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Paradigms Behind Qualitative Fieldwork

Hello, this is Cynthia from Think-team!

In research that involves understanding the social phenomena, fieldwork or field research is one of the methods suggested. We applied this in some’s research project (e.g., TRANSrisk, GREENWIN) and we are doing it still under the pandemic situation within our current projects LANDMARC and TIPPING+.

Why we need field research? A book by Earl Babbie that one of my PhD supervisors, David Tàbara, suggested recently, helps me to understand the notion of social research, including why field research is necessary. One of the key strengths of this method is it can provide a comprehensive understanding of social behavior and attitude within its natural setting, especially for social researches that might appear to defy the quantitative method.

Fieldwork or field research is not simply going to observe and report where the phenomenon is, in fact, there are several paradigms to determine the methods that we want to apply to analyse the observation result. Earl Babbie highlights three paradigms: naturalism, ethnography, and grounded theory.

1) Naturalism. This paradigm assumes society is ready to be observed and reported by the researcher as it really is so it can be observed and reported accurately. So, the researchers would go to the observation and report the phenomenon as what it ‘really’ is by telling 'their' stories the way they 'really are'.

2) Ethnography. Similar to the naturalism paradigm, the ethnographers tend to become more an insider. This paradigm focuses on the discovery of implicit, usually unspoken assumptions and agreements; it describes their world not "as it is" but "as they make sense of it. Thus, when ethnographers report it, the stories based on how they understand the system, not telling the stories from the perspective of the social actors themselves.

3) Grounded Theory. This paradigm attempts to derive theories from an analysis of the patterns, themes, and common categories discovered during field research or observation. Systematic coding is important for achieving validity and reliability in the data analysis in this paradigm. To validate the data, it is imperative going continuously from data to theory and vice versa to reassess the validity.

In the beginning, I thought ethnography is similar to Grounded theory, to shed the light, the reports would be different from these two paradigms. In grounded theory, the researchers end their observation by providing a theory of observed patterns or themes, but ethnographers provide the rich meaning of their observation.

When I looked at myself at the beginning in doing research at, supporting TRANSrisk and GREENWIN, one of the tasks would be assisting experts to collect observation data. We went to visit different stakeholders, interviewed them, and made sense of their attitude and behaviors regarding biogas adoption in our report. As a research team in, I can see better now the notion of doing social research, particularly in addressing the most challenging issue of humanity: climate change, that requires integrative approaches and contributions from different stakeholders.

However, it gets more challenging with pandemic situations. We even started engaging some stakeholders since the beginning of the project, so that they can be aware and actively contribute to providing insightful perspectives in order to enrich the research projects. Looking forward to more face-to-face engaging activities with our partners and stakeholders! I hope the situation gets better soon!

Noteworthy, I am still in the phase of learning research in social science. If you have more insightful comments, please do not hesitate to comment below. 😊

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Truth be told, I've always despised qualitative research as it feels less reliable to look at anecdotes and narratives versus variables and p-values. However, discussions around qualitative research are always more interesting. Thanks for sharing free insights on these methods! I definitely would like to master this skill at some point in my research life :)

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