Social Sciences Proposal Guidelines

Some expeditions have objectives requiring field work with a cultural or political focus, taking a group of people and/or a social issue as subjects for study. Such projects raise particular problems, and the following notes are intended to alert you to some of the questions that you need to consider right from the start. Failure to do so is likely to result in the referral or rejection of your proposal by the Expeditions Committee, the RGS-IBG and other funding bodies.

Managing personal relationships

Expedition plans will almost always relate to the host country nationals whom you will work with and among, and whose goodwill and cooperation is likely to be critical to your chances of success. But your relationships with people in fieldwork have a quite distinct character if you embark on a social scientific project. You are not developing personal relationships as an aid to enable you to study something else - instead, those people you develop relationships with are the subject of your study, or a big part of it. Special ethical and methodological implications flow from this, and these issues have now attracted a large literature. You will be expected to show in your proposal that you have made yourself familiar with this and adjusted your plans accordingly.

Ethical issues

Ethical issues in social scientific projects may include some or all of the following:

  • intrusiveness
  • sensitive fields of enquiry
  • wider political considerations
  • gender issues
  • relations between the researcher and researched
  • sharing and crediting of knowledge
  • the team status of counterparts/translators
  • payments or other rewards for information given

There is considerable scope in fieldwork for your presence and purpose to be misunderstood. For instance there may be anxiety about whether your notebook is going to be passed on to government officials or the police. The onus is on you to minimise the scope for such misunderstandings by being open, honest and realistic about the aims of your work. Section 27 of the proposal form gives you the opportunity to discuss these points, amongst others.

Methodological issues

Methodological issues centre around the nature of social knowledge generated in the special kind of encounters that constitute field research in the social sciences. Many questions in this connection hinge around the concept of 'reflexivity' - which embraces the idea of a continual auto-critique in which you scrutinise the implications of your own activities, question your own impact on the setting you are studying and address the unavoidable limitations of your own understanding. Being reflexive means thinking about your own contribution to the social relationships which are the cornerstone of social scientific fieldwork. Section 17 of the proposal form gives you space to deal with these issues.

Team size

Because social and cultural expeditions are potentially disruptive of other people's lives, it is unlikely that approval would be given to large groups. You will need to justify the number in your team (including counterparts/translators).

Suggested reading

  • Bell, D, P Caplan and W Karim (eds) (1993) Gendered Fields. Women, Men and Ethnography. London: Routledge.
  • Burgess, R G (ed) (1984) Field research: a sourcebook and field manual. London: Unwin Hyman.
  • Burgess, R G (1984) In the field: an introduction to field research. London: Allen and Unwin.
  • Cotterill, P (1992) Interviewing women, issues of friendship, vulnerability, and power. Women's Studies International Forum 15(5), 593-606.
  • Hammersley, M and Atkinson, P (1983) Ethnography: principles in practice. London: Routledge.
  • Kobayashi, A (1994) Coloring the field: gender 'race', and the politics of fieldwork. Professional Geographer 46(1), 73-80.
  • Okely, J and Callaway, H (eds) (1992) Anthropology and autobiography. London: Routledge.
  • Rhodes, P (1994) Race-of-interviewer effects: a brief comment. Sociology 28(2), 547-558.
  • Ribbens, J (1989) Interviewing an 'unnatural situation'. Women's Studies International Forum 12(6), 579-592. Rosaldo, R. (1986) Culture and truth. London: Routledge.
  • Scheper Hughes, N (1992) Introduction (pp.1-30) to Death without weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Watson, C W (ed) (1999) Being there. London: Pluto.