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Fieldwork and model building in economics 1

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Fieldwork and model building in economics1

By Karim Errouaki2

[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two part exposition. Part 2 follows in Issue 7-1]


Reflecting on the Conceptual Foundations of Fieldwork


Fieldwork is scholarly work that requires first-hand observation, recording or documenting what one sees and hears in a particular setting – a rural artisan community, a city market place, hunting and gathering with a highland tribe, or the plush interiors of a corporate head office. It has long been regarded as the mainstay in anthropological research.

The first generation of anthropologists, studying mostly people under colonial rule, had tended to rely on locally based missionaries and colonial administrators to collect ethnographic information, often guided by questionnaires that were issued by theorists from ‘back home’. In the late nineteenth century, important ethnographic expeditions were organized, often by museums; and as reports came in, academics would set out the findings in comparative frameworks to illustrate the course of evolutionary development or to trace local historical relationships.

Fieldwork has not been prominent in economics, though there have been exceptions (for example, the Institutionalists, work in industrial organization, labour economics and informal economy, and more recently in development economics). But most so-called empirical work today is based on number-crunching. Fieldwork in economics is necessary, for example, to give us a picture of markets in operation, of the institutions that organize production and sales, and the way work is structured – as seen from the inside, and balanced against the official picture, for both – and the contrasts will be part of the truth. Without fieldwork we cannot know the operating rules in our economic institutions, or the true motivations of agents.

Coase (1937) argued that ‘it’s important to go out and discover the facts for yourself’. Coase developed his ideas about the nature of the firm during a year of visits to firms throughout the USA.The resulting view of the economy gives rise to an account of value, competition and markets that differs from the mainstream. More­over, it supports the view that history cannot be properly studied by equilibrium methods, and that economic analysis is likely to be different in different historical eras.

This note shall be presented in two equal pieces. In Part I we shall present the essential ideas by distilling here some key insights from anthropology, sociology and management. Part II, in the next issue, will be devoted to the examination of fieldwork in economics.

Defining Fieldwork

In anthropology, Malinowski (1922) is credited as being the most important figure in the development of the modern fieldwork tradition, through his study of the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea. Equally important contributions were made, however, by Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard, Morgan, Taylor, Benedict and others to this tradition of anthropology. Jarvie (1967) claimed that all schools of anthropology emphasize that fieldwork stands at the centre of the subject. Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, who thought anthropology was a science, placed the same emphasis on fieldwork as does Evans-Pritchard, who denies that it is a science.

More recently, Rice et al. (2004, p. 1) described fieldwork as generating

[a]multitude of entanglements, emotional, financial, professional, intellectual or ethical. It is by talking and writing about these experiences in the field that we become familiar with the experiential core of social anthropology, the richness, complexity and contradictions of relationships. The data produced through these often compromised and compromising encounters is ultimately transformed into an authoritative academic text, and these articles seek to elucidate the process through which raw experience has been translated into vehicles for the production of ethnographic knowledge.


The quality of results obtained from fieldwork depends on the data gathered in the field. The data in turn depend upon the fieldworker, the worker’s psyche, level of involvement, and ability to see and visualize things that any other person visiting the place might fail to notice. The more open a researcher is to new ideas, concepts and things that they may not have seen in their own culture, the better will be the absorption of those ideas. Better grasping of such material means better understanding of the forces of culture operating in the area and the ways they modify the lives of the people under study. Anthropologists have always been taught to be free from ethnocentrism, the belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic group.

A researcher has to approach people without preconceived notions about the various institutions under study. Relying on previous literature is useful to introduce the researcher to a people and their culture. However, the forces of evolution are at work on cultures and societies just as they apply to biological organisms; as a result, the existing literature may already be outdated. The researcher must gather as much information as possible personally. The collection of ‘contemporary’ ethnographic data serves to portray the current trends and is invaluable for studying culture change over time.

Contemporary ethnography is based almost entirely on fieldwork and requires the complete immersion of the anthropologist in the culture and everyday life of the people who are the subject of study.

A relevant contemporary example is Ho (2009). Ho looked into the everyday experiences and ideologies of Wall Street investment bankers, the everyday world of investment banking before the crisis. She describes how a financially dominant but highly unstable market system is understood, justified and produced through the restructuring of corporations and the larger economy. She delves into the roots of excessive risk-taking. She worked at an investment bank and shows that bankers’ approaches to financial markets and corporate America are inseparable from the structures and strategies of their workplaces; their mission is the creation of shareholder value, but their practices and assumptions often produce crises instead.

A fieldworker spends a great deal of time in the field, observing people. As Thomas (2004, p. 150) has reminded us, ‘social scientists are privileged in being able to ask direct questions of the objects they study. Physicists are not able to interview their atoms; if they could, would they be able to remove some of Heisenberg’s uncertainty?’ But they would have to treat the answers with great caution.

