Geography Fieldwork
by
Richard Phillips
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0158

Introduction

Fieldwork is central to the geographical tradition. In geography, and human geography in particular, the ways in which fieldwork is understood and practiced are dynamic and contested. Two sets of developments in geographical fieldwork literature are surveyed in this bibliography: (a) pedagogical, methodological, and technological innovations and (b) critique, led by feminist and antiracist geographers, which has led to re-evaluation of how we do fieldwork and why and how we could and should do it differently, if at all. Fieldwork has been defined as learning and/or as research involving first-hand experience, which takes place outside the classroom, laboratory or office. This definition is contested, but it serves as a point of departure and introduces pedagogical and methodological themes that run through the literature on geographical fieldwork. Fieldwork is recognized as a vehicle for developing skills and competences, ranging from “graduate attributes” that may be recognized by employers to human qualities that may also be relevant in personal life. The pedagogical literature on fieldwork is valuable for students who are trying to see what they can get out of fieldwork and for instructors in their own approaches to this form of teaching and learning. Fieldwork is dynamic; it is a locus of innovation, both in the application and development of new technologies and also in the cultivation of practices such as creative writing. This bibliography includes subsections on new technologies; on visual observation, description, and analysis; and on more-than-visual, multisensory exploration of places and landscapes. A second major development within the fieldwork literature relates to methodological and philosophical issues. Key terms in this context are positionality and reflexivity. This work begins with feminist and postcolonial critique of the geographical tradition, examines the translation of methods from one setting to another, and interrogates the ethics and politics of field practices and the relationships they entail. The critique and reinvention of geographical fieldwork has laid the foundations for more generally reflexive research, in which fieldworkers cultivate an awareness of their positionality vis à vis the field and the people they interact with there and develop a fundamentally ethical and frequently politicized approach to fieldwork. It has been necessary to limit the scope of this bibliography. The literature on geographical fieldwork overlaps with that on geographical methods more generally. In human geography, the general literature on key methods such as interviewing and participant observation is relevant to fieldwork, but this literature is also sufficiently extensive that it cannot be fully covered in this entry and sufficiently generic that it need not be. Accordingly, the focus of this bibliography is on literature that is explicitly concerned with fieldwork, primarily but not exclusively within human geography.

General Overviews

The literature on geographical fieldwork begins with overviews in the form of textbooks and themed issues of journals, which address fieldwork for geography as a whole. Though some principles and practices of geographical fieldwork are general and transferable, certain subfields and geographical areas raise particular challenges and themes, which are addressed in more specialist books and articles. The key general textbook for human geography fieldwork as a whole is Phillips and Johns 2012, and there are a number of textbooks and edited collections of essays on subfields of the discipline, including Desai and Potter 2006, Scheyvens 2014, and Maskall and Stokes 2008. Special issues on the subject of fieldwork include numbers of the Geographical Review (Delyser and Starrs 2001) and Journal of Geography in Higher Education (Glass 2015).

  • Delyser, Dydia, and Paul F. Starrs. “Doing Fieldwork: Editors’ Introduction.” Geographical Review 91.1–2 (2001): 4–8.

    E-mail Citation »

    Introducing a special double issue of the Geographical Review, this article conveys a sense of the diversity of contemporary geographical fieldwork, showing how fieldworkers have responded to criticisms and brought critical and innovative geographical imagination to their work. The introduction “lauds fieldwork as an undertaking while also examining its varieties and its sometimes-suspect practices” (p. 4).

  • Desai, Vandana, and Robert B. Potter. Doing Development Research. London: SAGE, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781849208925E-mail Citation »

    An excellent handbook for those conducting fieldwork in the Global South and/or on topics related to development.

  • Glass, Michael R. “International Geography Field Courses: Practices and Challenges.” In Special Issue: JGHE Symposium: Practices and Challenges in International Geography Field Courses. Edited by Michael R. Glass. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 39.4 (2015): 485–490.

    DOI: 10.1080/03098265.2015.1108044E-mail Citation »

    This special issue of the Journal of Geography in Higher Education contains a series of papers and commentaries on international fieldwork, on topics ranging from “critical reflexivity” to “dark tourism.” Highlights of this collection include Michael Glass’s essay on critical reflexivity in fieldwork, which explains how instructors and students can become more attentive to their field experiences and the skills they are developing along the way.

  • Maskall, John, and Alison Stokes. Designing Effective Fieldwork for the Environmental and Natural Sciences. Plymouth, UK: Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book focusses upon fieldwork in the environmental and natural sciences. It is aimed primarily at educators who are designing and delivering fieldwork, though it may also be helpful to students.

  • Phillips, Richard, and Jennifer Johns. Fieldwork for Human Geography. London: SAGE, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book provides undergraduates with a comprehensive overview of geographical fieldwork. It encourages students to engage with fieldwork critically and imaginatively, explains methods and contexts, and links fieldwork with wider academic topics. Though primarily concerned with human geography, much of the content—on topics such as group work, ethics, and skills development—are also relevant to physical geographers.

  • Scheyvens, Regina, ed. Development Fieldwork: A Practical Guide. London: SAGE, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    A number of the challenges of geographical fieldwork—including ethical concerns about negotiating unequal power relations between research practitioners and participants—assume heightened forms in in the Global South. This excellent edited collection, with chapters by Henry and Regina Scheyvens and a host of leading geographers and anthropologists, is a valuable resource for students of development geography.

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