Which equipment should I purchase for conducting fieldwork?

Of course, it depends on the nature of the fieldwork. Technology can enhance your fieldwork data collection, but it must be deployed in ways that make it easy to use and makes your respondents comfortable.

It is helpful to have an audio recording of interviews because you can document the interview in full by transcription and excerpts. However, some respondents will feel uncomfortable participating in a recorded interview. Recording the interview may also lead to self-censorship on the part of the respondent.Nevertheless, many respondents will even forget about the recording as the interview progresses. In some situations during an interview, the respondent may request to share information and commentary that they do not wish to be recorded. It is possible to stop the recording and restart at any point. You can share this option with your respondent.

What should you use for recording? The best idea is to use lavalier (lav) mics because they are low profile, easy to carry and record great audio.

Zoom H1 + connector + two lavalier microphones ($200)

The Zoom H1 is a good recorder that accommodates simple lav mics, as well as has its own mics on top of the unit:

I strongly suggest using lav mics because they will pick you and your respondent much better than using the H1’s internal mics or using your cell phone on the table. Some options for lav mics that work with the H1 and a connector include: (1) Giant Squid mic; (2) ATR-3350; (3) Rode Smart Lav +:

You will also need to use a 3.5 mm splitter since the H1 only has one input jack:

Both you and your respondent will be recorded on the same audio track and the audio can be easily exported and transferred to your computer.

Zoom H4N Pro + two lav microphones ($300)

A step up from the Zoom H1 and basic lav mics is the Zoom H4N Pro, which allows you to use more advanced XLR microphones. Like the H1, the H4N includes its own internal mics on top that can be used in addition to two XLR inputs.

You will need to buy XLR mics to work with this device. There are some less and more expensive options. A pair of MXL mics can usually be bundled with the recorder for a total of $260:

One of the benefits of this option for recording is that the H4N records the two mic inputs on separate audio tracks. This means you can touch up the audio of yourself and your respondent separately. It is most helpful if you are planning on sharing interview clips with a wider audience.

Other sound recording options

You can also use a reporter style of set up with one mic that you move between you and the respondent. The problem with this set up is that you have to hold the mic for the entire interview and the mic is ever apparent to you and the respondent. This set up is best for short interviews or interviews that involve a small group of respondents. In this latter situation, you can move the mic around when different respondents speak. The best option is to get the industry standard Electro-Voice 50B (long handle version):

This mic will need a recorder with an XLR input, so you will need to get a Zoom H4N Pro or something like it.
Another option is to use a shotgun mic, like the Sennheiser MKE600 or Rode NTG-2 (or any Rode NTG mic).

For the industry standard in film, you will have to shell out a lot more for the Sennheiser MKH-416:

These microphones are highly directional and will capture good audio as you hold them. Shotgun mics can also be used with videography because they can pick up sound from a greater distance. In addition, some of the most common mics used in voice over are shotgun mics. This means that if you have projects involving voice over work you can use a shotgun mic for dual purposes.

Finally, if you have more than two people (e.g., interviewer and interviewee) who are using mics, then you can spend a bit more for the Zoom H6. The H6 has four XLR inputs for four mics (e.g., four lav mics). You can record separate audio tracks for up to four people at a time.

Notetaking

One of the most useful fieldwork techniques is to use digital capture for your notes (and sound if possible). Smartpens that capture writing on special dot paper and sometimes record audio provide an immediate and secure way to digitize your notes. You can upload your notes to the cloud after conducting interviews to avoid losing fieldwork data stored in hefty notebooks and on the computer. Digital notetaking can also make text recognition OCR of your notes easier. Finally, some smartpens produce “pencasts” that combine audio and your writing in PDFs, such that you can click on a part in your notes and immediately be taken to the corresponding place in the audio recording.

One caution is that the audio captured on these pens will not be the best quality in comparison to using the audio recording equipment mentioned above. However, it is possible to combine pencasts and a more professional recording.
Some options for smartpens include the Livescribe Echo Smartpen and the Livescribe 3 smartpen:

The Echo Smartpen can product pencasts PDFs. Another non-audio option is the Wacom Bamboo Spark:

These options all use paper notetaking (with special paper). But, they also provide a digital copy of your notes without scanning or taking pictures of notes. You can also use a stylus and tablet if you feel comfortable writing on a tablet surface and do not mind doing away with paper copies of your notes.

Final thoughts

Technology is obviously not a substitute for good methods of conducting qualitative interviews, but it can aid in your ability to document and secure your data. At the end of the day, consider what you need to document and your budget. And, do not be afraid to try something new next time you are in the field. New options for recording and notetaking will continue to arise and this post will be updated to reflect addition options. Good luck in the field!