Life in the Field: A Snapshot

Have you ever wondered what life as a researcher in the field would be like? Are you considering doing some field work but are not sure if it is the right fit for you? MIDPA’s Managing Editor, Feli Bran, shares insights from her first experience in the field and reflects on the reasons why having some field experience is an invaluable asset for your future career.

As a part of my degree, I went on a three-week intensive course in Malaysia called Field Methods in Anthropology and International Development. It was the first opportunity I had to finally put into practice what we had been learning throughout the course. What I liked the most about this unit is that it gave you the freedom to design, implement, and present the findings of your own research project. Granted, there were some limitations, as we were not in charge of the recruitment process and there were also some time constraints. Overall, however, it was a useful snapshot of what life in the field would be like.

Most importantly, it really tested the cross-cultural communication skills of our team. It is vital to remember that solo projects in development are virtually non-existent. Thus, learning how to work as a team despite different backgrounds, opinions, and areas of expertise is critical. I am happy to report that this was the best group work experience I have ever had. It was clear everyone was excited and dedicated to the cause, and we made it through despite some unforeseeable hiccups along the way.


It all started with an intensive, week-long block of field methods, for which I was particularly thankful, as it served as a quick reminder of everything I had learned in Research Methods the previous year. We also engaged in some team-building activities to keep the ideas flowing and were introduced to the hearts of our project: our interpreters. Monash has a partnership with the South East Asia Community Observatory (SEACO), which is why the actual field work was carried out in Segamat and surrounding areas.

“Why Segamat?” is a question we all asked at some point or another. It is not as well-known a place as Kuala Lumpur, Penang, or Melaka. However, a particularity of Segamat is that it has an even distribution of ethnicities that mirrors Malaysia itself: about 50% Malay, 23% Chinese, and 7% Indian. Thus, the location was ideal to carry out research, as all ethnic groups would be represented in the findings.

Mind map and free listing

For our particular project, we were based in rural Segamat, as we were working with farmers to try and understand how they perceived their relationship with the environment. I am sure most of you are familiar with the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework. We based our project on its asset pentagon and narrowed it down to natural capital. We wanted to understand how the environment impacted on the livelihoods of these farmers, but also how their livelihoods impacted the environment.

Recently, there have been some controversies surrounding the sustainability of oil palm plantations. As a matter of fact, there have been some disputes between the European Union and Malaysia and Indonesia regarding these issues. That was something that really surprised us. We were not expecting the environment to be a political issue, but the more we investigated, the more we realised it was.

in the field

In Malaysia, rural poverty was addressed by forming FELDA villages. FELDA stands for Federal Land Development Authority, which is a centralised government agency that granted plots of lands to poor Malays in order to incentivise the production of rubber and, later on, palm oil. Because it is essentially state-run, we sometimes encountered certain resistance from FELDA managers, as they were suspicious of our aims and were concerned we intended to criticise their operations. This is why excellent team work was so vitally important. Without the language abilities, relationships, and cultural awareness of the SEACO team, we probably would not have been able to navigate these murky waters as effectively. We always discussed in class how context is crucial to understanding where and how a project should be carried out but it is extremely different once you are in the field. You have to question absolutely everything you know.

I used to think I was a worldly, open-minded individual, but this experience made me realise how many assumptions I made on a daily basis. As a somewhat hot-headed person, it was important for me to keep my emotions in check, not be judgmental or openly condemn people for opinions or actions I considered wrong. Sometimes I did not agree with what was being said or done but, as an impartial researcher, I learnt the importance of simply witnessing and reporting on these things professionally, even if I did not condone them personally. I think that is an important distinction we have to make as researchers and development practitioners, especially when working with marginalised communities that live by societal norms that are different to our own.

Putting Development Theory Into Practice – Melbourne to Malaysia


Do you know that feeling? When you have learnt something and you want to try to do it by yourself so badly. Like when you know how to dance, you just cannot control your body and keep moving all the time. Well, that is how I felt about to finish my first year of MIDP study. I was like the fledgling who wanted to challenge the sky. I believed that I was ready for the field, that I am ready for the development sector. I just wanted to know if all the methods I have learnt at university will really work in the field. That is the question I took from Australia to Malaysia.

The field trip itself was actually a winter unit provided for Monash students. During the two weeks, along with the unit coordinators’ guidance and support (Bruce and Narelle from the Faculty of Arts), we worked with local staff members from the Southeast Asian Community Observatory (SEACO) to conduct small-scale research projects, gather data in the field, analyse that data and present our findings. It was one of the most wonderful study experiences of my life and I want to share this experience and the things that I learnt from this trip with you.


Definitions and Methodology

Our team’s project was mapping the local health resources, therefore, understanding the local health system was very important.

