the field study handbook

The Field Study Handbook, all you must to know about ethnographic consultancy

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The Field Study Handbook (2017) is a work written by Jan Chipchase. It is a real manual for all those interested in embarking on the world of strategic ethnography and fieldwork in non-academic projects.

Since I first became interested in the ethnographic consultancy sector a couple of years ago, I have gone through an interesting journey with different phases.

The first one was, as it usually happens, a honeymoon phase. At that moment everything seemed perfect to me and I was amazed that maybe one day I could make a living doing this type of work.

Then, a period of downturn followed, when I felt lost and lonely. Lonely due to the lack of references close to me, and lost because of the ambiguity with which many of the consultancies and professionals in this sector often express what they do. All of that summed up to an apparent lack of job opportunities left me reeling…

After a few months of getting to know the sector better, weaving networks and getting soaked in the work of authors, institutions, associations and professionals, I went from lost to panic ridden. Flooded by the list of mandatory readings I had gathered which was growing faster than I could absorb, I started feeling anxiety surmounted. Without realizing it, I was immersed in the third phase: The glut or avalanche. Books on business anthropology, design anthropology, quick ethnography, case studies, ethics in field research…I was buried in books, and overwhelmed with the situation. Finally, one day a book arrives in your hands in which the author seems to be telling you: “Don’t worry. Calm down. I’ve been there too, and now I will share some tips with you”.

That book is The Field Study Handbook, a manual on strategic ethnography and fieldwork in non-academic projects. It gathers all the important topics in the field; from planning and designing the research project, to the post-evaluation process, and going through all the intermediate phases. The book was published in 2017 thanks to a crowdfunding campaign at Kickstarter that raised a total of $330,000. Not bad, right? The result is a large book, with a very detailed presentation and magnificent illustrations by Lee John Phillips. These drawings provide a special touch, giving the sensation of craftsmanship. In addition to Lee´s drawings, the book is filled with graphics and other types of visual representations of methods, fields, scales and other valuable insights. For example, similarly to my journey explained in the previous paragraph, Jan talks about the phases one usually goes through when you are about to go do fieldwork, and ends up with a graphic presentation of that idea:

The Field Study Handbook

The Field Study Handbook is divided into four parts:

  1. Planning
  2. Field Methods
  3. Field Work
  4. Implementation

In the first part, the author explains how to manage the relationship with clients and how to carry out a project proposal. Different types and approaches of research are presented, as well as how to budget this type of work, tips on recruiting participants, how to form a good team, as well as providing certain keys on ethical issues to be taken into account and that he strongly advises to reach an agreement with the client before closing the project.

In the second part, the author delves into the different field methods, both quantitative and qualitative, although he focuses more on the latter. It provides valuable tips for interviews and surveys, as well as a series of useful exercises to practice and improve observation and documentation fill the pages of the second part of the book.

The following are aspects related to fieldwork. Chipchase explains the importance of choosing where to host the team and make it both a welcoming, relaxed space and a pop-up working studio with everything the team needs. Avoiding corporate hotels and staying near to the locals to enter the cultural reality is the author’s bet and advice. This section of the book also addresses the types of informed consent required in each context, the possible biases in observation, the importance of respect and reciprocity with the group being studied, or the handling of data in the field.

Finally, in relation to Implementation, the author delves into the process of synthesis, analysis, hypothesis creation, insights generation, segmentation, and deliverables creation.

Throughout the book the author provides very useful and insightful ideas using his own experience in the field. In that sense, scenarios such as China, Sudan, Tajikistan or Afghanistan, where the author has extensive experience, are recurrent. This is not surprising, since it is precisely in certain emerging economies that the demand for market research has grown most in recent years.

However, not everyone who works in this sector will be such intrepid adventurers as Chipchase. Spending a lot of time in the field can be hard for researchers and there are many variables that can make a situation more or less difficult. This is something that anthropologists know well. As he says:

‘only a small percentage of people are wholly unsuited to spending time infield’ (p.279)

But The Field Study Handbook is not written solely for us, is intended for anyone who wants to know how ethnographic fieldwork is organized and executed to inform organizational and design decisions. Many of the readers of this book will probably never have a field experience in places so exotic as those described by the author. Therefore much of the advice he gives regarding visas, choosing passports or dealing with criminal informants, are intrinsically related to working in places with high friction levels (rural areas in Southern Sudan during the Monsoon or in Kabul working on security protocols during a security alert are some examples). For those who do not plan to visit this types of sites, the narratives from that are still a great collection of interesting anecdotes. Or it can even be taken as a travel guide or a manual of implicit cultural protocols.

The Field Study Handbook is also full of reflectivity. From how he is perceived in every context (many times as a spy, for which he blames Hollywood movies), and how that affects interactions in the field, the possible observational biases that can result from it, to how to avoid being ethnocentric. Going into detail about cultural respect and the patterns and customs of each place. A criticism in this sense is that what is presented as an extensive manual is not exhaustive and sometimes is limited to what the author experiences. For example, when he talks about weekend calendars etc. he stays in the cases of places he has visited. I would have liked to have found a more comprehensive table that could have been consulted in various cases.

The author offers a multitude of exercises and experiments that help propel the creativity and analytical capacity of the ethnographer and her team. Let’s take inventories and mapping as a case in point. For this exercise, a space or continent is chosen to systematically document all the objects that exist, those that do not exist, the relationships that exist between the objects and the meaning they have. For example, this exercise can be done with objects from a handbag or backpack. “What we do and do not carry is a reflection of ourselves and the environment in which we live and work” (p.214). But, it can also be done with the contents of a refrigerator, a closet or an entire room. At another point, the author proposes the exercise of getting to talk to “the meanest looking fucker in the bar”.

the field study handbook

In short, the book is a full-fledged manual. It reminds me of the early years of university when I had to read manuals such as Marvin Harris’ on General Anthropology. Only, in this case, the manual offers the keys to ethnographically researching users and consumers from different markets and cultures. This positions it as a possible class manual for Business Anthropology classes, although it is currently only available in English (like most of the articles and books on this topic). With its 500 pages, it is a large, unwieldy book. In my opinion, a smaller edition that would allow us to take this book to the field would be ideal. To work in the field, the author has also created some work templates that are for sale, but at 700 dollars, its price is beyond the reach of most students or entrepreneurs with few resources. Rather, it seems to be intended for consultancies, agencies and companies that have a constant cash flow and that acquire it as an investment. The same goes for the book, which, without being as expensive as the templates, is not a cheap book and, as Tom Hoy wrote, is almost positioned as a luxury product. Undoubtedly, it is a reference work to have in any company that is dedicated to corporate ethnographic research or wants to do so.

If you are an ethnographic consultant or plan to be one, this book will reaffirm you in the honeymoon phase, and prevent you from getting stucked in the phases of solitude and theoretical avalanche I mentioned earlier. The author explains his learnings, tricks and secrets gathered during twenty years of experience and kindly shares them with anyone interested in this lovely and stimulating job of being an ethnographer.

Buy the book here:


Graduated in Social and Cultural Anthropology by the University of Granada and Master in Research and Rational Use of Medicines by the University of Valencia. This young researcher has worked in the public and private sector - both nationally and internationally - on consumer issues.

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