Learning From Design Researchers: Jan Chipchase’s Field Study Handbook

Learning From Design Researchers: Jan Chipchase’s Field Study Handbook

Jan Chipchase is a leading design researcher. Some of you may have come across his work on the anthropology of mobile phones. I discovered it by chance while flicking through a copy of Wired magazine some years back. That Wired piece became a core reading for students when I taught a Business Anthropology module at Manchester. It opened my eyes to a wider world of anthropology. Jan has extensive experience of working with interdisciplinary teams to carry out field based ethnographic research in many countries in the world. He has a new book out describing how to do this. The Field Study Handbook , published in 2017, is a comprehensive guide to undertaking productive qualitative cultural research based on immersive fieldwork anywhere in the world. It’s also a considered reflection on the ethics and practicalities of research with people.

This post reflects on the Field Study Handbook as a practical resource for anthropologists and other qualitative researchers. Challenging questions can arise from anthropology’s engagement with the corporate world where the exploration of everyday needs goes hand in hand with their creation. Chipchase is acutely sensitive to these concerns. The Handbook isn’t a manifesto for how ethnography can be used by corporations. It’s a guide for researchers working to provide insights derived from understanding how people live their lives for a range of clients, whether these are companies, nonprofits or government organizations. The Handbook is consistently attuned to the ethical issues at stake. The preface sets out these aspirations clearly.  In the author’s words this is  a  `how to book that covers the practicalities of running field research. More importantly, it’s a why-to book, that questions then helps you align personal and organisational intent’ (Chipchase 2017: xvi).

The Handbook is not an academic text. It is aimed at the design researcher community. Preoccupation with design leads, ironically, to disjuncture between the book’s form and its usability for actual field researchers. The Handbook is beautifully designed in terms of layout and illustrations.  The large hardback format, weighing in at 1.666 kg or 3 pounds 10 ounces, means you probably won’t be taking it to the field with you. The price point of $125 US puts it beyond the reach of the most academic researchers. This is a pity. If this were a pocketable paperback or an eBook it would be a really useful addition to every fieldworkers toolkit. And much of its content will be missed by potential users across all research sectors.

Although the Handbook  is oriented towards team based research it has much to offer sole researchers doing the kind of fieldwork which is foundational to anthropology. Reading this book gave me a clearer understanding of how ethnographic research is carried out in the commercial world and the iterative process which is the backbone of good ethnographic work, whether conducted rapidly by groups of people or by individuals over an extended time frame. In showing how to organize multi person teams to do ethnographic fieldwork  I gained a heightened appreciation of the multiple skills that solo anthropologists need to produce good research and how many of these skills can transfer outside the academy.

The Handbook is clearly written and logically structured through the different stages of a research project. The first few chapters deal with planning, including pitching and contracting with clients, selecting fieldwork locations and recruiting participants. Fieldwork is as much about unlearning as it is about learning. Chipchase advises choosing `somewhere you don’t know so well, you have less to unlearn’ (Chipchase 2017: 329). Better insights can be gained outside of capital cities. There are practical suggestions about using social media to get up to speed on what’s happening before arrival, making links with the local partners with whom one will be working as well as relevant details about fieldwork in different locations, such as the differences between airport and local times and the widespread refusal accept pre 2006 US notes across many countries in Sub Saharan Africa (something I have experienced many times).

The book is packed with thoughtful advice about working with  local researchers and participants. Respect for the informant is paramount. Data management and confidentiality are addressed at length.  The reflections on informed consent are highly pertinent to our profession, not only because of University ethical review procedures, because they highlight what can sometimes feel like an uncomfortable gap which the open endedness of anthropological analysis creates between the acquisition and eventual use of ethnographic data. For academic anthropologists the final work in which interview material is used may be very different from the objectives of the initial fieldwork. Chipchase emphasizes  the importance of intent and the boundaries this imposes, as well as possible ways of enabling informants to review the data collected. A ‘full circle’ approach to research is a recommended option where ‘prior to leaving the session, the participant is encouraged to review and, if they wish, delete any of the data the team collected about them’ (Chiphase 2017: 302). Of course, this isn’t always possible for the kind of fieldwork many of us carry out which often has a large informal component, but the concerns with participants’ well being and that `data gathering should exist within social norms’ should guide any fieldwork.

Several chapters address the how- to of field research and of organizing the material. Tried and tested techniques for learning about a context quickly are accessibly outlined, such as watching how people queue in public places, spending time at transport hubs and testing the boundaries of social norms through investigating, but not transgressing, the borders of acceptable behavior, through buying pornography for example. The behavior of the researcher also matters. The Handbook is refreshingly honest about the core interpersonal skills and behaviors needed to be an effective ethnographic researcher, including suggestions for how these can be developed. There are tips for organizing multiple types of data, including photographs, and an excellent guide to structuring the interview process. Commissioned research has certain advantages over solo fieldwork in that multi person teams can cover more ground and note taking and interviewing can be shared. The time and cost constraints on commercial work lead to a more explicit concern with efficiencies and a consideration of the optimal methodological instruments for a given situation. An infographic provides a visual comparison of the time it takes to use different note taking and transcription methods, summarizing in two square inches what many of us learned through hours and hours of hard work, namely the additional time costs of audio or visual recording if transcription follows compared with taking notes directly to a laptop.

The Handbook is 500 pages plus of insights, techniques and tips. I’ve already used some of them in my own work and I’ve recommended it to colleagues in a commercial think-tank and to members of a multidisciplinary team of health researchers with whom I’m currently working. I’m planning on doing some fieldwork in the Autumn and while this edition is way too big to fit in my, or anyone’s, bag I’ll be using many of its ideas. A new edition is in process which will be smaller and more portable. It will be out later in the year. Check out the link for updates.

Maia Green works on the anthropology of international development and issues of social transformation in East Africa. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. Maia Green teaches at the University of Manchester.

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