The Fieldwork of Quantitative Data Collection

ThinkstockPhotos-485874352Francesca Refsum Jensenius,  Norwegian Institute of International Affairs

For many political scientists, fieldwork means conducting focus groups in villages, attending campaign rallies, or interviewing political elites in government offices. When I present the mainly quantitative findings from my PhD work on electoral quotas for the Scheduled Castes (the former “untouchables”) in India, colleagues are sometimes surprised to hear that I spent more than a year conducting fieldwork for the project. To study the effects of quotas in India I wanted to combine statistical work with interview-based case studies. I collected some of the quantitative data needed for the project during two initial field trips, and then returned to India for another nine months of fieldwork, intending to conduct interviews and collect more data. The main surprise was how easy it proved to get interviews, whereas considerable time and effort were needed to get access to “publicly available data.” This article is about some of the failures and successes of my fieldwork, focusing particularly on the social relational aspects of collecting quantitative data. Fieldwork-based work is often contrasted with quantitative data work, but while some quantitative datasets can be downloaded from the Internet or bought from data-collection agencies, other datasets are the result of months and months of pestering officials, searching through archives, or accompanying data-entry people in the field. To gather this type of data, one spends considerable time on both gaining access and building rapport with gatekeepers, topics familiar from discussions of qualitative data collection (Berg 2003; Brooke Harrington 2003; Scoggins this symposium). Local knowledge also gives insights into how large datasets are collected, where their weaknesses lie, and how to spot irregularities in the data. This insight can be key to ensuring data reliability, an issue frequently discussed in methodological texts for political science (e.g., Kellstedt and Whitten 2013, chapter 5). By sharing some examples from my own field trips, I hope to show the importance of fieldwork for quantitative data collection and ways of dealing with the frustrations resulting from trying to collect data in the field. [Read more.]

The Fieldwork of Quantitative Data Collection / PS: Political Science & Politics / Volume 47 / Issue 02 / April 2014, pp 402-404