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10.3 Getting In

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the two major considerations with respect to “getting in” field research sites.
  2. Describe the factors one should consider when choosing a field research site.
  3. Explain how one’s social location is relevant for choosing a field research site.
  4. Describe the factors one should consider when deciding what role to play in a field research site.
  5. Explain the difference between overt and covert roles in field research.

When embarking on a field research project, there are two major things to consider: where to observe and what role you’ll take in your field site. Your decision about each of these will be shaped by a number of factors, some of which you’ll have control over and others which you won’t. Your decision about where to observe and what role to play will also have consequences for the data you are able to gather and how you analyze and share those data with others. We’ll examine each of these contingencies in the following subsections.

Choosing a Site

Where you observe might be determined by your research question, but because field research often works inductively, you may not have a totally focused question before you begin your observations. In some cases, field researchers home in on a research question once they embark on data collection. Other times, they begin with a research question but remain open to the possibility that their focus may shift as they gather data. In either case, when you choose a site, there are a number of factors to consider. What do you hope to accomplish with your field research? What is your topical/substantive interest? Where are you likely to observe behavior that has something to do with that topic? How likely is it that you’ll actually have access to the locations that are of interest to you? How much time do you have to conduct your participant observations? Will your participant observations be limited to a single location, or will you observe in multiple locations?

Perhaps the best place to start as you work to identify a site or sites for your field research is to think about your limitations. One limitation that could shape where you conduct participant observation is time. Field researchers typically immerse themselves in their research sites for many months, sometimes even years. In my field research on activism in the breast cancer and antirape movements, I conducted over 300 hours of participant observation over a period of 3 years and conducted interviews with more than 60 activists (Blackstone, 2003).Blackstone, A. (2003). Racing for the cure and taking back the night: Constructing gender, politics, and public participation in women’s activist/volunteer work (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. And as shown in Table 10.1 "Field Research Examples", other field researchers have spent as much or even more time in the field. Do you have several years available to conduct research, or are you seeking a smaller-scale field research experience? How much time do you have to participate and observe per day? Per week? Identifying how available you’ll be in terms of time will help you determine where and what sort of research sites to choose.

Figure 10.6

Time is one of the key factors you must consider when choosing a field research site.

Also think about where you live and whether travel is an option for you. Some field researchers actually move to live with or near their population of interest. Is this something you might consider? Is it even an option? How you answer these questions will shape how you identify your research site. Professor Erik Larson’s (2010)Larson, E. (2010). Time and the constitution of markets: Internal dynamics and external relations of stock exchanges in Fiji, Ghana, and Iceland. Economy and Society, 39, 460–487. research on variations in economic institutions in a global environment, for example, has taken him across the globe, from Fiji to Ghana to Iceland. Sociologist Sara Dorow’s (2006)Dorow, S. (2006). Transnational adoption: A cultural economy of race, gender, and kinship. New York, NY: New York University Press. research on transnational adoption took her from the United States to China. And the work of Wendy Chapkis (1997),Chapkis, W. (1997). Live sex acts: Women performing erotic labor. New York, NY: Routledge. described in Table 10.1 "Field Research Examples", required her to conduct research not only in her original home state of California but also in the Netherlands. These are just a few of many examples of sociological researchers who have traveled the globe for the purpose of collecting data. Where might your field research questions take you?

In choosing a site, also consider how your social location might limit what or where you can study. The ascribed aspects of our locations are those that are involuntary, such as our age or race or mobility. How might my ascribed status as a middle-aged woman, for example, shape my ability to conduct complete participation in a study of children’s birthday parties? The achieved aspects of our locations, on the other hand, are those that we have some choice about. In field research, we may also have some choice about whether or the extent to which we reveal the achieved aspects of our identities. There are numerous examples of field researchers whose achieved statuses granted them access to field sites into which they might not have otherwise been allowed. Jennifer Pierce (1995),Pierce, J. L. (1995). Gender trials: Emotional lives in contemporary law firms. Berkeley: University of California Press. for example, utilized her achieved status as a paralegal to gain entry into two law offices for her ethnographic study of the gendered division of labor in corporate law firms. In Lauraine Leblanc’s (1999)Leblanc, L. (1999). Pretty in punk: Girls’ gender resistance in a boys’ subculture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. case, the achieved status of her appearance, including tattoos and a “punk” hairstyle and color, helped her gain the acceptance of research participants in her study of punk girls.

