Undergraduate Courses: Soc. 106A Field Research Methods I

Professor Robert M. Emerson

This course will use internship placements to provide an introduction to field research methods. Field research involves the observation and study of people as they go about their everyday activities in natural social settings. In that it goes into the worlds of those studied to observe on their turf, fieldwork differs from both experimental and survey research. Experiments generally create an artificial (laboratory) world whose parameters can be regulated and systematically varied. Survey research approaches people as "respondents," presenting them with fixed, pre-determined questions the answers to which can be counted but which are not necessarily meaningful or relevant to people's real worldly concerns. In contrast, field research seeks to combine closely empirical observation with a commitment to remain both holistic and humanistic in approach.

Field research differs from most other sociological methods in another important respect: The researcher is visible, accessible and hence vulnerable to those whose social world has been entered. In participating as a fieldworker in the worlds of others, you are as open to their actions, words and concerns as they are to yours. Indeed, in fieldwork you are the research instrument: Your person, the interactions you engage in, and the relations you form, are the means by which you learn about the people and settings you are studying. In this respect, field research demands (and teaches) a kind of personal and social self-consciousness; good fieldwork requires a willingness to reflect on interactions and relational processes in order to come to some understanding of the interests, concerns and meanings of those studied.

This course is intended to promote such reflection, self-consciousness and understanding by providing you with a directed field experience. Most of you will participate in your field setting in a distinctive way -- as a volunteer or intern providing help or service to some of those in your setting. The service you will provide is a core part of the learning experience you will have in the field; helping or providing service will involve you in the daily activities and lives of others, and provide you with insight into their concerns, aspirations and problems.

But regularly going into the field to participate and observe through service is just the first step in the process of experiential learning. Stepping back from and beginning to reflect self-consciously on your experiences is also necessary, and these processes are facilitated by writing detailed fieldnotes about the various goings-on you have observed in the field. Fieldnotes are absolutely critical because they provide the major mechanism for reflection and increasing appreciation of the meaning of happenings in the field. They also provide the "data" from which you will develop empirically grounded sociological analyses of those happenings. Thus, the major requirement for this course is the submission of regular, detailed, and systematic fieldnotes; these notes will provide the basis for a preliminary analysis of your field experience.