Level up your fieldwork game: methods hacks from the pros

By Karsten Fatur, Student Representative to the SEB Council, PhD student at the University of Ljubljana.

We’ve all been there before: you’re in the field doing your research and suddenly a wave of realisation hits you. “Wait, why am I doing it like THIS???” The truth is, we often develop (or inherit) methods in the field and give them little thought. Are there better ways to do this? How do other people carry these things out? Especially as students starting research, this can be daunting, even if you have a very good supervisor.

But worry not, we’ve got your back! When you have a broken pipe, you call a plumber; when you need help with fieldwork, you ask a researcher! Drs. Robbie Hart, Nanci Ross, Blair Orr, Andrew Flachs, and Rainer Bussmann kindly shared some tips and tricks that will help you broaden your research arsenal. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Q1: What inspires ideas for different study designs?

RH: I’m often system-first. Looking at a particular system available to me inspires a question about how that system works. At that point, I think about whether the question is answerable given my resources, and whether the question is generalizable beyond my particular system. 

NR: I think that what draws us to pursue a career in science is that we are the kind of people who always want to know more. No matter what research you are doing, everything begins with the research question. The research question is basically “why is that so?” related to something we observed and found intriguing. I try to read at least one scientific paper every day, anything that sounds interesting. I can’t go everywhere in the world and experience everything first hand, but there are so many amazing observations and ideas filling up the literature. Designing and carrying out field studies then allow us to answer those “why” questions effectively. Study design develops out of your hypothesis, which is to say that, once you figure out which question you want to pursue first, how do you focus your data collection in such a way that will eliminate or address as many confounding variables as possible? This works for both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Then, I start focused reading of the literature. We don’t always have to create a de novo design: the best place to begin is the literature. There are tons of study designs that have already been developed and can give you a framework to tweak so that it can address your study directly. That has two benefits: 1) you have the advantage of using an approach that has already been tested for problems; and 2) connecting it to the literature convinces funding agencies that your plan can produce quality results.

BO: I feel like I am the wrong person to be answering these questions. I have worked with over 200 students in a service-learning program my university (Michigan Technological University) in Bulgaria, Moldova, Albania, Armenia, Ukraine, Nepal, Thailand, Vanuatu, the Philippines, Fiji, East Timor, Palau, Mexico, El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Suriname, Paraguay, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Lesotho, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Gabon, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Senegal, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso. I was chair or co-chair for 75 of the 200 students. Most students did not do an ethnobotany thesis or research report. Almost all of the students were/are master’s degree students. The service-learning program was one run in conjunction the Peace Corps. My answers blend thoughts from both students who had ethnobotany projects and those who did not. This is not what ethnobotanists usually do. The students had two years in their country. We didn’t know which country they would go to until three months prior to their departure. We didn’t know where they would be going in the country until they were there. The students would have to find a research topic and then we (the student’s graduate committee) would help them develop the appropriate design. We tried to opt for simplicity. The inspiration was their local setting and often dictated by community-based projects or concerns. Many times, the research work developed from questions the community had.

AF: I usually start with the key research question, the big picture thread that would tie the project together. What is it that is interesting to your larger field, in my case anthropology, agrarian studies, or ethnobiology? Then, I have to think about the best places on earth to ask this question and the best people to ask it of, the best-case study or already-occurring phenomenon to think through this big picture question. One way that I like to do this, especially in a class or group setting, is by diagramming these questions on paper. This process is not linear, as we often begin working somewhere because we have a meaningful connection to a community or a very particular interest that we want to pursue as researchers. But this process can help scale up and down research designs so that there can emerge clear justifications for where we work, what questions we ask, why these are important, and what communities we work with to ultimately find the answers.

RB: Very much the purpose of your study, including where you work, language issues, possible participation of local colleagues, how many participants you can actually work with. Generally speaking, the more complex your study is (e.g. “medicinal plants” vs. “Useful Plants”, “One plant group” vs. “all plants” etc.) influence the design. Freelisting e.g. always needs MANY more participants than working with a very detailed questionnaire.

Q2: How do you decide what methods to use?

RH: Reading in the field! The more I read, the more I have a sense of what methodological tools are available (either that I can use, or that I can find a colleague who can use).

