A Gun, a widow and thinking in ‘the field’!

by Sarah Hadfield

Twitter Signature logo@Sarah_h5

photo-3 This blog post is inspired by some reflexivity of some field research I conducted for another research project early on in my research career. This research was on a topic aligned with ‘The making of the precariat’, but the research methods are superficially different. My research is qualitative; ‘The making of the precariat’ is quantitative, making use of 1980s historical questionnaire data. From my own qualitative data collection experiences, I have found that ethical issues and the realities of field research in both projects have similarities although conducted in different times for different purposes.

As presented in the literature, the process of data collection, ethical issues and what is needed for preparation is not too far removed from the reality. However, for myself, what was, was the reality of the anxieties that came after the interviews had ended. This is because seemingly simple questions can trigger in the respondent seemingly unrelated information that is important for the respondent to talk about.  In reality the sensitivity of the subject matter determined by the respondent.  On returning from ‘the field’ I spoke with a colleague about this juxtaposition between what I was prepared for and how I had not expected to  feel after the process of collecting data had reached completion. On lending me the book ‘Method in the Madness: Research stories you won’t read in textbooks’,  I too realised I was not the only one and sometimes as researchers we are placed in situations we cannot anticipate. I do think to some extent that my experiences of being in the field might have been due my position as an ‘early careers’ researcher, however, I was very prepared for data collection, ethics, health and safety and personal safety. Furthermore, I was pleased with my navigation through any these situation were ‘extra’ information was divulged by respondents and managed to steer the interviews to keep them relevant to the topic. I did not expect to be thinking about the respondents after data collection had finished.

It could be assumed that qualitative research demands more human interaction and investment then quantitative questionnaires. However, from first hand experience of managing the historical 1980s questionnaire data and on observations of the comments and observations made by the field researchers at the time, this is not so. In ‘additional comments and observations’ the field researchers have reported on difficulties and the reality of research. Documented in the original report, a field research conducted an interview with a respondent whose Father answered the door with an air gun. The Father, not trusting that the field researcher was who he said he was, phoned the university.  Ironically in this situation you would not expect the questionnaire to have data in it. The schedule was completed like any other. In reality the field researcher might have had to go through the thought process of the pros and cons of continuing with the data collection; would running away prove guilt and further repercussions?

Further, from another questionnaire the field researcher had written a note ‘Respondent was very pregnant, recently widowed and hostile – so

1.     I didn’t pursue her for details of Job 1 – a fill in hairdresser job that she felt was irrelevant to her careers.

2.     Ask her for her deceased husbands occupation as it seemed poor taste’

The field researchers relationship with the respondent and judgment of the situation influenced the data even though it is ‘quantitative’ and a ‘questionnaire’. Both of which as methods are promoted as being further removed and ‘scientific’ then qualitative research.

We know these detail of the 1980s data collection process as we have the original questionnaires. To this day, it can be observed that in an increasingly digitalised world, the use of computers are amplified for data collection. Stories like these might not be recorded in questionnaire data. It is worth sharing what information we do have about the reality of field research in both methods, and to also be able to promote and talk further about the realities of social research. After all regardless of findings this is what makes we do so much more interesting.


Townsend, K. and Burgess, J. (2009) ‘Method in the Madness: Research you won’t read in textbooks‘. Chandos Publishing: Oxford. 

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