Short Course: Improvisational Pluralism in Field Research 1: Pre-Field Planning (QMMR 1)

Improvisational Pluralism in Field Research 1: Pre-Field Planning (QMMR 1)

Colin Elman
Half Day, 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Washington State Convention Center, Room 609

There are strong professional incentives to collecting one’s own data in graduate school, and original fieldwork tends to yield compelling projects. This series of two short courses is aimed at two audiences: (1) graduate students considering or conducting fieldwork, and (2) advisors and mentors who navigate dissertation prospectus advising roles.

The goal of the two short courses is to pool practical advice about best practices, with an eye toward minimizing start-up costs for prospective field workers. Research design and measurement issues are discussed in passing, but much of the course content is broader advising issues involving psychological and physical well-being, professionalization, management, self-presentation, and professional ethics. The course theme is “improvisational pluralism”: an ethos-based appreciation that fieldwork rewards an ability to improvise and adapt when constraints are discovered or things go wrong. Planning helps, but taking advantage of opportunities as they arise may require shifting approaches. The focus on pluralism is also a recognition that conducting high-integrity observations of another society requires special kinds of preparation and demands a certain degree of methodological flexibility. In this short course, we assume that a mature attitude toward pluralism begins by taking a diversity of aesthetic opinions seriously, listening respectfully, and appreciating the myriad ways of understanding what ought to “count” as a contribution. On the other hand, planning can maximize the probability that fieldwork will enable scholarly output.

The morning session of the short course is focused on pre-fieldwork planning, project management, and an overview of various empirical research techniques. Material is divided into three modules, separated by a short break.

The first module, with Jesse Driscoll and Gareth Nellis, will discuss pre-fieldwork basics, emphasizing the value of design pre-registration (for certain projects) and non-adversarial dialogue with IRBs, getting small trips funded, pre-departure logistical checklists, language triage, and site scouting.

The second module will focus on challenges related to “management” strategies — specifically recruiting and running a local team, managing workers remotely, and dealing with unexpected disruptions (e.g., COVID).

The third module, led by Ben Read and Jennifer Cyr, will by contrast focus on “solo laborer” fieldwork strategies, with a particular focus on when to employ one-on-one interview techniques and when to consider running focus groups.