To be clear, the “field” in fieldwork is a broad term meaning anywhere you collect data. It can mean interviewing, reading files, shadowing, working with, etc., the person in the next office or on the in the streets of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (both of which I am familiar). This brief blog post from the Guatemalan research field is meant to give some real-time, real-life technological insight that may help your planning if conducting field research.
Now, I am not new to field. I have done research work in various locations, many of which technology is present though not necessarily present in its most recent form. Most areas of the world have Internet access of some sort, and I have been amazed at the places where I have seen cell phones in use. (Lesson 1: Never underestimate the ability of people to communicate.) However, the Internet may still be dialup and/or excruciatingly, painfully slow. Additionally, there may not be smart phone support (wifi, GPS) or Internet within 100 miles of your location. (Lesson 2: Don’t overestimate or assume the extent of technology support.) No support means you may be lugging around a backpack full very heavy and very useless technology that you will regret bringing (and loudly cussing about it). (Lesson 3: That backpack gets enormously heavy after two days in to fieldwork filled from dawn to dusk with travel for interviews, site visits, etc., particularly in extreme heat, extreme dirt, extreme rain, and less than acceptable roads.) Not to mention, lots of nice technology makes you a nice target for theft. (Lesson 4: You are a target for theft.) To prevent theft, you will be lugging around that very heavy backpack with you everywhere, holding it tight and close – maybe even sleeping with it depending on the condition of your sleeping arrangements.
Consider the above then ask yourself when packing your technology for the field: (a) is this a situation that sounds do-able; (b) preferable; and/or (c) logical? Let me put my point another way: While you are worried about your backpack and what it holds and how to get it back home safely, are you not fully present and listening, hearing, seeing your participant or the event being studied? It makes a difference to think these things through carefully.
At the time of this writing (January 2016), I am in Guatemala for approximately one month. I conducted as many formal interviews stateside as I was able before coming to this beautiful country. I am now going to see the work of the organizations I am studying live and in person, contextualizing this research by interacting with similar (but not the same) type of organizations also located in Guatemala. I do not expect many formal interviews in country but anticipate lots of journaling, photos, video, and audio – all data that will be coded and studied for findings. I continually try to suspend my judgment on what is and is not important. Everything I take in is data. Whether or not the data is useful to my project at the current time is immaterial. The usefulness of each piece of data will be determined during analysis. My job at present is to record, record, record. I packed about 15 pounds of clothing and toiletries, and 25 lbs of equipment. You don’t need 25 lbs of equipment (unless you have a wonderful grant that allows you to hire assistants that will pack around all the equipment for you). Let me save you some time and effort with a few things I have learned:
The Glamour of Field Work (a brief intermission):
1. Smart phones are heaven
Leave the iPad at home unless you are certain you will have constant Internet access and/or you want to pay the outlandish connectivity fees. iPads are heavenly for interviews if you have a cloud application like Evernote through which you have access to your protocol and questions, as well as the ability to record the interview while you take notes. However, iPads do not have a lot of memory so using them without Internet access is meaningless. Also, leave the expensive camera equipment at home unless your research project depends on intricate, professional photographs. A good smart phone with lots of memory is perfect for the field.
2. Invest in good qualitative software
I am using Atlasti, which has a mobile app for iPhone or Android. The app allows you to keep a running memo, so there is less danger of forgetting what is seen or said when you finally sit down to journal at night. The app also allows you to record audio and video instantly and will store it on your phone until you download it whether or not you have Internet or data access. Qualitative software also lets you name and organize your files because you can create multiple projects depending on what is encountered during the day.
3. Get a power stick
You may not be where you can recharge your smart phone. A power stick will save you this frustration as well as allow you to continue recording without interruption.
4. Get a memory stick for your phone
These things are cool and will allow you to free up storage space on your phone for particularly heavy data days. The stick then plugs into your computer or laptop like a regular memory stick for easy data transfer at the end of the day. This is important: You want to keep this stick free of data so you can use it when needed. I can now imagine the nightmare of my phone’s memory becoming full and my memory stick also full because I did not clear the stick before I began my day.
5. A laptop remains a good thing
Each night, you want to pull everything off your phone and memory stick. Having a laptop is still the best thing available for field research because of its storage capacity and it allows you to begin working with the data immediately. The good news is laptops are getting lighter whereas I am trudging around Guatemala with a 4.5-pound dinosaur of a Mac Book Pro. (Oh, my poor back!).
A couple of notes regarding using a laptop:
6. Pen and paper are still your best friends
When technology fails, pen and paper save the day. Have them handy. Take an extra pen with you into the field because one will quit working or you will leave one someplace. You really do not want that moment of panic when you realize you left your pen behind with no back up while your technology is absent or useless. Having a back up pen is akin to witnessing a miracle from heaven.
With this, I leave you to your own devices.