Malaysia has a pluralistic health care system: as a multi-cultural country with many different ethnic groups, each group has their own traditional way to deal with different types of disease. Malaysia keeps all of these methods, merging the traditional and modern together. People in this unique country utilise a range of service providers including biomedical practitioners, herbalists, masseurs, other traditional healers, shamans, Chinese and Ayurvedic medical practitioners and other complementary medicines and self-medication.

Back to the project, there are several methods that can help researchers gather information in the field. As for my group’s anthropology field trip, a sequential, mixed methods research approach was undertaken.

Our approach to incorporated methods was participatory rural appraisal (PRA). This method emphasises local knowledge and enables local people to make their own appraisal, analysis, and plans. PRA uses group animation and exercises to facilitate information sharing, analysis, and action among stakeholders.

Transect Walk
Transect Walk

Transect walk and health mapping are the main tools of PRA we decided to implement. These are used alongside traditional qualitative means such as focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews. The flexible and creative natures of research methods allow an in depth and layered examination of the various levels of engagement between people living in rural communities, and their interaction with the respective health services present in their localities. The following is the detail of our team’s research method which was presented in our research paper, we would like to share it with everyone:


Research Design

Malaysia is a multiethnic society with a pluralistic health system that draws on both traditional and modern medicines in its approach to general health and wellbeing.

In order to formulate an understanding of the existing health services in Malaysian communities, transect walks and health mapping formed a key component of our research. Mapping the spatial arrangement of different health services within the community particularly helped to explore factors influencing the accessibility and availability of services for community members, including identification of access barriers such as transport options.

Contextual elements, such as neighbourhood features, directly affect health and the uneven distribution of health outcomes. Therefore, it is important to identify and map the health services to enable the dissection of contextual variables that both directly and indirectly impact upon the health service choices that people encounter.

Theory in Practice

An effective way of understanding the local context is a mixed methods approach, which combines data from geospatial analyses with direct participant feedback, something which is elicited through focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews. This integrated research design sought to assess factors at both a community and individual level to provide a holistic understanding of the circumstances.

Focus group discussions constitute an important part of the research and allow the clarification and cross checking of information gathered during the transect walk and health mapping processes while building upon gaining a wider understanding of access to health services in the rural Malaysian context. The focus groups sought to be representative of gender, the predominant ethnic groups and the locations which we chose to represent the rural Malaysian context.

Through the focus group process, we sought to explore ideas contributing to individual and community perception of health services, and sought to describe how and why such choices are made in preference to other available services. Focus groups are designed to primarily gather detailed descriptive information upon beliefs, values and understandings of the members upon a particular topic. This has informed the design decision to assemble participants in accordance with their ethnic, gender and community identities to foster a safe and comfortable environment that encourages open discussion.

Focus Group Discussions
Focus Group Discussions

The Power of Interviews

The incorporation of semi-structured interviews into the design of this research was crucial in achieving a deeper understanding of our research objectives. As a technique, interviews house the potential to reach locations of great depth which opens up a world of insight into the underlying beliefs, strategies and constraints which have shaped behavior.

Interviews allow the discoveries made during the focus groups to be investigated more thoroughly and provide opportunities for personal stories and experiences to surface in a more intimate environment. Interviews are important to the research design as their inclusion provides an opportunity for major themes to be further discussed and details of individual preferences and reasoning regarding health services to be uncovered.

During the field trip, our methods helped us gather information efficiently. And fortunate for us, our participants were really engaged in our activities. It helped us to gather more information from them and get to know the reason behind their choice of different health services.


Trust in the Field

Another experience I would love to share with everyone is about trust. In the field, most of the time we do not speak the same language with our participants, so we will ask interpreters for help. On this field trip to Malaysia, we were blessed because our interpreters were from SEACO, professional data collectors in those communities. So after we introduced our research project, they totally understood our context. Due to this, our participants showed more trust to us and were open to sharing more information.

However, one interesting thing did arise. During the one-on-one interview, there was a lady X who provided totally opposite information to two different research members of our group on the exact same question. What we noticed was that one of the researchers could speak the same language as her and they were from the same ethnic group. The other researcher who asked the same question was using an interpreter and the three of them were all from different ethnic groups.

So Does Theory Prepare You For Practice?

Our group struggled over this discovery of cross-ethnic communication. After consulting with our project supervisor, we finally made our decision about how to deal with this information. However, in this situation, what would you do with such a discrepancy?

Last weekend, our group finished our research report for this field trip. And that marked the official ending of this field trip to Malaysia, but my trip in the development sector is still ongoing. I prepared a lot for my first field trip, apparently in the ‘real’ field you will never know what is going to happen. My advice for newbies like me who want to undertake your first field trip is to be prepared for your task, but also accept those unexpected happenings and mistakes. I believe it is a good thing that unexpected situations arise in the field because that is how people learn and gain experience.

Research Members in Malaysia:
Bowen Guan, Bridget Lorenz, Lee Jane Yap, Thomas Kirby & Rose Dickson