Fieldwork for Human Geography

February 28, 2013

Authors: Richard Phillips and Jennifer Johns
Edition: First
Publisher: Sage
Pages: 240
Price: £75.00 and £24.99
ISBN: 9780857025869 and 25876

My experiences of undergraduate fieldwork 25 years ago seemed to revolve largely around being abandoned in various remote, hostile and generally challenging environments.

These included a Portuguese mountain village and a depressed mining town in the North of England. The former involved a day of sunbathing with the daughter of an internationally famous record producer; the latter, a hasty escape from a local gang who took exception to being interviewed about their non-existent employment prospects. I learned some important life lessons on these trips - and some juicy gossip about the world of rock’n’roll - but very little geography.

Thankfully things have since changed. Fieldwork remains at the heart of most - if not all - geography degrees, but students are now trained far more rigorously and holistically in the fieldwork process. Given this, it is surprising that there have been relatively few undergraduate-level guides to fieldwork produced so far.

Richard Phillips’ and Jennifer Johns’ Fieldwork for Human Geography is therefore a potentially important addition to the geography student’s library. It takes readers through the stages of planning, undertaking, analysing and reflecting on the fieldwork experience. It includes discussions of key issues such as ethics, health and safety, justifying the cost of fieldwork, working in groups, methods of field research and the transferable skills that fieldwork can help to develop. The text is engaging and suitably illustrated with a number of personal “postcards” from scholars who are well known for their fieldwork practice, as well as from recent graduates who reflect on their own experiences in the field.

The biggest challenge facing the authors is to distinguish this book from the wealth of research methods textbooks that saturate the market. Here, Phillips and Johns are largely, if not entirely, successful. Fieldwork for Human Geography is far more grounded in the field than the more abstract discussions that typify many methods textbooks. There are examples, anecdotes and photographs, as well as more substantive reflections on working in various fieldwork situations.

The text is divided into two sections of roughly equal length, “Approaching the field” and “Methods and contexts”. The former is the more original and distinctive contribution of the two, and reminds us that fieldwork begins long before we actually enter the field. The second section offers a series of concise discussions of methods that, while undoubtedly useful, are more generic in places. The book’s real emphasis is on getting students to think about, and experience, the field. Analysing field data will require reference to more extensive discussions found elsewhere.

The only way to really understand fieldwork is by doing it. This book is written in that spirit. It largely achieves the difficult task of encouraging and instructing, without pretending it can answer all the questions.

Who is it for?
Human geography undergraduates, particularly first and second years.

Presentation:
Clear, professional and stylish.

Would you recommend it?
Students shouldn’t enter the field without thinking seriously about the issues raised here.

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