Employing fieldwork tools according to the research site

by Frances Rock, Cardiff University 

Here in Cardiff, we have been thinking about the way that fieldwork activities are employed and realised differently depending on the research site. We have allowed ourselves to be responsive to each site that we have visited by turning up or down particular data collection methods or employing research methods in slightly distinctive ways in each site. These differences have only become apparent in retrospect and, as they begin to come into focus now, in reflecting back on our activities and experiences, we see the value of undertaking research using broadly the same method in a range of sites. This approach enables us to tease out some of the subtleties of our activities.

In our first Cardiff site, a mini-market in the centre of Cathays, the shop itself offered a rich backdrop. The smells and flavours of the shop, represented by the tightly packed shelves became a focus in themselves. Here, then, we took photographs of products and locations in the shop. This was reflected in our fieldnotes too, where we commented on particular products and often made sense of people’s activities by relating them to products and their choices of and talk about items that they saw and bought.

 

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In our next site, a university library, the “products” were still very present. Books are a constant theme in our photos and fieldnotes. However they do not feature in the same way. Rather, our attention in the library was drawn much more to the institutional and practical processes surrounding the books. The matters of issuing, retuning and otherwise marshalling books was the main focus here. Our photographs capture interactions in which fines are queried and negotiated between library staff and students and in which library staff process reservations and discuss holdings. The flow of books became the focus here much more than the books themselves.

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In our third site, a sports setting where we observed a coach at work training young footballers, we worked in a different way again. Once more this difference in our activities was driven by the difference in the sights, sounds and practices of the site under observation. In observing football training, photographs and fieldnotes were useful but felt restrictive. Here, the pace was fast. Within a matter of seconds an activity could be initiated, carefully considered and completed. The young footballers were constantly moving, configurations of people were relentlessly changing and different interactions rapidly overlapped and interwove. Rather than restricting ourselves to fieldnotes and photographs, we introduced video-recordings much earlier in this site than we had in either of the others. In fact in this site, researcher Amal Hallak and I dedicated ourselves to videoing in one of our fieldwork sites throughout every session. Where that wasn’t possible, in a second sports club within this site, where we did not have consent for video-recording, something new emerged. Drawings.

Drawings had figured in each of the sites. In the shop, Amal drew plans of the layout of the shop and these became a resource for fieldnotes as we were able to refer to parts of the shop in ways which could be easily understood through reference to the plan.

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In the sports site, however, drawings took on a life of their own. I found myself drawing frequently to capture richly meaning-filled moments of interaction where talk, gesture, body position and bodily orientation to other speakers, for example, were laminated over one another in ways that could not be captured in prose or by mere silent photographs. The drawings in this site provide a way to combine observation of people, language and action. I’m surprised, looking back on them now, how evocative they are for me, reminding me readily of the time we spent at the edge of the football pitch.

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We’re now thinking about what we do with our drawings. Perhaps they will just be a memory aid, bringing back the moment. Perhaps there will be some pattern to the events and activities which the act of choosing to draw has picked out. Certainly, one of our next challenges will be to work out the usefulness of the drawings to our analytic activities.

 

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