Field research is a method of research that deals with understanding and interpreting the social interactions of groups of people and communities by observing and dealing with people in their natural settings. 

The field research methods involve direct observation, participant observation, and qualitative interviews.

Let’s take a deeper look at field research, what it entails, some examples as well as the pros and cons of field research.

What is Field Research

Field research can be defined as a qualitative method of data collection focused on observing, relating, and understanding people while they are in their natural environment. It is somewhat similar to documentaries on Nat Geo wild where the animals are observed in their natural habitat. 

Similarly, social scientists, who are sometimes called men watchers carry out interviews and observe people from a distance to see how they act in a social environment and react to situations around them.

Field research usually begins in a specific setting and the end game is to study, observe and analyze the subject within that setting. It looks at the cause and effect as well as the correlation between the participants and their natural setting. Due to the presence of multiple variables, it is sometimes difficult to properly analyze the results of field research. 

Field research adopts a wide range of social research methods, such as limited participation, direct observation, document analysis, surveys, and informal interviews. Although field research is generally considered qualitative research, it often involves multiple elements of quantitative research.

Methods of Field Research

There are 5 different methods of conducting Field Research and they are as follows;

1. Direct Observation

In this method of research, the researcher watches and records the activities of groups of people or individuals as they go about their daily activities. Direct observation can be structured or unstructured.

 Structured here means that the observation takes place using a guide or process developed before that time. 

Unstructured, on the other hand, means that the researcher conducted the observation, watching people and events, and taking notes as events progressed, without the aid of any predetermined technique.

Some other features of direct observation include the following;

  • The observer does not attempt to actively engage the people being observed in conversations or interviews, rather he or she blends into the crowd and carries out their observation.
  • Data collected include field notes, videos, photographs, rating scales, etc.
  • Direct observation most times occurs in the open, usually public settings, that requires no permission to gain entry. Conducting direct observation in a private setting would raise ethical concerns.
  • The outcome of direct observation is not in any way influenced by the researcher.

2. Participant Observation

This research method has an understanding with a group of individuals, to take part in their daily routines and their scheduled events. In this case, the researcher dwells among the group or community being observed for as long as is necessary to build trust and evoke acceptance.

Data from the participant’s observation take the following varying forms;

  • Field notes are the primary source of data. These notes are taken during the researcher’s observations and from the events they experienced and later developed the notes into formal field notes.
  • A diary is used to record special intimate events that occur within the setting.
  • The process of participant observation is intent on developing relationships with the members which breed conversations that are sometimes formal or informal. Formal here refers to deliberate depth interviews, while informal could stem from everyday conversations that give insight into the study. 

Data from these events can be part of the field notes or separate interview transcripts.

The method of participant observation aims to make the people involved comfortable enough to share what they know freely without any inhibition.

3. Ethnography

Ethnography is a form of field research that carries out observation through social research, social perspective, and the cultural values of a social setting. In this scenario, the observation is carried out objectively, hence the researcher may choose to live within a social environment of a cultural group and silently observe and record their daily routines and behavior.

4. Qualitative Interviews

Qualitative interviews are a type of field research method that gets information by asking direct questions from individuals to gather data on a particular subject. Qualitative interviews are usually conducted via 3 methods namely;

  • Informal Interviews
  • Semi Structured Interviews
  • Standardized Open ended Interviews

Let’s take a look at each of them briefly along with their advantages and disadvantages.

  • Informal Interviews

This kind of interview is often conversational and occurs during participant and direct observations.

The interview is triggered, most times spontaneously by conversing with a member of the group on the areas of interest and as the conversation progresses, the researcher fluidly introduces the specific question.

  • Semi-Structured Interviews

In this scenario, the researcher already has a list of prepared questions, that are open-ended and can evoke as much information as possible. The researcher can venture into other topics as the interview progresses, using a call-and-response style.

This method of field research can adopt a mix of one-on-one interviews or focus groups.

  • Standardized, Open-Ended Interviews

These are scripted interviews with the questions prepped and written before the interview following a predetermined order. It is similar to a survey and the questions are open-ended to gather detailed information from the respondents and sometimes it involves multiple interviewers.

5. Case Study

A case study research is a detailed analysis of a person, situation, or event. This method may seem a bit complex, however, it is one of the easiest ways of conducting research. difficult to operate, however, it is one of the simplest ways of researching as it involves only a detailed study of an individual or a group of people or events. Every aspect of the subject life and history is analyzed to identify patterns and causes of behavior.


Steps to Conduct Field Research

Due to the nature of field research, the tight timelines, and the associated costs involved, planning and implementing can be a bit overwhelming. We have put together steps to adopt that would make the whole process hitch free for you.

