpern, and Karen Wiley at Sage Publications/Pine Forge Press.

    This guide benefits from being able to build upon the expertise of others, particularly Mitch Duneier*, Philippe Bourgois, Betty Russell, Elliot Liebow, and John Van Maanen. I quote liberally from these and other scholars as a way of allowing them to speak in their own words, which are invariably more powerful than my paraphrasing. I am grateful for having such a rich literature from which to draw.

    None of my academic work—whether teaching, mentoring, research, service, or outreach—is independent of the positive influence of my mentor, J. Scott Long. I give thanks to Lisa Norris for her constant support and writing lessons. Trish Boyles gets mad props for providing song lyrics, diagrams, and insightful feedback on drafts, as does Adrienne Trier Bieniek for her careful reading of this guide. I am in awe of the editing skills possessed by Jennifer Mooney, who improved the substance and readability of this guide. Barbara Ray did a superb job of copyediting and taught me a lot in the process. Thanks to Andrea McIntire, Scott Cropper, Will McIntire, Sherrill Cropper, Rachael Stevens, Brenda Husser, Dianne Marshall, Trooper, Michelle Wooddell, Baggins, Richard Shaw, Cindy Broussard, and Nicolas Zeltvay. Nicole Fuhrman gets special recognition for typing the references.

    My handsome husband, Ellsworth “Skip” Fuhrman, is my universe and continues to provide me with my day-to-day emotional sustenance. He enriches my life. His biggest gifts to me are Nicolai and Nicole. They, in turn, have taught me the meaning of joy.

    * Various quotes from Duneier, M., Sidewalk, copyright © 1999, are reprinted with permission from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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