The preceding discussion should not be taken to mean that sociologists cannot, should not, or do not study those from whom we differ. In fact there have been plenty of successful field studies conducted by researchers who may have looked out of place in the sites they chose to investigate. Teresa Gowan, a self-described “small, white English woman” (2010, p. 16),Gowan, T. (2010). Hobos, hustlers, and backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. conducted field research with homeless men in some of San Francisco’s most notoriously rough neighborhoods. The aim here is not to reify the socially constructed categories upon which our society places so much emphasis in organizing itself. Rather, the point is to be aware of which ascribed and achieved aspects of your identity may shape your decisions about field sites.

Finally, in choosing a research site consider whether your research will be a collaborative project or whether you are on your own (Douglas, 1976).Douglas, J. D. (1976). Investigative social research: Individual and team field research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. Collaborating with others has many benefits; you can cover more ground and therefore collect more data than you can on your own. And having collaborators in any research project, but especially field research, means having others with whom to share your trials and tribulations in the field. However, collaborative research comes with its own set of challenges such as possible personality conflicts among researchers, competing commitments in terms of time and contributions to the project, and differences in methodological or theoretical perspectives (Shaffir, Marshall, & Haas, 1979).Shaffir, W., Marshall, V., & Haas, J. (1979). Competing commitments: Unanticipated problems of field research. Qualitative Sociology, 2, 56–71. If you are considering collaborative field research, you are in good company; many fascinating examples precede you. David Snow and Leon Anderson (1993)Snow, D. A., & Anderson, L. (1993). Down on their luck: A study of homeless street people. Berkeley: University of California Press. conducted a collaborative study of homelessness in Austin, Texas. And researchers at the University of Minnesota recently conducted a large-scale, cross-country field study of how forms of difference such as race and religion shape American life and experience ( When considering something that is of interest to you, consider also whether you have possible collaborators. How might having collaborators shape the decisions you make about where to conduct participant observation?

Figure 10.7

In choosing a field site, you’ll need to decide whether your research will be collaborative or independent. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

I began this discussion by asking you to think about limitations that might shape your field site decisions. But it makes sense to also think about the opportunities—social, geographic, and otherwise—that your location affords. Perhaps you are already a member of an organization where you’d like to conduct research. Maybe you know someone who knows someone else who might be able to help you access a site. Perhaps you have a friend you could stay with, enabling you to conduct participant observations away from home. Choosing a site for participation is shaped by all these factors—your research question and area of interest, a few limitations, some opportunities, and sometimes a bit of being in the right place at the right time.

Choosing a Role

As with choosing a research site, some limitations and opportunities beyond your control might shape the role you take once you begin your participant observation. You’ll also need to make some deliberate decisions about how you enter the field and “who” you’ll be once you’re in.

In terms of entering the field, one of the earliest decisions you’ll need to make is whether to be overt or covert. As an overtResearcher enters the field by revealing status as a researcher; participants know they are being studied. researcher, you enter the field with research participants having some awareness about the fact that they are the subjects of social scientific research. CovertResearcher enters the field by pretending to be a participant only; participants do not know they are being studied. researchers, on the other hand, enter the field as though they are full participants, opting not to reveal that they are also researchers or that the group they’ve joined is being studied. As you might imagine, there are pros and cons to both approaches. A critical point to keep in mind is that whatever decision you make about how you enter the field will affect many of your subsequent experiences in the field.

Figure 10.8

The roles of overt and covert researchers could be likened to those of uniformed and undercover police officers. In the former instance, an officer does not attempt to conceal his identity as an officer. In the latter, the officer does try to hide his identity as an officer by wearing plain clothes instead of a uniform.

As an overt researcher, you may experience some trouble establishing rapport at first. Having an insider at the site who can vouch for you will certainly help, but the knowledge that subjects are being “watched” will inevitably (and understandably) make some people uncomfortable and possibly cause them to behave differently than they would were they not aware of being research subjects. Because field research is typically a sustained activity that occurs over several months or years, it is likely that participants will become more comfortable with your presence over time. Overt researchers also avoid a variety of moral and ethical dilemmas that they might otherwise face. A Far Side cartoon demonstrates this point perfectly. It depicts a “researcher” dressed up like a gorilla, hanging out with a few other gorillas. In the cartoon, one of the real gorillas is holding out a few beetle grubs to the researcher, and the caption reads, “So you’re a real gorilla, are you? Well I guess you wouldn’t mind munchin’ down a few beetle grubs, would you? In fact, we wanna see you chug ’em!” (

