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On the importance of fieldwork for empirical research in public policy

While I acknowledge myself as a multi-methods scholar, and I have done quantitative work, much of my empirical work involves qualitative data. Conducting structured and semi-structured interviews, engaging in participant observation, and running focus groups, are all forms of qualitative research. My work studying the Lerma-Chapala river basin council involved sitting in dozens of meetings of the river basin council, listening to participants, collecting field notes and (later) analyzing them looking for specific patterns (see for an example Pacheco-Vega 2011a).

Linea Verde (Aguascalientes, Ags)

I recently participated in a field visit to the Linea Verde in Aguascalientes, in the context of the National Prize for Local Government Effectiveness (I’m loosely translating here – you can read more about the Premio Gobierno y Gestion Local here, in Spanish). The local government of Aguascalientes (and their project, Linea Verde, which translates as “green line” and is a 6 km linear park intended to provide more green spaces for recreational activities in impoverished urban areas) is a finalist in the 2012 competition for the PGGL.

Linea Verde (Aguascalientes, Ags)

I joined a group of experts who undertake the assessment for PGGL and participated in the walk-through on site. Obviously, I expected government officials to provide the official version of what the project was intended for, and how successful it was. But what really stood out for me was that a number of people (in particular, 2 women who live in the area) recognized the substantial positive impact this project had had. None of them knew our group was there to undertake a field assessment of the project and its success, but by virtue of conversing with us, they provided us with insight we would have not had otherwise. I would have been unable to see elements of the project that were relevant to my own research (like the fact that the park uses only treated wastewater for irrigation) had I not gone on the field.

Linea Verde (Aguascalientes, Ags)

A fellow professor (and strangely, a more senior scholar than me) asked me why do I often go on the field with my own students, and my answer was “to show them how to conduct fieldwork the right way… that’s what I am supposed to be doing; otherwise, how would they know how to conduct an interview?.

I am taking on more work and projects and obviously, at some point I won’t be able to do as much fieldwork as I want to (and my graduate students will probably be doing the bulk of the work on the field), but a scholar who values his/her research I think should engage in fieldwork at least once a year. I am not sure I can take someone who does empirical research that involves qualitative data who does not go on the field him/herself seriously.

I think that public policy is one of those scholarly areas where fieldwork is essential. You can’t seriously assess the impact a program or a policy has had only by running sophisticated mathematical models. These do provide great insight, admittedly (and I love mathematical modelling, to be quite honest). But I think field assessments are essential to our systematic study of public policy implementation and evaluation. My own work is very much based on field assessments (see for example Pacheco-Vega, Weibust and Fox 2010) and I plan to continue working along these lines.

Hat tips to Rhonda Ragsdale for sharing this guide to field notes, very relevant to what I’m discussing here.

Posted in bridging media and academia.

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