The “Field” in “Field Research”

I have a colleague who detests the term “developing,” as in “developing country” or “developing world.” His objection is that the term obscures more than it reveals. Iran is not Uganda or Peru or Timor Leste. Instead of “developing country” he urges me—and everyone else—to use something more specific, like Highly Indebted Poor Country or Middle Income Country or Resource Dependent Country.

I am approaching the same level of apoplexy with the contemporary use of the terms “the field” and “field research.” Recently, a colleague and I were comparing notes on our experiences doing primary research. My experience: taxi rides, interviews with bureaucrats, musty archives, air conditioned malls, Taman Rasuna apartment. Her experience: the costly signaling (her term) of living alone in an ordinary neighborhood in the southern Philippines to study rebels and rebel organization, no personal privacy, grenade attacks in the market, and so forth.

I am unclear in what meaningful sense these are comparable endeavors, yet we both get questions from students asking our advice about conducting field research, and colleagues treat us as people who have field experience. Our understanding of what that means, and what types of advice to give, are just completely different, a sentiment I expressed recently in thinking about interview-based field research.

But why does this bother me so? Because it seems to reveal a degree of cavalierness in how we think about doing research with real people in real places. If the field just means “the tropics” or “somewhere other than the United States” or even something more substantive such as “observing people in ‘socially meaningful settings,'” then it seems a good idea to say just that. Doing this would highlight that there really isn’t much content in the statement that one wants to do field research—all of the action is in what one does in the field, be it asking subjects to play behavioral games, interviewing elites, participant observation, or something else altogether. Most troublesome is the image of the field as a faraway destination, probably tropical, full of people whom we treat simply as research objects, which bothers me in the same way that conflict tourism and poverty porn do.

And if you think that field research annoys me, don’t even get me started about people throwing around the term ethnography…