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Multi-User Virtual Reality Technology as a Laboratory for Learning
about Social Research: Issues and Prospects
2. Problems in Field Research
Field research by its very nature requires people to carry out tasks which run against the grain of earlier socialization and social experience (Sanders, 1980). Thus, it is difficult to avoid the fear of being a stranger, the fear of rejection when seeking personal details about people's lives, and the fear of violating the normative standards of those being studied. It is hardly surprising, then, to learn that fieldworkers on occasion exhibit physiological symptoms associated with stress such as diarrhoea, nosebleeds and vomiting (Lee, 1993.) Against this, one can sometimes find a degree of over-enthusiasm to gather data that has led students to engage in rash, not to say dangerous, behaviour in the field (Lee, 1995). Perhaps not surprisingly, then, much writing on ethnographic research tends to see entry to the field as a rite of passage. This has tended to encourage a view that field research methods cannot and, perhaps, should not be taught.
None of the students who undertook an extended period of `fieldwork' in a virtual field had yet entered the field in their own research projects. It is clear that engaging with the research subjects in the virtual world helped students to avoid some of the anxieties that are often confronted by those gathering data for the first time. Furthermore, reporting on their experiences allowed them to reflect on the roles they had adopted in the virtual world and how these might be different from those they would probably encounter on entering the research site chosen for their thesis. This kind of anticipatory socialisation is extremely difficult for students to gain outside of an actual project where, of course, the costs of failure are much higher. Students also noticed that many questions could be raised about the claims to status and identity in the virtual world and that this could have important implications for the `comfort' both of themselves and those they engaged with while in the virtual world. Such experience leads easily to an appreciation of how socially generated trust facilitates access in a research environment. In addition, the ability to log data allows their `fieldwork' to be discussed with a supervisor in a way that is simply not possible in real-life where the presence of a third party is likely to affect the character of the interaction. This has important and positive implications for research methods training.
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