Fieldwork

Charles Swithinbank surveying deformation of the ice shelf at Maudheim, Antarctica, 1950
Charles Swithinbank surveying deformation of the ice shelf at Maudheim, Antarctica, 1950

When scientists make observations, measurements and conduct experiments in settings other than laboratories or research establishments, they often say that they are doing ‘fieldwork’. The term has obvious military and sporting connotations and much has been written on relations between fieldwork, survey and Empire. Though fieldwork often involves looking – looking from above, looking at objects, looking into holes in the ground – it also engages the other senses, and reminds us that science can be a physical, practical, bodily activity concerned with particular places and materials that actively affect the scientist. Fieldwork is also almost always a public activity; in the field scientists are viewed by, mix with and are often assisted by people doing other things – sightseeing, farming, quarrying. Scientists find their identity as scientists unsettled orconfirmed through relations with these others, and with particular environments.

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