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Qualitative study design

Field research


To understand attitudes, practices, roles, organisations, groups, or behaviours in their natural setting



In a way you have probably done field research before – when you’ve been in a doctor’s waiting room, or on an aeroplane. Field research is at its core about observing and participating in social behaviour and trying to understand it. Qualitative field research takes these natural skills and curiosities and refines them to address and answer a research question The “field” is vast, consisting of numerous people, activities, events, and words. When undertaking field research, the researcher needs to determine the exact activities or practices that are of interest to the researcher to answer their research question. Instead of the more artificial environment of an interview or survey, field research lets researchers observe subtle communications, cues, or other events that they may not have anticipated or even measured otherwise.

Field research is often referred to interchangeably as “participant observation”. Participant observation is a type of field research where the researcher is an active participant in the everyday life, habits, or beliefs of the field alongside members. An example of this might be where a researcher goes into a hospital and works alongside hospital staff. A contrast to this is “direct observation”, a type of field research where the researcher observes members in the field but doesn’t actively participate. An example might be a researcher who sits at a hospital cafeteria and observes staff who may not realize they’re being studied.

You may be wondering what the difference is between ethnography and field research. The two terms are often used interchangeably, so it can be a really blurred line! Ethnography is about making sense of culture – it’s about making a detailed overview of the social group and organising your information. Field research is going out into the field – so describing “how” you’re going to conduct research. Ethnographical research can be field research (as in, you’re studying the culture of a hospital by observing within the hospital), or field research can be ethnographic (you’re observing staff in a hospital to see how staff handle crisis intervention). It’s a fine line between the two, and even experienced researchers can be unsure of the difference (or even use the terms interchangeably, depending on discipline), so when in doubt, it is best to talk to your supervisor or an experienced researcher in this discipline

Different studies may benefit from different degrees of researcher involvement. Ultimately, the researcher needs to be sensitive to the impact their presence might have on the data and on participants – and also aware of any ethical requirements around this study type, such as informed consent, duties to report (such as if the researcher observes criminal activities), and confidentiality and privacy of participants.


Observation, unstructured interviews


strengths Strengths

  • Allows for observation in a natural setting
  • Picks up on subtle cues
  • Allows in depth exploration which contributes to a full appreciation of what’s being studied, including “whys” around human behaviour


limitations Limitations

  • Requires a high degree of sensitivity by the researcher to the impact of the research and their presence on participants and on the data
  • Risk of reactivity, where research subjects may alter their behaviour from what it would have been normally as a result of being studied
  • Ethical considerations involved in insider research
  • Possible loss of objectivity


iconExample questions

How do student nurses integrate their training into care provision at end-of-life?



Babbie, E. (2008). The basics of social research (4th ed). Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth