pack ratting – a common or garden field work practice

Pack rats are nest builders. They use plant material such as branches, twigs, sticks, and other available debris. Getting into everything from attics to car engines, stealing their ‘treasures’, damaging electrical wiring, and creating general noisy havoc can easily cause them to become a nuisance. A peculiar characteristic is that if they find something they want, they will drop what they are currently carrying, for example a piece of cactus, and “trade” it for the new item. They are particularly fond of shiny objects. (Wikipedia)


Lots of researchers turn into pack rats when they are doing their field work. They collect everything they can lay their hands on, just in case in comes in handy. Even if the “stuff” doesn’t have an apparent connection to their immediate research interests, it might do at some point in the future. You never know. You could be very sorry when you get down to analysis and find out you don’t have the very thing you are looking for.

Trust me, I know about pack ratting. I have been a field work pack rat and the huge stack of archive boxes in my office are testament to my practices of accumulation.

Some years ago some colleagues and I did a project on change in schools. We went into our forty carefully selected institutions, and picked up everything we could lay our hands on. We took hundreds of photos. We made copies of every school document available. We printed out webpages, and we persuaded people to give us material about every single thing they had done for the last few years. We gathered unto us brochures, media clippings, prospectus, publications, reports.  We amassed a mass of stuff. On top of our collections,  we also had field notes and interviews.

At the end of the project we sorted through the materials, got rid of duplicates and packed a very large archive box for each of the forty schools. That was just the hard copy stuff – we also had extensive digital materials.

I am still not sure how much of this material we actually used. Certainly we used some of it and we worked with it, in depth. But not all of it. How could we in the time we had?

I went back to one of the boxes recently just to see what we had. A lot of it was surplus to requirements, even at the time. A couple of items that we hadn’t particularly worked with, but had kept because they were interesting, were still interesting. They were indeed worthy of the side analysis we had imagined at the time. A lot of the stuff however, wasn’t of much value and I couldn’t see that it would ever be so.

But we had collected it. Just in case. We had pack ratted.

I’ve come to understand that during field work you often accumulate an archive of materials. However, this is always an excess. And whats more, it is not even yet data. Even if we call it data, it isn’t yet data.

Data is created when you actually sit down, back in the office, away from the everyday busyness of field work, to work out what you have that will actually help you answer your research question(s). The research data you use is absolutely not the same as that archive of potential data. In a very real sense, the researcher creates the data from the archive of stuff they put together.

As you sort and sift through the field work archive asking – of every item – what it might contribute to your particular research question, you are actually deciding what is the data for your particular study. This is a helpful exercise in itself, because it forces you to focus not only on the question, but also on what you need in order to construct some kind of answer.

Of course, when you come across something that looks like it might make a good side project, then it is worth putting away for safe-keeping. But the rest? Well you could keep it in boxes for ten years or so, as I have, or you could make a cull at the time, keeping your archive of material only until the project is finished.

But then you never know what might come in handy…

If you think that way, you may be a latent or actual pack rat, in which case you will just accumulate and accumulate, seeking new shiny things on each and every field work trip.

And then you will end up with an office that looks just like mine!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in archive, data, data analysis, pack-ratting, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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