Effective fieldwork depends on qualities that one is born with or must develop through intensive work. Malinowski (1922) is the perfect example; he never had any formal training in fieldwork research yet his work is considered as among the best of all time. The first hurdle a researcher faces is approaching people who may be suspicious of his intentions, who are different in background and whose values and customs are different. A fieldworker can face rejection, so must be strong in mind and convincing enough to persuade those being studied to allow the worker to come and live and work among them. There are things people say and things people mean; a researcher must be able to read between the lines, because nobody wants to present a bad picture about his own community.

Fieldwork places quite different demands on researchers than the current standard methods used by economists (it might also take more time and be more costly, in addition to the different skill set required). There will be distractions to overcome. It is all about focusing on the object of the study. Since the fieldworker may be far from home, finding company and intellectual stimulation may be difficult. One has to be self-motivated. Fieldwork is more mental than physical; it stretches one to the extremities of mental and physical endurance. Diligence, patience, hard work and the ability to withstand bad tidings make a good fieldworker at a personal level, and the ability to understand processes, insight and visions make one good at the academic level.

Anybody who combines both is a great fieldworker, one whose account may well give a reasonably complete and true picture of the people studied. Good work ethics, both in the field and out of it, are an essential part of a good fieldworker. Nothing should be done that destroys the faith which the community under study has put in the fieldworker. Of course, the purpose of the study, and whatever its advantages are, should be made clear to the population under study. Permission, where necessary, should be obtained from the appropriate authorities. The fieldworker must be discreet in presenting sensitive information as results in his report. Good work ethics lend credibility to the researcher, and ensure respect and recognition from among the group he has worked with. They also lay a good foundation for future researchers coming to work with the same people and in the same area.

Bourdieu (1984; 2005) played a crucial role in the popularization of fieldwork in sociology. He sought to connect ‘his theoretical ideas with empirical research, grounded in everyday life, and his work can be seen as sociology of culture’ or, as he labelled it, a Theory of Practice. His contributions to sociology were both evidential and theoretical. Bourdieu’s work continues to be influential. His work is widely cited, and many sociologists and other social scientists work explicitly in a Bourdieusian framework.

Mintzberg played a crucial role in the popularization of fieldwork in management. He published his first book in 1973. This book was based on his PhD thesis at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The thesis title is in itself significant: The Manager at Work – Determining his Activities, Roles and Programs by Structured Observations. The thesis was based on an idea shared by a professor at MIT and a senior manager in a company: they wanted to study the latter’s work. It grew into a systematic observation and description of five general managers, about whom we know nothing more than the fact that they were ‘efficient’ and that they were subjected to the constant presence of Mintzberg, for one week each, every minute of their working day.

Mintzberg’s pioneering work established his reputation worldwide as a major figure in the field of management and ethnography of organizations. Mintzberg adopted a method that had hardly ever been used in management research: direct and structured observation (fieldwork). Mintzberg’s methodology requires the researcher to follow the steps of each of the general managers no matter what activity they are doing. He must carefully note the slightest action, recording the amounts of time spent on each and entering all the data on a grid, which is later to be used to do breakdowns and calculations, make comparisons, and so forth. The tremendous amount of work that Mintzberg put into the findings earned him the title of leader of a new school of management: the descriptive school, as opposed to the prescriptive and normative schools that preceded his work. The schools of thought derive from Taylor, Fayol, Urwick, Simon, and others who endeavoured to prescribe and expound norms to show what managers must or should do. With the arrival of Mintzberg, the question was no longer what must or should be done, but what a manager actually does during the day. Mintzberg’s discoveries and deductions appeared to be a veritable revolution.

An entry in The Economist magazine (16 January 2009) pointed out that ‘Mintzberg found that managers were not the robotic paragons of efficiency that they were usually made out to be. The pressures of his job drive the manager to be superficial in his actions – to overload himself with work, encourage interruption, respond quickly to every stimulus, seek the tangible and avoid the abstract, make decisions in small increments, and do everything abruptly’.

Fieldwork and Modelling Behaviour and Structure

There are two aspects of the economy, roughly its structure and the typical motivations and behaviour of its agents, which give rise to two lines of analysis. The first looks at the linkages and connections between economic institutions, making it possible to calculate various relation­ships. The second examines motivation and strategy in various contexts, showing how these can explain behaviour. There is an obvious sense in which each complements the other: structure without behaviour is lifeless, behaviour without structure has neither basis nor focus.

Fieldwork does not result in scientific theories, let alone covering-law explanations (if there are any such!). Given the above lines of analysis, two types of fieldwork can be distinguished. One kind can give us a carefully drawn picture of institutions and practices, general in that it applies to all activities of a certain kind in a particular society or social setting, but specialized to that society or setting. Although institutions and practices are intangible, such a picture will be objective, a matter of fact independent of the state of mind of the particular agents reported on. Approaching the economy from a different angle, another kind of fieldwork can give us the state of mind of economic agents – their true motivations, their beliefs, state of knowledge, expectations, their preferences and values. These results will also be matters of fact, but they will be records of the subjective states of the agents reported on – their feelings, attitudes, beliefs, preferences and values. Fieldwork is reporting, but it is at the same time an exceptionally sophisticated reporting, because it requires the observer to penetrate the disguises of key roles in society and the economy. This requires careful judgement, since the mask will usually display a partial truth.

