when is data collection (ever) over?
In a previous post’s discussion, Graham Peterson kindly shared a great link of videos with Howie Becker’s thoughts about conducting research, specifically at the graduate level. I found the last video clip of particular interest. In “10. Savoir finir : Comment achever une thèse alors que les données de terrain ne cessent d’affluer ? [Knowing how to end: how to finish a thesis when field data keeps arising?],” Becker discusses the issue of knowing when to end data collection. Some signals make this clear – the funding runs out, the return ticket’s date shows up, or less frequently, the field site closes. (For historians, the re-closure of an archive is the equivalent.)
I would add another possibility – sometimes the data collection doesn’t end, and a researcher continues to analyze, write, and publish along the way, particularly if the phenomena under study changes and sparks additional areas of inquiry. New research questions may arise, or the researcher may add other field sites for comparison. As I tell grad students who are deciding among research projects, it’s likely that a researcher will live with an ethnographic research project for years beyond the dissertation’s completion, particularly if s/he writes a book and needs to publicize it. Of course, out of expedience or boredom, some researchers will quickly move onto another research project. However, with ethnographic research, the researcher who can return to the same field site faces the dilemma of sunk costs – forming relations with informants and developing expertise and local knowledge all take time, and it may be difficult to give all that up, especially when the passage of time starts to reveal dynamics not readily apparent before.