Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reading :: Learning from the Field

Learning from the Field: A Guide from Experience
By William Foote Whyte

Willliam Foote Whyte wrote several landmark pieces in sociological fieldwork, including the 1943 classic Street Corner Society. In this 1984 book, he put together a guide for conducting such fieldwork, a "guide from experience," as the subtitle explains. This experiential guide, like Van Maanen's Tales of the Field or Becker's Tricks of the Trade, is liberally illustrated with the author's own fieldwork; it amounts to a series of points plus dos-and-don'ts plus extended examples. I found it fascinating.

In the early chapters of the book, Whyte tackles subjects such as participant observation (Ch.2), planning the project and entering the field (Ch.3), field relations (Ch.4), observational methods (Ch.5), and interviewing strategies and tactics (Ch.6), all of which draw on the author's great experience and wiles to make the field research a success. For instance, in Chapter 3 he discusses how to decide whether you need to change your research design midstream - and how to commit to it. In Chapter 4, he discusses how to determine when to ask questions, what questions to ask, and how to present one's research to participants. In Chapter 6, he discusses how to subtly direct interviews. Whyte clearly has a deep bag of tricks.

He also has a broad understanding of the field. Street Corner Society was published in 1943, based on fieldwork in the late 1930s. But in Learning from the Field, published over 40 years after his first, groundbreaking study, Whyte addresses then-contemporary developments such as participatory action research (p.168) and network analysis (p.248). By addressing these developments, he situates the book more broadly and makes it more contemporary than it otherwise might have been.

All in all, this is a fascinating and valuable book. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of fieldwork, perhaps over Van Maanen or Becker.

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