NR: Again, I start with my hypothesis. You have to make sure that your methods generate data that actually addresses your question. You should look to see how others have addressed similar questions in the literature (again, why reinvent the wheel?) Run your methodology by a colleague or mentor to see if they see any holes in your approach.

BO: This also followed from the plan the students developed. Also, simplicity mattered. I would get students to estimate how long it would take to gather their data and we would dump ideas that were unreasonably time consuming and complicated. Students often underestimated the time and I would have to alert them to this. Some students stayed in their country beyond two years and this might be motivated by data collection.

AF: Once I’ve diagrammed or written out the research design, the question is then: how many different ways can I ask this question? The more different approaches that I can use to understand a general social or environmental phenomenon, the more satisfied I am with my results. To that end, I think it is essential to combine qualitative methods (interviews, ethnography, apprenticing and participant-observing) with quantitative methods (surveys, random and thus generalizable data collection, spatial analysis, transects with checklists). Quantitative tools can tell you what is happening, but they are really bad at telling you why, where qualitative data can give you rich but idiosyncratic information. Ideally, I start with qualitative data collection so that I can be better assured that I’m asking the right questions of the right people in the first place. A big part of this is keeping track of the range of variation you’re interested in: what is this population (of plants, places, or people) representative of? What biases of gender, race, class, age, space, and everything else might affect what I’m seeing? If I want to use statistical tools, am I working with a population that is generalizable to something else and do the conditions of a normally distributed population apply here? If not, why do I want to use statistical tools?  In this way, methods and research design are closely tied together.

RB: That relates very much to #1. The more detailed your questionnaire can be, and the more participants you can have, the better results you are likely to get. In many cases freelisting is your only real option however, especially when working on the WHOLE useful flora of a region, because it is impossible to ask detailed question about all useful species in one single study – given the regular time and funding constraints.

Q3: When carrying out fieldwork, how do you conduct your interviews, collect samples, etc.?

RH: For doing interviews, I really like to work with assistants/colleagues who are members of the community, if possible. If there are the right people with interest and time, this allows a) some capacity building in the community, and b) greatly improved access and understanding compared to what I could get on my own. For collecting plant samples, I’ve always found Field Techniques Used By Missouri Botanical Garden (Liesner et al.) very useful.

NR: I’m not clear what you are looking for with this question…it would depend on what the project is. One big thing is to be as organized and systematic as possible. Make copious notes, mark what you have done, and don’t assume that you will remember where something is from or what it is (i.e., label everything!)

BO: Interviews were face-to-face, usually only the student but sometimes with a translator. Since the students lived and worked in their communities, they developed great language skills and had strong links in the local community. Informed consent was generally oral. One big problem working in so many countries was learning the requirements for conducting research in the country. If your research is in just a few countries you will become familiar with the laws and regulations for those countries. We were constantly trying to understand the research bureaucracy and to find in-country collaborators other than community members as we hopped from country to country. Again, sample collection really varied with the different country regulations. One woman in Tanzania collected fuelwood. The district foresters laughed when she came in for the permit as nobody local ever had a permit even though they were supposed to. They sold her the permit. We had a case in Paraguay where the voucher specimens were placed locally but the woman never got the permits to export them despite months of trying. We had originally planned to send them to the Smithsonian and Geneva. No permits = no export = the only voucher specimens were in Paraguay.

AF: My favorite way of interviewing and collecting has always been as a blundering apprentice – I find that I get the richest information when I’m working alongside people that I’ve built a relationship with over a long period of time, helping them and enjoying their company in some of their normal agricultural or forest gathering work. First, this is because it is always easier when people can use the literal landscape around them to explain a concept, or if I can use it as an interview probe. Some of my best days have been hours-long conversations begun with a simple, “what’s that over there?”  Second, and more importantly, as researchers work to decolonize our practice, especially if we are outsiders with privilege, it is important to have continuous conversations about what research you’re doing, why, what possible benefits your presence could bring people, and what questions your interlocutors might want answered. This is not to say that all research needs to be for some immediate benefit to a particular stakeholder in the places where we work – there are many people in my own US university town who do not completely understand what an anthropologist is or why they do what they do. However, it is critical to find ways to contribute in meaningful ways to the people whose experiences generate research data, whether that is volunteering or working with a local community organization or to involve them in the research process, including in coauthorship, design, and data collection where appropriate.

