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Digital fieldwork, pt. 1: Field methods


Date: 29 October 2020

Despite the challenges and restrictions of 2020, fieldwork has continued within the CoEDL community, highlighting the innovation and ingenuity at the Centre. This series on digital fieldwork gives insight to the challenges, sensitivities and sources for optimism in this research and reflects on the nature of fieldwork, both now and into the future. 

In the winter of 2020, Research Fellow Matthew Carroll (Australian National University) delivered ‘Field Methods in Linguistics’ to an online class for the first time in the course’s history.

“For the most part, the transition to teaching field methods online was surprisingly easy,” Matt reflects, crediting the hard work, patience and motivation of the participants.

Matt Carroll

The course sees a small cohort of students learn field methods by doing. They collaborate with a speaker of a language none of the students have encountered before to document and describe the language’s phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. 

In 2020, the students worked with Eileen, a speaker of Sinaugoro, an Austronesian language of New Guinea that falls into a category of largely undescribed languages. 

“The majority of languages of the world are small scale community languages and many of these are severely under-documented, endangered and underrepresented in linguistic literature,” says Matt. “Fieldwork is essential to the task of documenting [these] languages.”

Students work in small groups to gather data to map the features of the language. Matt notes that the online environment freed students “from the burden of learning to use recording equipment and this allowed them to focus on conducting excellent interviews.” 

“[By gathering data] in this way, the students get to make a real contribution to language science as well as building a resource that will be returned to the community,” says Matt.

Of course, fieldwork is imperfect in the digital environment, which restricts data collection. Audio-visual recordings through teleconferencing software are of poorer quality. Perhaps more problematic, interviewing through a screen leads to less-natural interactions as people tend to moderate how they speak; gestural and other linguistic behaviours are also obscured. Matt also wonders whether teaching fieldwork digitally would lead to an overreliance on interview as opposed to observation as a method for gathering data.

Despite these challenges, Matt optimistically reflects on the many opportunities made possible by teaching fieldwork methods digitally. Students able to participate from wherever they need to be, while the course is more able to collaborate with new language speakers in remote locations. 

The coming articles in this series profile research from the CoEDL community that illustrate these opportunities, challenges and other dynamics of conducting fieldwork digitally. While digital fieldwork cannot replace the quality of research, data and experiences gathered from face-to-face, community collaboration, these stories show how this research can continue in the face of novel adversity—something that may not be as novel as a pandemic may make it seem. 

As Matt reflects of his experience with teaching fieldwork methods in 2020:

“I learnt that remote fieldwork is much like real fieldwork in one crucial way and that is that you need to be able to respond to the unexpected. Sometimes this means preparing for as many outcomes as possible but all too often things happen that you could never plan for.”

Read part two of this series, “Digital fieldwork, pt. 2: PhD Research”, and "Digital fieldwork, pt. 3: Forging ahead" here

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University