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Reconceptualizing Field Research  

Diana Kapiszewski, Lauren M. MacLean, and Benjamin L. Read

Generations of political scientists have set out for destinations near and far to pursue field research. Even in a digitally networked era, the researcher’s personal presence and engagement with the field context continue to be essential. Yet exactly what does fieldwork mean, what is it good for, and how can scholars make their time in the field as reflective and productive as possible? Thinking of field research in broad terms—as leaving one’s home institution to collect information, generate data, and/or develop insights that significantly inform one’s research—reveals that scholars of varying epistemological commitments, methodological bents, and substantive foci all engage in fieldwork. Moreover, they face similar challenges, engage in comparable practices, and even follow similar principles. Thus, while every scholar’s specific project is unique, we also have much to learn from each other. In preparing for and conducting field research, political scientists connect the high-level fundamentals of their research design with the practicalities of day-to-day inquiry. While in the field, they take advantage of the multiplicity of opportunities that the field setting provides and often triangulate by cross-checking among different perspectives or data sources. To a large extent, they do not regard initial research design decisions as final; instead, they iteratively update concepts, hypotheses, the research question itself, and other elements of their projects—carefully justifying these adaptations—as their fieldwork unfolds. Incorporating what they are learning in a dynamic and ongoing fashion, while also staying on task, requires both flexibility and discipline. Political scientists are increasingly writing about the challenges of special types of field environments (such as authoritarian regimes or conflict settings) and about issues of positionality that arise from their own particular identities interacting with those of the people they study or with whom they work. So too, they are grappling with what it means to conduct research in a way that aligns with their ethical commitments, and what the possibilities and limits of research transparency are in relation to fieldwork. In short, political scientists have joined other social scientists in undertaking critical reflection on what they do in the field—and this self-awareness is itself a hallmark of high-quality research.