RB: First of all, with lots of respect, and trying to involve local participants – including as interviewers – as closely as possible. Interviews with as little technology as possible, because it often frightens the participants, i.e. no laptops, recorders… I always work with a field notebook that I then transcribe to my database and also photograph as quickly as possible after the interview. Samples: I am a taxonomically trained botanist, so collecting complete (=fertile) herbarium samples is what we especially try to do.

Q4: How do you keep your data organised during the interview process (photos, samples, notes, audio recordings, linking these things, etc.?)

RH: I’m a big believer in transcribing field data to electronic tables as soon as possible. Usually, I build the tables just in a spreadsheet program like excel or google sheets, but I do try to keep to the principles of tidy data (https://vita.had.co.nz/papers/tidy-data.pdf) and save the files as .csv so that I can easily access and use the tables using analysis software. I don’t have a great method for photos and audio samples – usually I try to give them unique names and then have a table somewhere that describes the metadata attributes of each file.

NR: First, I’m a big believer in having both paper and digital copies of the raw data. If your computer is lost or damaged, something happens in file transfer, etc, etc…you can always go back to the paper copies. I personally have had occasion to dig out old data notebooks years later when I had a new idea or ran into something weird in analysis so went looking for a typo that I missed the first time. Keeping things organized in my computer files is more challenging. Two big things: 1) create a framework of digital folders for each analysis plus the original raw data and be religious about storing things in the proper folders from the very beginning (it can get out of control fast); and 2) I keep an analysis journal so that I remember what tests I ran, when, where the analysis is stored, and what the main results were. It has been really useful on multiple occasions. Currently, my collaborator and I have been keeping them together in an annotated R-based webpage, but I have also used just a paper journal effectively. Be sure to keep track of which dataset was used for any analyses… I have never used audio data, but that will change soon! My latest project uses forest audio recordings that will number in the thousands. We will be storing them on an online platform on the theory that the cloud is the safest storage place.

BO: The biggest thing here was to back things up. Most interviews were given a code to keep things anonymous. Data management was very western. First, the communities were so small that local people could have identified anybody based on the data. Second, in a small community everybody already knew all of the data, plus lots more information, about everybody. (We didn’t collect data on who was sleeping with who, but everybody knew it. Collecting data on weeds seems much less intrusive.) One woman lived in a community of 12 houses. Anonymous? I don’t think so. The houses had bamboo walls so the kids knew exactly when she woke up every morning. Third, we had several cases where, even though we had consent to name people in photos, the university did not allow us to do that. The people would have preferred to have their names known. (My students would almost always send a copy of the thesis or report back to the community.)

AF: Folders with clear labels are critical. I have separate folders for each kind of data, with references to particular image files, herbarium specimens, or interviews embedded in the field notes that I write each day as my master document. I also write personal letters to friends and family as a kind of journal that I have sometimes found useful after the fact, when my fieldnotes start to lose detail. All of this is backed up to password-protected cloud software and on a hard drive. Date wise labelling seems to be my best system as I take lots of photos – I often end up categorizing and recategorizing my files for years after field research.

RB: – use a field notebook and WRITE IN PENCIL so that the ink cannot run in the rain

– photograph your notebook pages as quickly as possible

– upload the photographs to a storage device (ie laptop)

– incorporate the data into your database as quickly as possible (ideally in the evening of the interview day) and make sure your database design actually works, i.e. try to design and test your database BEFORE real fieldwork

– DO NOT USE AUDIO RECORDINGS for interviews – it is a huge challenge to then transcribe those

Q5: How do you handle plant identification if you are unfamiliar with a species? Do you do it during the interviews or from samples later?

RH: From samples later. Ethnotaxa (common names) and photo-vouchers are a big help but often a voucher specimen is necessary to get a good identification.

NR: You need to do both: I ask my collaborators to identify the plant if possible, but I also collect vouchers and do a formal ID in the herbarium. In my opinion, a physical voucher is essential. If you have one, you can check consistency in common names and look for variations. Plus, the voucher will be available for future projects that may occur to you (or anyone else)!