As a covert researcher, “getting in” your site might be easier, but then you might face other issues. For how long would you plan to conceal your identity? How might participants respond once they discover you’ve been studying them? And how will you respond if asked to engage in activities you find unsettling or unsafe? Field researcher Richard Mitchell (1991)Mitchell, R. G., Jr. (1991). Secrecy and disclosure in fieldwork. In W. B. Shaffir and R. A. Stebbins (Eds.), Experiencing fieldwork: An inside view of qualitative research (pp. 97–108). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. was forced to consider these very questions during his covert research among right-wing survivalists when he was asked to participate in the swapping of violently racist and homophobic stories, an experience over which he later expressed profound grief and deep regret. Beyond your own personal level of comfort with deceiving participants and willingness to take risks, it is possible that the decision about whether to enter the field covertly will be made for you. If you are conducting research while associated with any federally funded agency (and even many private entities), your institutional review board (IRB) probably will have something to say about any planned deception of research subjects. Some IRBs approve deception, but others look warily upon a field researcher engaging in covert participation. The extent to which your research site is a public location, where people may not have an expectation of privacy, might also play a role in helping you decide whether covert research is a reasonable approach.

I mentioned that having an insider at your site who can vouch for you is helpful. Such insiders, with whom a researcher may have some prior connection or a closer relationship than with other site participants, are called key informantsField site insider with whom the field researcher has a closer relationship and who can provide insider knowledge about a group being observed.. A key informant can provide a framework for your observations, help “translate” what you observe, and give you important insight into a group’s culture. If possible, having more than one key informant at a site is ideal, as one informant’s perspective may vary from another’s.

Once you’ve made a decision about how to enter your field site, you’ll need to think about the role you’ll adopt while there. Aside from being overt or covert, how close will you be to participants? In the words of Fred Davis (1973),Davis, F. (1973). The Martian and the convert: Ontological polarities in social research. Urban Life, 2, 333–343. who coined these terms in reference to researchers’ roles, will you be a Martian, a Convert, or a bit of both? Davis describes the Martian role as one in which a field researcher stands back a bit, not fully immersed in the lives of his subjects, in order to better problematize, categorize, and see with the eyes of a newcomer what’s being observed. From the Martian perspective, a researcher should remain disentangled from too much engagement with participants. The Convert, on the other hand, intentionally dives right into life as a participant. From this perspective, it is through total immersion that understanding is gained. Which approach do you feel best suits you?

In the preceding section we examined how ascribed and achieved statuses might shape how or which sites you choose for your field research. They also shape the role you adopt in your field site. The fact that I am a professor, for example, is an achieved status, and I can choose the extent to which I share this aspect of my identity with field study participants. In some cases perhaps sharing that I am a professor would enhance my ability to establish rapport; in other field sites it might stifle conversation and rapport-building. As you’ve seen from the examples provided throughout this chapter, different field researchers have taken different approaches when it comes to using their social locations to help establish rapport and dealing with ascribed statuses that differ from those of their “subjects.”

Whatever role you choose, many of the points made in Chapter 9 "Interviews: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches" about power and relationships with participants apply to field research as well. In fact, the researcher-researched relationship is even more complex in field studies, where interactions with participants last far longer than the hour or two it might take to interview someone. Moreover, the potential for exploitation on the part of the researcher is even greater in field studies as relationships are usually closer and lines between “research” and personal or off-the-record interaction may get blurred. These precautions should be seriously considered before deciding to embark upon a field research project.

Key Takeaways

  • When beginning a field research project, one must take care in planning where to conduct observations and what role to adopt in one’s field site.
  • The time you have available to spend in the field will be a major factor in choosing your research site.
  • There are pros and cons to both the overt and the covert researcher roles.
  • Ascribed and achieved statuses both shape the choices that field researchers make about their sites and about their roles within those sites.


  1. Try to name at least three different locations where you might like to conduct field research. What barriers would you face were you to attempt to enter those sites as a researcher? In what ways might your entrée into the sites be facilitated by your social location?
  2. What is your opinion about researchers taking on a covert as compared with an overt role in field research? Which role would you like to take in a field research project? Why?