I’ve spent the past seven months in England, doing field research for my book on Islamic law in the United Kingdom. It’s been fantastic, but honestly, professors don’t do field research for fun. It often is fun – interesting people, new insights, great opportunities – but it’s also expensive, incredibly time consuming, and a bit risky. (Not usually physically risky, although I’ll tell you more about that English nationalist march in a minute….) If you could get the data without leaving your office on campus, you’d probably do that instead. So why am I here?
The primary reason for doing field research is that it’s the best, and sometimes the only, way to collect certain kinds of evidence for a research question. If you want financial data or election results, you can look them up. But for some other questions, you have to talk to people, watch them work, look into their records, and ask a lot of questions. Want to know how shari’a councils handle Islamic divorces? Ask the religious scholars who conduct the hearings, or even better, watch hearings in person and read case files. Want to know what right-wing nationalists think about Muslims? You can follow them on Facebook, but it would be much better to meet them, tag along to their events, and spend hours in the pub listening to them talk about politics and society (and football).
The methods of field research are easily taught, although they take a lot of practice to learn well. There are some intangible aspects, though, that can’t really be built into a research design. In my experience, two particularly important factors have been trust and serendipity.
Trust is vital in my work because I’m usually studying rather sensitive issues. Why should a woman seeking a religious divorce from her abusive husband let me watch her explain her situation to religious authorities? Why should right-wing activists take me along to their events and act as my bodyguards in the fight that breaks out afterward? (Sometimes field research is a little too exciting.) There’s nothing in it for them – they don’t get paid, they don’t get their names in the newspaper, they don’t get any material benefit from helping a professor with her research. They cooperate because they respect scholarship, because they like the chance to explain their lives to an interested observer, or for some other reason, but in every case, they have to trust me, so I have to be honest and transparent with them. They have to know who I am, why I’m interested in them, and what I’m going to do with the information I collect.
Building trust can be time-consuming, and sometimes people say no. This is absolutely their right; no one is obliged to talk to a researcher. Most people, in my experience, say yes, and they are amazingly generous with their time and information.
The other element is serendipity. Sometimes really valuable opportunities in research come by chance. This spring, I was struggling with an aspect of the project and thinking “I wish I had a way of talking to some police officers about this research.” One evening, after giving a public talk, two people came up to me and said, literally, “Hello, we’re police officers, and we’d like to talk to you about your research.” Sometimes, you just get lucky.
That one chance meeting, and some follow-up work, led me to learn some new things, gave me an idea for a future research project, helped me with an aspect of my current research, and even helped me redesign part of a course syllabus. You never know where new ideas or helpful tips will turn up, and while you can’t follow every interesting lead, you have to keep your eyes and your mind open and be prepared for the occasional detour from your research plan.
In the end, field research has to be driven by the evidence you need for the question you’re trying to answer. Some of the evidence may turn out to be unavailable to you. Sometimes the data may come from unexpected or uncomfortable places. But on the whole, it’s a great experience, even a privilege, to be an academic doing field research. The world is an interesting place, and to understand it well, sometimes you have to get out there. Just remember: treat everyone honestly, wear sunscreen, and be nice to the police horses.