BO: This was never a problem. We were at a site long enough to be able to eventually straighten things out. Every now and then a sample was “unknown”.

AF: I’m cheating a bit because my kind of botany is agricultural and almost always intentional. I always identify plants with the people who are growing, gathering, or managing them, taking down any local names, photographing the plant in context, documenting uses through interviews or observations, and always taking vouchers if the person who showed me the plant is willing to do so. As an ethical matter of fact, I always ask permission before taking plants so that people know that this knowledge will be made public. Because I’m not a card-carrying botanist, I also work with trained botanists in the field and in national universities where I can deposit herbarium specimens and ask for help.

RB: COLLECT ALL SPECIES IF POSSIBLE! Identification in the field is often impossible, especially in tropical regions. Identification after fieldwork, in a good herbarium, is a must. It is always much easier to actually be able to show participants specimens. Many participants have problems to id plants e.g. from pictures (or herbarium samples). Make sure that your participants actually use the same name for the same species!

Q6: How do you handle information from participants that cannot be linked to identifiable specimens? For example, the informant has so little of the plant material or it is too young as to make identification impossible.

RH: I still take data on this; often it can be reliably associated with another data point later (if, for example, there is a shared ethnotaxon, shared use, and then you may confirm with whatever specimen is available).

NR: This varies a lot. Whether I would use the information would depend on how essential to my research question it is to have accurate IDs. For example, if my research question is about perceptions of plants as healing agents, that question does not require me to know the exact ID of the plant species. Of course, that limits your study a lot. So, if you have a large enough sample size, my first impulse would be to not use the data for that specimen since it could lead to false results. BUT…never throw out data! You never know when it might be useful.

BO: See above.

AF: I remember a section from Gary Martin’s ethnobotany research guide on how to take specimen for a palm, involving taking different parts of the plant, documenting its growth habit, taking photos, and getting as much cultural information as he could. That’s all good advice for plants that are big or that you don’t really recognize. In the event that you’re trying to identify something from a tincture or a dried herb like a tea, you can often try to work up the knowledge chain – asking where the herbs came from, if you can take a pinch to bring to a vendor or local expert who can show you the plant in context. If you are collecting with the intention of working in a herbarium later, you should always take these small pieces because there may be diagnostic parts that you can identify later under a microscope or with the help of a specialist. At the very least, you may be able to narrow it down taxonomically somewhat.

RB: Very problematic. If you cannot link information to a correctly identified species (specimen) it is essentially not scientifically valid. In any case, even collect young / sterile specimens, because a taxonomist colleague might later be able to id it.

Q7: How do you handle information about knowledge not related to current use? For example, informants talking about plants that they used in their childhood or knew their parents used, but do not use the plant themselves now and may not even be able to show it to you.

RH: I think ‘known use’ and ‘current use’ these are different research questions (although they are often conflated). As above, I think that if the study design allows, taking all the possible data on such taxa may (or may not) allow a reliable association after the fact.

NR: Again, it depends on your research question. This info may not be relevant for your current study, but could be really useful in a different project. Plus, it provides you with cultural and historical perspective that you may miss if you are too narrow in your interviewing. Just make sure to not mix this data with your current dataset.

BO: Many places already have lists that translate local names to standard taxonomic nomenclature. We would use those lists as a starting point and then do some more probing. We had the advantage of lots of time so we could dig into this. We worked with the national herbarium/a.

AF: I approach this similarly to the above – collect this information, see if you can get similar or different answers from other people, and keep asking until you can find someone who might be able to show you the plant in context. If you have some good guesses, it can be fun to browse medicinal plant databases with interlocutors to see if their information matches pictures you find online. I love doing this with people, in part because once they see one plant listed, they usually enjoy jumping around to other listed plants and adding on to possible uses or preparations.

RB: I always try to ask participants if they ONLY KNOW a species / use, or IF THEY ACTUALLY PRACTICE THAT USE, to get a better idea of a use is still current. If participants can show a specimen this is easy. If they only remember a name of a plant it is very problematic and needs to be marked accordingly.