Step 1

Set Up The Right Team: To begin your field research, the first step is to have the right team. The role of the researcher and the team members has to be well defined from the start, with the relevant milestones agreed upon to measure progress.

Step 2

Recruiting People for the Study: The success of field research largely depends on the people being studied. Evaluate the individuals selected for the research to be sure that they tick all the boxes required for successful research in the area of study that is being researched.

Step 3

Data Collection Methodology: The methodology of data collection adopted must be suited to the area or kind of research being conducted. It could be one of the methods or a combination of two or more methods.

Step 3

Visit The Site: A prior visit to the site is essential to the success of the field research. This should be done to also help determine the best methodology that would be suitable for the location. 

Step 4

Data Analysis: Analyzing the data gathered is important to validate the hypothesis of the field research. 

Step 5

Communicating Results: Once the data is analyzed, communicate the results to the stakeholders involved in the research so that the relevant action required based on the results can be decided and carried out promptly. 

Reasons to Conduct Field Research

Field research has been widely used in the 20th century in the social sciences. However, it can be time-consuming and costly to implement. Despite this fact, there exist a lot of reasons to conduct field research.

Here are 4 major reasons to conduct field research:

Solves the problem of lack of data: Field research fixes the issue of gaps in data, especially in cases where there is very little or no data about a topic. In cases like this, the only way to validate any hypothesis is through primary research and data. Conducting field research solves the problem of data lapses and provides material evidence to support any findings.

Understanding the context of the study: In many cases, the data collected is appropriate, however for a deep understanding of the data gathered there is a need for field research to help understand other factors in the study. For instance, if data show that students from rich homes generally do well academically. 

Conducting field research can bring to the fore other factors like, discipline, well-equipped teachers, motivation from their forebears to excel in whatever they do, etc. but field research is still conducted. 

Increasing data quality: Since this research, method employs the use of multiple tools to collect data and varying methodologies, the quality of data is higher.

Collecting ancillary data: Field research puts the researchers in a position of being at the center of the data collection process, in terms of location, one on one relationship with the participants, etc. This exposes them to new lines of thought that would have hitherto been overlooked and they can now collect data, that was not planned for at the beginning of the study.


Examples of Field Research

1. Interprete social metrics in a slum
By employing the use of observation methods and formal interviews, researchers can now understand the social indicators and social hierarchy that exist in a slum.

Financial independence and the way the slum is run daily are part of the study and data collected from these areas can give insight into the way a slum operates differently from structured societies.

2. Understand the impact of sports on a child’s development
This method of field research takes years to conduct and the sample size can be quite huge. Data collected and analyzed from this study provides insight into how children from different physical locations and backgrounds are influenced by sports and the impact of sporting activities on a child’s development. 

3. The study of animal migration patterns
Field research is used immensely to study flora and fauna. A major use case is scientists observing and studying animal migration patterns alongside the change of seasons and its influence on animal migration patterns.

Field research takes time and uses months and sometimes years to help gather data that show how to safely expedite the passage of animals.

Advantages of Field Research

Field research and the various methodology employed have their pros and cons.

Let’s take a look at some of them.

  • Provide context to the data being analyzed in terms of settings, interactions, or individuals.
  • The source of data does not require or involve verbal interactions, and there is no intrusion of anyone’s personal, space because everything is done quietly, from a distance.
  • The researcher develops a  deep and detailed understanding of a setting and the members within the setting.
  • It is carried out in a real-world and natural environment which eliminates tampering with variables.
  • The study is conducted in a comfortable environment, hence data can be gathered even about an ancillary topic, that would have been undiscovered in other circumstances.
  • The researcher’s deep understanding of the research subjects due to their proximity to them makes the research thorough and precise. 
  • It helps the researcher to be flexible and respond to individual differences while capturing emerging information. Allows the researcher to be responsive to individual differences and to capture emerging information.


Disadvantages of Field Research

  • The researcher might not be able to capture all that is being said and there is the risk of losing information.
  • The quality of the information derived is dependent, on the researcher’s skills.
  • Significant interactions and events may occur when an observer is not present.
  • Some topics cannot easily be interpreted by mere observation.g., attitudes, emotions, affection).
  • The reliability of observations can be complex due to the presence of multiple observers with different interpretations.
  • It requires a lot of time (and resources)and can take years to complete.
  • The researcher may lose objectivity as they spend more time among the members of the group.
  • It is a subjective and interpretive method that is solely dependent on the researcher’s ability.


Field research helps researchers to gain firsthand experience and knowledge about the events, processes, and people, being studied. No other method provides this kind of close-up view of the everyday life of people and events. It is a very detailed method of research and is excellent for understanding the role of social context in shaping the lives, perspectives, and experiences of people. Alongside this, it may uncover aspects of a person that might never have been discovered.


  • Angela Kayode-Sanni
  • on 10 min read


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