Research in the Field

2“Fieldwork.” Arguably the most romanticized and misunderstood word in the geography lexicon. In popular understandings, the term conjures up muddy boots and foreign locales. And to be sure, OSU geographers and atmospheric scientists can be found in rural areas world-wide: mapping wetlands in the Bolivian altiplano, interviewing strawberry farmers in South Korea, or surveying drinking-water sources in rural Bangladesh. But you can also find us following cyclists through Columbus, scouting farm-worker accommodations in Ohio, and tracking eviction patterns in downtown Franklinton.


So what, then, is fieldwork? It is nothing more—nor less—than the act of generating information about the world, first-hand. Fieldwork is about building answers to our research questions by engaging the phenomena we study head-on. Fieldwork generates data that are not inherently better nor worse than the many other kinds of information that geographers interrogate every day, like satellite imagery, census data, or even blog posts. The only difference is that field-generated data are made by the researcher and their collaborators explicitly to answer their own, pre-defined questions. Not that the process is ever smooth! It’s the rare fieldworker who doesn’t experience false steps, failure, and frustration.


Fieldwork can happen anywhere; the “field” can be anything from a glacier, to a classroom, to one’s own body. Fieldwork methods are equally broad. While geographers sometimes like to cleave their approaches into one of two camps—qualitative vs. quantitative—fieldwork troubles these categories. After all, a single field campaign can generate reams of numerical data and pages of interview transcripts, both in the service of a single research question. “Mixed” and “hybrid” is how, as a result, most of us describe our field methodologies.


This series of blog posts is devoted to the practice of fieldwork. Get ready to read about how OSU geographers and atmospheric scientists negotiate fieldwork—in all its methodologically messy, challenging, and inspiring richness.

Kendra McSweeney

Professor, Department of Geography