Q8: How do you handle information from participants that involves incorrect identification ( for example, talking about mint and its uses and then showing you oregano) or incorrect naming (mixing up common names for similar plants)?

RH: I haven’t encounteredmany obvious instances of legitimate mistakes, as opposed to knowledge differences. I think this is a philosophically difficult issues: both categories exist, and sometimes are clearly differentiated, even without assuming a some normative ‘correct’ standard. For instance, linguists who study mistakes (’slips of the tongue’) sometimes identify them when someone speaks and then immediately corrects themselves without prompting. However, I think there is a lot of gray area, and it’s difficult to distinguish a ‘mistake’ from knowledge that is simply regional, demographically limited, or even individual. 

NR: These seem like really important pieces of data for you to consider in your project. The proportion of incorrect IDs may be really important to consider if you are attempting to catalogue the culinary ethnobotany of a community and find that 20% of the time people incorrectly ID a species, should you really argue that that species is a key ingredient in their foodway? Perhaps this variability suggests that their perception of a plant group is wider than it appears. Also, it could be an issue of how they use names: mint could be a general term for all plants of a certain type. I ran into that issue once: my informant gave me the same name for two very different trees. When I asked him about it, he said, “well, yeah, but this one is the male and this one is the female”. So, he knew they were different, but assumed that I could see the “gender” of them (I never really figured out how gender was assigned to tree species in his culture). So, my first option would be to ask follow up questions about the plant: how does it taste or what do the flowers look like? Can you substitute another plant for it in the same recipe? What makes it different from other plants? How do you know this plant (ie, what are the diagnostic characters)?

BO: As above.

AF: This happens constantly, and the answer is that it is all data – if a participant identifies something incorrectly, then that is likely a sign that what they are showing you is not all that common or important to plants and practices that they do each day, or that the local categories are different than yours. Write it all down, recognize when you see something vary from your own taxonomic category, and perhaps see if there’s a research question there – do only men make this mistake, or do only people in one part of the village identify this plant correctly? That’s likely a hint that there’s a social element to this botanical phenomenon.

RB: First of all, a plant can have different local names, so it is not necessarily wrong if a participant calls “oregano” “mint” – it might must be local custom. Exactly for that reason it is so important to always have a voucher specimen. This also relates to being able to later compare different studies,

Q9: Any other tips, tricks, or advice for students carrying out fieldwork?

RH: -Think about the research question, and choose methods that will allow answering this question.

-Establishing community connections takes a lot of work, a lot of time, and may not always be possible.

-Questionnaires often take longer than you think – pilot testing them is important and usually leads to paring down to make as concise as possible.

-Backups (duplicate specimens, photocopies, photos of field books, online and/or offline data backups, etc.) will save you, or at the very least create peace of mind.

NR: The main one is to realize that you will probably have to change your tactics at some point in the field. Just keep your main research question in the front of your mind at all times! That should keep you on the right track.

BO: You will probably always underestimate the time needed. Based on the underestimation it is best to have a really clear question before you start your serious data collection. It isn’t always possible but doing a test run of the collection procedures is a great idea. It may change your research for the better. There is an older book, “Overseas Research” which is pretty good. It covers social science research in general. One point it makes is how research planned back at a home university can take some strange twists once the researcher is out in the field. Don’t be reluctant to make corrections, including modifying the research question. It never bothered me but there are some faculty members who are not good at readjustment. The longer you have in the field the better the research will be. The more you know of the local language the better the research will be. The more you work with a community outside of your research (do some environmental ed in the local primary school, help out with some grant writing for a clinic or a road) the more trust you gain and the better your research will be. I’d add go to church, but this can be tricky if you aren’t particularly religious or the community has two churches that are at odds with each other. Small rural communities are often more conservative (social norms) than liberal universities so be prepared to fit in.

AF: Triangulate your research questions and follow leads in the field!  It’s okay, normal, and kind of expected for your research to change as you do it – just return to the big picture questions as you feel your design changing. 

RB: Try to involve local participants as much as possible as interviewers (training them), because then they can actually continue interviews (and collections) when you are not there, i.e. you get much more and better data.

*Responses have been slightly edited for clarity*

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