Field Work

Field Work

Field work is the process of observing and collecting data about people, cultures, and natural environments


9 - 12+


Biology, Ecology, Geography

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Field work is the process of observing and collecting data about people, cultures, and natural environments. Field work is conducted in the wild of our everyday surroundings rather than in the semi-controlled environments of a lab or classroom. This allows researchers to collect data about the dynamic places, people, and species around them. Field work enables students and researchers to examine the way scientific theories interact with real life.

Field work is important in both the social and natural sciences. Social sciences, such as economics or history, focus on people, culture, and society. Natural sciences, such as biology or chemistry, focus on physical characteristics of nature and natural environments.

Social Science

In anthropology, a researcher may do ethnographic field work, studying and describing the customs of different communities and cultures.

Ethnographic field work dramatically changed the purpose and methods of anthropology. Early anthropologists collected ethnographic data from outside sources, usually leaders of the group they were studying, and then compared it to their theories. With this information, anthropologists tried to explain the origins of the cultures customs.

By the early 20th century, however, anthropologists began to spend long periods of time in a particular community or geographic area. Rather than relying on outside sources, the anthropologists themselves recorded the activities and customs of local people. They listened to the peoples stories and participated in daily events. Anthropologists became active field workers, experiencing the everyday life of their subjects in order to explain the purpose of local institutions and cultural beliefs and practices.

The National Geographic Society supports a variety of social science researchers and projects that use field work as a method of collecting data. One of National Geographics Explorers-in-Residence, Dr. Wade Davis, is an ethnobotanist. An ethnobotanist is someone who studies how different cultures understand and use plants as food, medicine, and in religious ceremonies. Davis spent more than three years in Latin America collecting and studying the plants that different indigenous groups use in their daily lives.

Field work can be conducted by groups of people as well as one individual. Participants in National Geographics Enduring Voices Project conduct field work by visiting and documenting areas of the world where indigenous languages are in danger of becoming extinct. Field workers in the Enduring Voices Project have recorded indigenous languages in places as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, and Siberia.

Davis and the Enduring Voices Project use field work to document and preserve local knowledge so we may all better understand the diversity of human experiences around the globe.

Natural Science

Field work is also used to understand how natural environments function. A researcher in the field of ecology, for example, may conduct field work to understand how specific organisms, such as plants and animals, relate to one another and to their physical surroundings.

The work of Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands is an important example of field work in the natural sciences. After observing that finch populations on different islands had different types of beaks, Darwin theorized that each type of beak was adapted to the birds environment and diet. These observations, along with many others made on his voyage around South America, would lead Darwin to propose his theory of evolution by natural selection, a pillar of modern biology.

A number of National Geographic-supported researchers and projects conduct field work to better understand Earths natural environments. Dr. Jenny Daltry, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2005, is a herpetologist, someone who studies reptiles and amphibians. Daltry has traveled to remote regions of Cambodia and the Caribbean, observing and documenting rare species such as the Siamese crocodile and the Antiguan racer snake, known as the rarest snake in the world. She spent more than 400 nights camping on the Caribbean island of Antigua in order to understand the snakes' habitat, behavior, and predators. Daltrys field work helped establish the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project, which has successfully reintroduced the snake into the wild.

A field work team from the Ocean Now project, supported by National Geographic, is studying and cataloguing information about healthy coral reef ecosystems. They are doing research in the Southern Line Islands, a remote island chain in the central Pacific Ocean. The project aims to better understand how healthy reefs function in order to help conserve reefs that have been endangered by human activity and climate change.

Field work in the natural sciences, like that conducted by Daltry and the Ocean Now project, document the importance, complexity, and fragility of Earths natural environments.

Fast Fact

Field Work, One Cubic Foot at a Time
Photographer David Liittschwager crafted a 1-square-foot metal cube and placed it in a range of ecosystemsland and water, tropical and temperate, freshwater and marine. Over several weeks at each location, Liittschwager and a team of biologists found, identified, and photographed small creatures that passed through the cube. The result of their field work is an inventory of ecosystem diversity at our planet's surface and just below. The photos of these smaller, often unseen, species are showcased in the February 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Media Credits

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Jeff Hunt
Hilary Hall
Hilary Costa
Erin Sprout
Santani Teng
Melissa McDaniel
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Kim Rutledge
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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