Deconstructing the term “Fieldwork”

Annette Markham

Oct 2, 2012


I’ve been thinking a lot about how we use “Fieldwork” as an umbrella term, sometimes without really reflecting on what this means, or might not mean. Particularly in digital contexts, the activities of fieldwork must be so radically adjusted, they hardly resemble fieldwork anymore. How much do we have to shave the square peg of ‘participant observation’ to fit it into the round hole of Twitter?  And how can I take seriously someone who doesn’t problematize this practice or the outcomes?

I’d like to debunk, or maybe deconstruct the term.  My desire to do this emerges from another quest; to help qualitative researchers embrace innovation and invention without constantly reinventing the wheel or embracing the “anything goes” approach to social inquiry, both of which are unsatisfactory options.

Once we ask, for example, why ethnographers do interviews in the first place, we can begin to rethink how we might get at this same sort of information in other ways, which expands our operationalization of what ‘interview’ might mean.  Likewise, why do anthropologists often find it necessary to have an informant? Why was this useful and what sort of information did it yield?  Looking underneath the method to unpack it at the level of everyday decision making, we actually start to see some common themes, common practices, and even some systematicity.  So what might seem really messy actually has patterns.  It’s enacted differently, and adapted creatively in specific situations all the time. But there are key reasons for doing certain things. We don’t necessarily see these reasons at the level of method, but at the level below method.

In a way, this is a project of scrutinizing these ‘messy’ practices of qualitative inquiry more closely, so these everyday practices of sensemaking become part of our methodological schema, which can help build stronger approaches.   Many scholars understand this naturally, but digital media give us the opportunity to really raise the issue again, in a slightly different way. Rather than just saying: “it’s messy and we should embrace this,” we can get further (and build credibility in stronger ways) by talking about what we’re doing, every day, during this mess.  Only then can we begin to scrutinize it as part of a method, and perhaps even systematize it in ways that are more visible to others.