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The case for qualitative fieldwork

David Holmes, Geography Advisor to the Field Studies Council and Senior Examiner for Edexcel, makes the case for using qualitative techniques in geography fieldwork to encourage your students to engage in insightful geographical thinking.

An individual or group piece of fieldwork and research forms an important element of many school-based geography courses. Yet for many schools and colleges the concepts of fieldwork and research are closely linked to quantitative approaches where the route to enquiry is strictly followed using scientific principles. This article will discuss how there might be a need to reconsider these ‘quantitative' values and instead try to encourage fieldwork which has a more ‘qualitative' feel.

An era of change?

It is important to recognise that both the subject of geography and methods of fieldwork and research change quite rapidly. Established techniques develop and new ones come into fashion, especially influenced by the changes in techniques used by researchers at undergraduate level. It is all too easy to find techniques in textbooks that give the impression that there is only one way to tackle a question or issue. Alternative approaches to fieldwork and research may help motivate students through their geographical career as well as permit the use of innovative new technologies so that students' can express their representations of place, space and identity more readily.

Embracing qualitative and quantitative fieldwork

Traditionally school fieldwork has often been skewed towards a quantitative approach, that is one which relies heavily on numerical data evidence to draw conclusions and to test hypotheses. In the case of post-16 geography this data may then be used to carry-out statistical tests (which are often ‘forced' onto inappropriate data sets). There are a number of factors driving this quantitative approach to fieldwork:

  • A tradition of teachers and staff feeling that children / students should always be kept busy ‘doing ‘or ‘counting' to avoid any mischief whilst out in the field
  • A lack of confidence of staff to try out alternative methods for which they may not have received training or used previously
  • The need to produce lots of group data to achieve the maximum marks in the coursework / project (doing the ‘analysis')
  • An expectation by students / children that the fieldwork exercise will be managed through a ‘top down' approach - i.e. the participants will have limited input into the design and range of approaches
  • A limited number of secondary level texts and articles which describe and promote the use of alternative and qualitative techniques

It is worth stating that the methods used to collect qualitative data can be richer and more rewarding from a student point of view. The removal of coursework at A Level (2008) and GCSE (2009) means that there is no longer the need to achieve the ‘product'. The changes in the new KS3 curriculum and new GCSEs (incorporating ‘Controlled Assessment') should mean a there are a greater range of techniques (some quantitative, others qualitative) that can be used to process, present and analyse geographical data.

Whilst the debate between protagonists of qualitative and quantitative fieldwork and research can become somewhat partisan, it is now widely accepted that the two approaches should be used to compliment one another. Indeed, physical geography themes often favour a more scientific (and quantitative) approach, for example the surveying of structural changes in a sand dune, whereas more people-centred fieldwork and research often requires a balance of qualitative and quantitative methods.

Qualitative approaches for physical and human fieldwork and research

Qualitative methods can be used for pragmatic reasons in situations where formal and quantified fieldwork and research is not possible. Most quantitative fieldwork uses a strict ‘route to enquiry' approach (see Figure one - sequential), whereas qualitative research can involve a more ‘fluid' or recursive strategy. In this latter approach the hypotheses and questions may be manipulated and expanded. as the research process evolves (Figure one). As a geographer there are a number of key methods in the fieldwork and research toolkit that are used to gather qualitative information:

  • Observation (of people and places), for example making field notes either by hand or by using a dictaphone, sketches, video and photographic evidence. This type of work is sometimes called ‘ethnographic' fieldwork and research
  • Informal and in-depth interviews, for example a more in-depth discussion with a group of people about a particular issue in the local area. In-depth interviews are much longer than their questionnaire counterparts. This can also include focus groups
  • Textual analysis including printed matter, websites and other relevant audio visual material. This can help uncover the identity of a place and its people

Sequential and recursive approaches to fieldwork and research

Figure one: Sequential and recursive approaches to fieldwork and research - click on image to enlarge

Yet this kind of fieldwork must be well planned and executed so that it is more than hanging around, talking to folks or sitting about the place. For large groups of students it may be difficult to set up realistic interviews. An alternative strategy is to simulate the interview through a pre-prepared video/audio recording that the students can then interrogate and investigate for themselves.

The idea of interviewing groups of people together rather than individually is becoming increasingly popular in market and community research. Focus groups can be relatively easily set up in a school/college context by liaison with interested parties such as Rotary Clubs/Women's Institute/Round Table etc. There may also be other non-geography students in school who can be commandeered to get involved in a lunchtime interview session. Groups should comprise five to 12 participants and the discussion taped or videoed. The researcher has the task of leading and facilitating the discussion through a checklist of open-ended questions.

Analysis of qualitative data

The essence of any analysis procedure must be to return to the terms of reference, the conceptual framework and the research questions or hypothesis. To start making sense of the diverse range of materials collected as part of the qualitative process any notes firstly need to be presentable and readable. Any oral pieces of evidence such as tapes need to be transcribed. Discussion and open ended interview data and notes, for example can be looked at through a series of stages:

  1. Open coding - A sensible place to start is to approach the materials a line at a time and to work through the text adding annotations and comments in the margin
  2. Theoretical memos - On a separate piece of paper ideas generated from open coding can be more formally recorded, for example using simple lists or précis of annotations
  3. Emergent themes - Further reflection and refinement may mean that ‘variables' can be identified. These could then be incorporated into an initial conceptual framework - see Figure two

Initial concept framework for results of open ended interviews

Figure two: Inital concept framework for the results of open ended interviews - click on image to enlarge

Alternative approaches to analysis will be required for different types of primary data which is largely qualitative. The analysis of images or texts for example, make use a more narrative approach describe differences or similarities between chosen areas for example. Figure three is some geographical prose to describe a photograph of Salford near Manchester. Note how the picture is being ‘unpacked' through the narrative which is also forms part of the analysis. Remember that images can come from a variety of sources, for example art, photography, film and advertising.

Narrative analysis of Salford, Manchester

Figure three: Narrative analysis of Salford, Manchester - click on image to enlarge


It is worth remembering that even the most scientific of approaches, regardless of how systematic and objective, can rarely be perfectly systematic or really objective. Most school based fieldwork and research which claims to be objective is in reality based on a number of subjective human judgements, for example where to collect samples and decisions on the bi-polar scales etc.

Perhaps the critical skill in quantitative fieldwork is not the mechanical act of observation, recording and analysis, but moreover appreciation that something or some data is significant and noteworthy. Qualitative approaches represent a different way to achieve a different kind of understanding, one that appeals to students who find satisfaction in the recognition of what is going on at a more intimate or personal level. Fieldwork therefore becomes a very powerful tool for self understanding. The results from qualitative research are often more understandable to people who are not statistically trained and can reveal more insightful geographical thinking than purely numerical outcomes.

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