Before fieldwork

Researcher’s preparations Part 1

Ethnographic fieldwork is fascinating as a researcher joins a community or group of people for a lengthier period of time to observe the everyday aspects of its social life. Before jumping to the field a researcher has quite a few things to prepare. And to be honest, I was surprised of all the preparatory work a researcher needs to do before entering the field. It is good to start preparations early.

In this blog article I describe the steps I went though when preparing for fieldwork in a work organization. As I started to plan for this process, I realized that there were many things to consider before I could finally approach the research participants. I use my university as an example. Every university has their own process, but basic steps are most likely similar.

The steps that I identified important in the preparations for fieldwork are:

Original photo by Hermann Traub from Pixabay

In this blog article Part 1 I will focus on the first three steps.

Step 1: Complete necessary courses

Before starting to plan for the practicalities of ethnographic fieldwork, I completed compulsory courses on research ethics, open science, and data acquisition, command and publishing at my university. 

I would recommend that a researcher complete these courses the semester before starting to contact potential fieldwork organizations. The courses focus on

  • the legal and ethical aspects of protecting research participants rights
  • planning of how to collect process, store and archive research data so that it stays organized and safe
  • planning the research process following the principles of open science (link): How can I as a researcher make sure that the scientific community and the public gets the most out of not only the research results but also of the research process itself – in many cases it is funded by taxpayers money, after all.

After having acquired the basic knowledge on the three bullet points mentioned above, I went on to the practical matters: what do I actually need to do before entering the field? Simultaneously, I started the work of identifying suitable fieldwork organizations.

My first question was:

Step 2. Do I need a review from the Ethical Committee for my research?

The first thing I needed to do was to contact the University’s Human Sciences Ethics Committee (link) secretary to find out whether my research needs a special revision to check the ethical aspects of my research.

Ethical committee gives advice concerning research ethics. Photo by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The work of the Ethical committee is to check that the research process is planned with special care to ethical issues, for instance in case of conducting empirical studies amongst children, conducting research where it is not possible to ask for informed consent from the people being studied, and in case the research includes a risk of causing mental harm or other stronger inconveniences to the research participants.

I exchanged emails and phone calls with the secretary and described what my research topic and the research methods were. After having consulted the secretary I was convinced that my research did not require a review from the committee.

I ask for informed consent for participating in the research from the research participants and my research does not intervene with the research participant’s daily life in any disturbing manner.

The next step then was to prepare all necessary documents for the purpose of asking for informed consent from the research participants. This work proved to be a bit heavy but insightful – I learned about the skills that a researcher needs to acquire in order to be able to fulfill researcher’s responsibilities when doing empirical studies. At this point I had already identified a suitable fieldwork organization and agreed with the company on the terms of fieldwork. The second question I asked was:

Step 3. How to prepare the necessary documents for the purposes of acquiring informed consent?

In order to be able to get informed consent, the research participants need to be properly informed of

  • the purpose of the research and methods used

This can be done with written document called research notification (link). Universities should have a template that researcher can adapt to suit the research design. This document contains the description of the research purpose and data collection process, information about how the study is funded, and how research results are reported.

The description of the research purpose needs to be explained in such a manner that it is understandable to research participants who have no scientific background. The research participants also need to be informed of

  • what kind personal data is being collected and how this personal data is processed during research and archived at the end of research

For this purpose, researcher needs to prepare an obligatory privacy notice (link) in written form as required by General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law in the EU countries. There should be a template for privacy notice that the researcher can modify to suit his/her research purposes.

This document contains information on the legal grounds for processing personal data of the research participant, what kind of personal data will be collected, and information on the data controller, in other words, on the person responsible for the processing and storing of the personal data, where the data will be stored and how the data security is ensured during the research process.

Researcher needs to inform research participants of the laws that regulate the collection, processing and storing of personal data.

Original photo by Coffee Bean from Pixabay

Any piece of information that focuses on the research participant, for instance notes from daily observations or interview transcripts, are considered personal data and its collecting, processing and storage is regulated by law.

In my case, as I am a doctoral researcher and not part of any project team, I am the data controller and responsible for the processing and storing of the data. In order to fully understand what this means responsibility-wise, I had to consult the University’s research services data safety legal expert.

The template form included lots of legal jargon that I just was not equipped to understand. I went through the form line by line with the legal expert over the phone and she gave me the correct options to choose from and helped me to finalize the document. Honestly, having not had the chance to consult this expert I would have propably been sobbing in desparation.

It is good to consult research services and be meticulous about the ethical and legal details of any research project. It is part of a researcher’s professional expertise.

Once the research participants have been informed about these matters verbally and/or in writing, the participant can give his/her informed consent (link) in writing for voluntary participation to the research. This form I also went through with the legal expert.

In the next blog article I will discuss Steps 4-6, please do order my blog if you want to keep updated of upcoming posts. Also, feel free to comment at the bottom of the page: Did you find this information useful for research purposes? Did you find it interesting for some other reason? Thanks for reading!

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