Review: The Field Study Handbook

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The Field Study Handbook by Jan Chipchase is ostensibly a guide to running qualitative research in unfamiliar cultures. It walks the reader through the entire process of defining the scope of the research, pitching to clients, building a team, recruiting participants, research methods, analysis and synthesis methods, reporting, and how to stay sane throughout the process. But it’s far more than that. As Craig Mod described it in his podcast “On Margins,” it is a guide to travel considerately and reflectively in the 21st century. It’s immediately practical: “Carry a photocopy of your passport, as the locals do in places where graft is high, and give that to local authorities looking for ID first, because if they take your original they can extract a bribe.” “Don’t carry a fake passport; you’ll be taken as a spy. Get a second passport for times when traveling frequently between non-compatible countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel).” P 67. It stands on its own as a travel guide to the world, how to move among people in a respectful and investigative manner without being crass or consumptive in your desire to learn about other cultures. “Field research is easier when you choose somewhere you don’t know so well, you’ll have less to unlearn.” P 329. The entire idea of the popup studio, a hybrid living and working area embedded in the local culture rather than hidden away in a hotel, makes the book worth it by itself.

“Data is noise. The ability to turn data into something valued requires contextual understanding, nuanced conversations, and reflection.” P 426. To me, a cognitive scientist by training and an educational designer by trade, the Handbook also serves as a bulwark against the crusade of unreflective quantitive data-driven design. We live in an age where engineers can immediately perform quantitative A/B testing of designs without regard to hypotheses or frameworks. This kind of testing is fine when it is informed by theory, when it actually tests hypotheses. But how do you generate those hypotheses, how do you find out what to measure and test? This book answers those questions at the ground level: “Quantitative data is good at showing what is happening and can reveal a degree of how. However, it’s less effective at revealing why. The value of the Handbook is built on the premise that there are significant advantages to understanding why.” P 44. “The difference between an able research who can subtly shape social dynamics and a con artists, or even worse, a sociopath, is intent.” P 331. The Handbook is not Creswell’s Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, and it doesn’t try to be; it’s a far more practical approach to running research programs in the field.

The book is not a perfect abstract work of the academy nor a ghostwritten romp through developing countries. It’s a meditative exploration of what it means to do meaningful work throughout the world. The Handbook is very much a product of how it was written, in the morning, with middle-distance views and a cup of good coffee, before a day of solid, meaningful work.