The Importance of Fieldwork
a simple primer
adapted by Casey D. Allen, PhD
from the original by Ronald I. Dorn, PhD
Have you ever searched for something on the Internet and can’t find it? Even the mighty Google Scholar doesn’t have what you need. So you go search for it the old-fashioned way, maybe in a library (gasp!), or some old journals or newspapers on microfilm (does anyone even know what that is anymore?). You ask your colleagues...But still, you can’t find the information you need. And maybe even when you do find something close to what you want, you’re not certain if you can trust it.
These kinds of experiences happen all the time when conducting research — whether in Academia, the government, or private sector. Take for example the city planner who gets tasked to “revitalize” a run-down neighborhood...Or a mining company that develops interactive maps of mining bore-holes...Or maybe YOU are trying to find out how your data sizes up in the real world. How could these problems be solved? And how could you know that what you found is correct?
Yep! That’s right. Fieldwork: one simple word that makes all the difference for any research or problem. Fieldwork is certainly fun, and every discipline associated with fieldwork has its occupational hazards. Sometimes fieldwork is harrowing. Personally, I have experienced extreme heat (120+ F), extreme cold (-40 F), extreme dirty, torrential downpours, and blinding blizzards. I’ve also been chewed out, cussed at, teased, shot at, and run out of town. Other times, fieldwork can offer experiences you may have never experienced otherwise: playing on top of and under the ocean, in rivers and lakes, on glaciers at 20,000 feet above sea level and in grabens 100 feet below sea level. And then there are the cultural experiences: sharing a meal in the middle of nowhere or at a fancy restaurant, crawling through unexcavated ruins or modern skyscrapers, listening to the haunting strains of a Bedouin song, or being asked to join in a traditional dance. In whatever form, fieldwork results in not just exciting tales, but also great learning experiences.
There are a good number of Geographers (and fieldfolk in other disciplines) who have little field experience, but are still very knowledgeable about one thing or another. While that may sit fine with them, I believe they really allow the world to pass them by and miss the excitement and knowledge that comes with first-hand experiences. One of my good colleagues is an Art Historian who specializes in Greek sculpture. When I asked them where their favorite place was to visit in Greece, they said, in all seriousness, “Why would I want to go all the way to Europe when I can see everything I need on-line?” I was flabbergasted (I’ve been working since to get them into the field, as I believe everyone should experience it at least once in their life). Likewise, I also know Geographers who have nearly starved to death or lost nearly everything when abroad for lack of practical awareness — because they never had any field experience prior. I remain continually amazed at the number of people who poo-poo fieldwork. Yes. I said “poo-poo”.
For me, field experience is invaluable, and Geographers who lack it are not doing the discipline justice. Geography’s tenets revolve around exploring, seeing, and doing. Geographers — physical, human, technical, or otherwise — study the Earth (and beyond!) But how can you study the Earth without engaging in it? The great Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan said that everyone already has numerous years of fieldwork experience, although most never realize it: “our life is a field trip,” he noted, and I agree. And if the word “life” is used as a verb in that statement rather than a noun, I especially agree. Yet most folks see life as a noun, missing out on experiences which could be (and usually are) life-changing.
I often refer to fieldwork as “play”, because playing usually connotes fun — and fieldwork is certainly FUN! Particularly when, as a Geographer, you see “the field” anywhere and everywhere: the forest, a foreign country, the CBD of a city, the corn fields of Iowa, a classroom, the city plaza, a river, your backyard, the road, rooftops, a cemetery, movies...Even getting lost results in valuable experience that can be translated into future settings, making your next exploration better.
Being in the field — playing in the field — with a full-fledged Geographer is a fabulous treat. Tag along with one and see for yourself.