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Blog post Part of special issue: From Zero to Hero: Anecdotal tales in pursuit of the elusive doctorate

Having a secure and safe place to conduct the fieldwork: Further anecdotal tales in pursuit of the elusive doctorate

Dave Morris, Freelance Educational Researcher and Consultant David Cudworth, Associate Professor at De Montfort University

In this blog we consider the more logistical aspects of completing a PhD – namely, ensuring that you have a secure and safe place in which to conduct the fieldwork. We both feel strongly about how important it is to carry out empirical work in an environment where the participants as well as yourself feel relaxed and settled, particularly when adopting a qualitative ethnographic approach.

‘It is important to carry out empirical work in an environment where the participants as well as yourself feel relaxed and settled.’

It is important to establish trust between the researcher and those being researched, on the basis of an equal relationship (Stanley & Wise, 1990). Trust is an instrumental commodity in educational settings, and is critical not only as a prerequisite for endeavours involving risk and change (NCSL, 2010) but also in terms of ‘gut feelings’ (Leithwood et al., 2007: 41) and ensuring that ‘the right people [are] on the bus’ (Ritchie & Woods, 2007: 375). Dave and I both know colleagues who had to abandon their fieldwork because they were in a place with people where misunderstandings arose; where intentions were misread, and where the chemistry was just not quite right. Taking such an approach is in line with a feminist research model which is based on openness and emotional engagement (Punch & Oancea, 2014).

Both Dave and I spoke with a number of educationalists and practitioners, and involved ourselves in participant observations of children and young people in the classroom. Both being ex-teachers, we are able to ‘act’ like teachers, and therefore we are aware of the ‘rhythms of a school life’ (Cudworth, 2018: 341) and ‘speak the same language’ (Westmarland, 2001: 7). The schools trusted us and as such the individuals in them were at ease in our presence. Dave and I also personally believe that the more we are connected with a place and the people within it, the better we are able, through our own habitus – that is to say, our biographical history and sociocultural dispositions – to understand and comprehend both the complexity of the field and those players who have agency and operate within it (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992).

Our first piece of advice, therefore, is to know your space, and understand the spatial codes within it (Lefebvre, 1991), so that you can literally ‘blend in’.

Secondly, if you are carrying out semi-structured interviews or focus group discussions, consider where the participant(s) would feel most comfortable and be flexible in ensuring this (Douglas, 1985; Kvale, 2007). This could be their place of work, or a mutual meeting point away from work. For example, Dave C. met some of his participants socially over something to eat and drink, or talked to them in their homes.

Thirdly, it is also important to have a gatekeeper working with you, particularly if you are outside of your work setting, as that gatekeeper will be in a good position to assist you in carrying out your fieldwork since they know, and are close to, those people you will be working with.

Finally, if things aren’t working out or if there are misunderstandings, or a lack of harmony or co-operation where you are doing your research, then don’t be afraid of pulling out and starting over somewhere else. Dave and I both felt that the climate and conditions where we undertook our fieldwork were not just conducive, but instrumental in allowing us to gather the quality data that we needed.

In our next blog, we will be looking at the fifth key factor to successfully completing your doctorate: managing the last half-mile and getting home.


Bourdieu, P. & Wacquant, L. (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cudworth, D. (2018) Schooling and Travelling Communities: Exploring the Spaces of Educational Exclusion. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Douglas, J. D. (1985). Creative Interviewing. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

Kvale, S. (2007). Doing Interviews. London: SAGE.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Leithwood, K., Mascall, B., Strauss, T., Sacks, R., Memon, N., & Yashkina, A. (2007). Distributing Leadership to Make Schools Smarter: Taking the Ego Out of the System. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 6(1): 37–67.

National College for School Leadership [NCSL] (2010) Distributed Leadership. Nottingham.

Punch, K. J. & Oancea, A. (2014). Introduction to Research Methods in Education (2nd ed.) London: SAGE.

Ritchie, R. & Woods, P. (2007). Degrees of distribution: Towards an understanding of variations in the nature of distributed leadership in schools. School Leadership & Management, 27(4): 363–381.

Stanley, L. & Wise, S. (1990). Method, methodology and epistemology in feminist research processes. London: Routledge.

Westmarland, N. (2001). The Quantitative/Qualitative Debate and Feminist Research: A Subjective View of Objectivity. Forum Qualitative Social Research, 2(1), Art. 13.