Building your analysis on & through fieldwork

AS YOU CARRY OUT INTERVIEWS, bear in mind that your fieldwork is geared toward developing your analysis of a particular topic. Sometimes, we know what that topic is from the outset, and structure the fieldwork accordingly. Oftentimes, however, fieldwork produces insights into topics that we were not pursuing deliberately, and nonetheless impose themselves upon us. In any event, the raison d’etre of fieldwork is to acquire the material and personal experience necessary to produce “analysis,” an exercise that is not entirely easy to define.

Analyzing consists of introducing an “order” among things that are otherwise diverse and confusing. Through your fieldwork, you observe behaviors, talk to people and hear narratives—all of which produces the material you must process. You shift from fieldwork to analysis by moving from things (objects, people, attitudes, stories) to concepts. You switch from individuals to “categories of individuals”; from distinct conversations to “collective narratives”; from personal conducts to “patterns of behavior”; from simple causalities to complex systems. None of the items between “” actually exist: they are concepts that approximate observed realities and organize them somewhat artificially, in ways that help make sense of what we observe.

Science offers a useful illustration. Although conventional wisdom would have it that science uncovers, through the microscope, some hidden script that organizes the world, it doesn’t. Scientists collect observations, develop hypotheses about them, and strive to answer this basic question: “what will happen within a certain set of circumstances, based on observations already made?” A good scientific “theory” doesn’t give us access to any superior “truth”: it simply offers a satisfactory level of predictability and reliability about what can be expected to happen under certain conditions. In other words, we only know that a good theory is good because it is not contradicted by further observations.

In our work also, an analysis is good because it works. It doesn’t conflict with existing observations, nor does it leave out potential observations that might conflict with it. It explains dynamics by articulating what factors cause which outcomes.

The perfect counterexample to analysis is paranoia, which appears increasingly prevalent, and a big part of our daily experience in the field and beyond. Paranoia organizes discreet observations through a theory that connects the dots and fills the blanks, but only works to the extent that its bearers ignore or dismiss any countervailing observations and evidence. Of course so-called “conspiracy theories” function that way; more troubling, so does much of the “instant commentary” produced by journalists and pundits, who make sense only on the basis of blatantly incomplete information.

In practical terms, beware of common mistakes on the part of researchers attempting to draw analysis from their fieldwork:

  • Waiting for the analysis to come from your interlocutors. These do sometimes yield interesting bits and pieces of analysis that may give you a lead, a hypothesis to toy with, or a fragment of a broader and deeper analysis that you can develop. Your analysis should take into consideration the various analytical views of others, but it must always seek to add to them, to tie them together, or to take a fresh angle.
  • Getting lost in fieldwork. The material we collect doesn’t organize itself. On the contrary, it naturally forms an increasingly complex, nuanced, confusing mass. Many researchers deal with the resulting anxiety by doing more fieldwork and accumulating more material, both to keep busy and postpone the moment of truth. Of course, this invariably makes the problem worse. Therefore there must be a cut-off moment, typically when you’ve done the rounds, and feel that more interviews don’t bring anything new.
  • Clinging to literature. A typical academic error is to adopt some preexisting “analytical framework” and force observations into it. Academic and other literature should remain a source of culture and inspiration—a toolbox we can pick from opportunistically.
  • Staying alone. Analysis truly takes shape as you are trying to convey it. It doesn’t “happen” in isolation; rather it occurs in a dialectic relationship, with a mentor, a manager, a colleague or your mum. Not uncommonly, analysis gels in your thought process as you picture a conversation: you may be alone in practice, but you are still talking to someone. Writing your notes, a memo, or the outline of an oral presentation equally develops your analysis, as you seek ways of sharing your thoughts. Language is an analytical prism in itself.
  • Starting from the wrong end. Many researchers are tempted to sit down and think hard until a general theory of things dawns on them. Analysis, however, is not an act of creative genius; it is a protracted work process, more akin to handicraft than art. It flows from something that could look like a police investigation board: we collect all the evidence we can; we lay everything out in front of us; we move things around, and try different ways of organizing it; and then we take action on the strongest hypotheses, which we test by taking them further.
  • Separating fieldwork from analysis. Yet another common mistake is to do fieldwork first and analysis second. The relationship between the two is a constant back-and-forth. Form hypotheses as you go and take time to try them out on real-life people. Bounce your instincts and your conclusions off of individuals you interview. They may or may not agree, which says nothing definite about whether you’re wrong or right, but will almost inevitably raise new issues, provide nuance, and add human depth to your ideas.

To conclude, best is to ground your analysis in very practical questions you should ask yourself as you process your notes. Why is this important? What does it reveal about this person / situation? What does it say about the broader scheme of things? Why does it trouble me? What connections did it prompt in my brain, however farfetched they may seem?

Indeed, don’t forget that our brain is highly analytical, naturally. Often, it makes the most useful connections in a state of “free association.” In other words: when you’re stuck, take a walk.

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Illustration credit: Skokloster Castle Vertumnus by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

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