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Key factors in good qualitative field research

By Tania Duba, Science & Society Intern, SAEON Egagasini Node
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Figure 1: Map of the Wild Coast and key rivers (from the Kei to the Mntavuma River) along the East Coast of South Africa. The location of Tshani-Mankosi village is indicated with a red dot.


Figure 2: Interview session between Tania and a research participant (photo blurred intentionally to adhere to ethical research practice, taken by Thomas Mtontsi, November 2017)

Qualitative field research is a data-collection process concentrated on the observation of humans in their natural environment.

This method allows the researcher to understand social life in certain natural environments and vice versa. For example, social scientists may use this method to understand fishing-based livelihoods in the coastal areas, while nature conservationists may be interested in fish ecology in the fishing community.

Lessons learned from a climate and environmental change case study

For her master’s research, the SAEON Egagasini Node’s science and society intern, Tania Duba, selected the Tshani-Mankosi community as a case study to investigate climate and environmental change along the East Coast of South Africa. The Tshani-Mankosi is a traditional fishing community located along the Wild Coast section of the East Coast (Figure 1). Tania recently visited her study area to report back on her research findings.

The social science master’s project Tania completed, required qualitative research methods with a strong background in physical oceanography and no experience in qualitative research. Tania confessed that she found it difficult to move from quantitative to qualitative research. Below, based on her experiences, she shares three key factors researchers cannot afford to miss when conducting qualitative field research.

1.  Develop an action plan

An action plan serves as a guide to ensure maximum impact of the research fieldwork. To develop an action plan a researcher would need to: 

  • Identify the objectives of the study; 
  • Generate focused questions around the objectives; 
  • Establish the primary and secondary data to answer the questions;  
  • Devise data collection tools, methods and materials; 
  • Collect the data; 
  • Perform data analysis; and 
  • Decide on a suitable method to communicate the research findings.

2.  Know the type of field research you are conducting

Qualitative field research consists of at least three different types of data collection which can be used individually or in combination. These include direct observation, participant observation and qualitative interviews.

In direct observation the researcher is not actively engaging with subjects in a natural setting, but through close visual inspection. Here the researcher is detached from the system and does not influence behaviours or outcomes in that setting. Tania used this type of field research as an initial step in her study. This was beneficial in providing contextualised data about the physical community, the people and primary socio-economic dynamics of the community. The data output gathered from direct observation in Tshani-Mankosi was in the form of a map, pictures and videos.

Participant observation requires that the researcher is actively involved as a subject in the natural setting of the study areas. Ideally the researcher takes part in the day-to-day activity of the community for months and even years while gaining the trust of the community. The benefit of this type of field research is that it allows a relationship to develop between the researcher and the participants. As the people gain confidence in the researcher, they begin to communicate and behave more naturally around the researcher. 

Ultimately, the researcher gains a deep and rich understanding of the system investigated. Although Tania used this method, she found it challenging in the sense that it requires a large amount of time and money (more than a master’s student can afford) to finish in due time. Tania spent at least 25 days and about R30 000 travelling from Cape Town to become part of the Tshani-Mankosi community.

The qualitative interview is a common field research method where the researcher questions research participants directly (Figure 2). The interview can either be formal by means of a set of predetermined questions, or it can be conversational with spontaneous questions as the conversation unfolds. Conversational qualitative interviews are more useful when the researcher sets out to pursue the topic with maximum flexibility. This method proved to be most useful in the early stages of Tania’s research as she set out to familiarise herself with fishing-based livelihoods.

3.  Build a research team

Qualitative research fieldwork can demand a great deal of physical energy and concentration. Building a research team helps with defining and sharing the necessary tasks to achieve the desired outcomes.

Tania’s research team consisted of herself as the principal researcher and two research assistants. One research assistant was a member of the local community, which proved to be very valuable in connecting the researcher with key members of the community, organising venues and facilitating liaison between the research team and the participants. The other research assistant was selected based on his experience in interacting with people around scientific topics.

Tania recommends that the recruitment of research participants for a study should be done at least three months in advance and that the lines of communication between the researcher and the potential participants should always be open. The success of field research depends on the subjects being studied.

Taking notes is also important and can be done immediately after each research activity. The research team may also choose to debrief at the end of each day and make collective notes. This is useful for reflecting on the day’s activity and strategising for the following day.

Finally, Tania advises keeping a journal as this helps to track the decisions made by the research team.

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