Fieldwork and Modelling Structure

Structural fieldwork investigates the economy by looking at relationships in production, exchange, and distribution – such as the linkages between sectors or agents, for example; technological and legal interdependences (input–output relationships, interest on capital, wage or salary contracts); or relationships of status and authority, as in comparing the positions of property or wealth-owners and the property-less in various sectors. Fieldwork establishes the linkages between these features of the system and ranks them in importance; it is concerned with gathering and interpreting statistics, but also with the character of technology, with job titles and descriptions, contracts, chains of command, responsibilities, and so on. Objects of study will include roles (producers and consumers, suppliers of labour or of savings and wealth) and institutions (firms and households).

Adam Smith spoke of a ‘system of perfect liberty’ – ideally, that is; in reality the agents all face various constraints. But in such a system, even ignoring the constraints, market outcomes will not in general be those intended by the market participants. Some will be winners, others losers, and there will be many who are disappointed at least in part. And while the market coordinates activities, balancing supplies and demands, no one has specifically acted with the intent to bring about such coordination. It comes about as an unintended consequence. Sometimes the market fails, and rather than coordination, it brings about a breakdown:­ depression or inflation. To understand this requires putting all the pictures together. In a sense, the final objective of fieldwork in economics is to give us a practical picture of the working of the market.

Fieldwork and Modelling Behaviour

The second kind of fieldwork concerns motivation, attitudes, preferences and other subjective influences on behaviour, given the context – laws, customs, technology, and so on. It is an exploration and mapping of the chief features of the states of mind of the agents, picturing such states as are likely to affect behaviour. It is not, however, personal biography: the issues concern the subjective influences on economic behaviour, typical economic behaviour. Personal histories may well be illuminating, but they are relevant only insofar as they shed light on economic decisions and actions.

These studies can be complicated by the fact that people are not always truthful about their states of mind, and, worse, even if they try to be, they may fail because they are unaware of their own motivations or attitudes, or are subject to self-deception. (In regard to economic questions: where preferences reflect officially discouraged prejudices, for example, the true preferences may not be acknowledged. Also, people frequently understate the extent to which they are motivated by money, and often hold false beliefs about their own and others’ wealth, sometimes stubbornly clinging to expectations they know will never be fulfilled.)

To map the actual states of mind of agents is to study people, who are social products and have been prepared for certain roles, acting in the roles which they have assumed or to which they have been appointed. What such a mapping will show is how agents see the world, how they value its various aspects, and how they plan strategy and tactics in regard to


Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge, US: Harvard University Press

Bourdieu, P. (2005), The Social Structures of the Economy, Paris, Polity

Coase, R. (1937), ‘The Nature of the Firm’, Economica, 4, 386-405

Ho, K. (2009), Liquidated: an ethnography of Wall Street, Durham and London: Duke University Press

Jarvie, I. C. (1967), ‘On Theories of Fieldwork and the Scientific Character of Social Anthropology’, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 34, No. 3, 223-242

Malinowski, B. (1922), Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An account of native enterprise and adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Mintzberg, H. (1973), The Nature of Managerial Work, Harper Collins College

Nell, E.J and Errouaki, K. (2013), Rational Econometric Man, Cheltenham, UK: E. Elgar

Rice, T et al. (2004), ‘Future fields: introduction’, Anthropology Matters Journal, Vol. 6 (2)

Thomas, A.B. (2004), Research Skills for Management Studies, London: Routledge


  1. This paper is partly based on material in Chapter 10 of “Rational Econometric Man” (Elgar, 2013), co-authored by Edward J. Nell and Karim Errouaki.
  2. Karim Errouaki holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the New School for Social Research (New York). He has taught and lectured in many parts of the world, including New York, Washington, Boston, Montreal, Sherbrook, Vancouver, London, Brussels, Paris, Madrid, Mexico, and Sao Paolo, among others. He is coauthor with Edward J. Nell of “Rational Econometric Man” (Elgar, 2013), with Edward J. Nell and Federico Mayor Zaragoza of “Reinventing Globalization after the Crash” (forthcoming in 2017). He is a former Special Advisor to UNSG Prof. Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to Director General of UNESCO Prof. Dr. Federico Mayor Zaragoza and to the former Democrat Congressman and Majority Whip of the US House of Representatives and President Emeritus of New York University Dr. John Brademas. He is currently Ambassador of the International Organization of Latin-American Mayors in Morocco for Africa, Special Advisor to the Chairman of ECO Capacity Exchange, a leading Trade and Finance global organization based in London, a Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation for the Culture of Peace (Autonomous University of Madrid), and a Special Advisor to the Director General of CAFRAD, Pan-African Intergovernmental Organization.

From: pp.6-9 of World Economics Association Newsletter 6(6), December 2016

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