What’s the origin of the term “field work”?

In a rare foray onto Twitter the other day, I made a silly joke about “the field”, as if there was literally just one field where ecologists collect data:

Which prompted Meg to note that the place she does her field work isn’t a field at all (or if it is, it’s always flooded):

Which got me wondering: what is the origin of the term “field work”? How did a term that originally meant (roughly) “farm labor” come to mean “practical research conducted in any natural environment, as opposed to a lab or office”:

So I decided to channel my inner Stephen Heard and do a little digging.

I should say right up front: this is NOT a serious attempt to identify the first usage of the term “field work” in the sense of outdoor research. It’s a hopefully-interesting but surely-wrong opening bid. With any luck, we’ll get a comment from someone who knows the answer–or can find out!

I first tried to just look up the answer. No joy in Mudville. I found plenty of material on the history of what we now call field work (e.g., Kucklick & Kohler 1996, Withers & Finnegan 2003). But the sources I found discuss the history of the activity “field work” and use the term “field work” to refer to that activity. They don’t discuss the history of the term.

Next I tried searching some famous early reports of what we’d now call field work. But I couldn’t find the term in Humboldt or Cuvier except in the “farm labor” sense.

Next I turned to JSTOR. Where I ran into a problem: although JSTOR has the various proceedings and transactions of the Royal Society of London going back to the Society’s founding in the 17th century, and other documents of similar vintage, full text search only works properly from about 1800 forward. Which is after activities that we’d now call “field work” were already underway (e.g., Humboldt’s expedition began in 1799).

So the best I can do is put a bound on this use of the term “field work”: it goes back to at least…


1818. Well, depending on how far you’re willing to stretch on the use of the term.

As best I can tell, the earliest uses of the term “field work” (or rather, “field-work”, as it was often spelled back then) to mean something like “practical study of outdoor nature” come from cartography. Here’s William Lambton, a British cartographer mapping India, writing in 1818 in “An Abstract of the Results Deduced from the Measurement of an Arc on the Meridian”*, published in Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. 108:486-517. Emphasis added:

The whole time taken up in the measurement of the arc between Punnae and Daumergidda, including the base lines, astronomical observations, &c.; that is to say the entire field work, has only been three years and nine months…

(Aside: I love that what may be the very first use of the term “field work” in the contemporary ecological sense includes the word “only” followed by the phrase “three years and nine months”. Used by a man who was traveling around India in the early 19th century, which I’m guessing was difficult and uncomfortable. Apparently, field ecologists’ willingness to brush off–or even embrace–physical effort and discomfort goes back a loooong way!🙂 )

I found several other identical uses of the term “field work” in British cartographic reports from the first half of the 19th century. But since Lambton uses the term casually, it was probably already familiar to his audience back in 1818. So its first use almost certainly goes back to a time inaccessible to full text JSTOR searches.

Then in the mid-1860s you start seeing geologists using the term “field-work” in the familiar modern sense. For instance, here’s Bigby (1867 Proc Roy Soc Lond 15:372-385), introducing his “general view of Silurian life”:

I have been further encouraged by the great accumulations of the last few years, through the establishment in North America and elsewhere of numerous colleges, each of them having become the centre of more or less field-work.

And from there, you soon see the term cropping up in other disciplines. For instance, here’s the first use of the term in Am Nat, in 1870, in a review of a guidebook for naturalists:

Mr. Maynard writes of what he himself knows…His notes of the proper times and places to look for birds – of the pleasures and difficulties of taking them – and his pictures of field-work, are true to the life.

Hence my laughably overfitted hypothesis: the term “field work” became a synonym for “stuff cartographers do outdoors” because back then a lot of the outdoors cartographers were mapping was fields (i.e. enclosed areas containing crops or farm animals). And from there it was only another short step for “field work” to come to mean making any sort of measurement or observation outdoors. The members of the many amateur natural historical societies that became popular in Britain from the 1830s onward often were tramping around in or near cultivated fields too. Between that and the fact that the word “field” also means “subject of scholarly study”, and you’ve got the ingredients for “field work” to acquire the sense of practical study of natural environments.

Obvious follow-up, for anyone who wants to take it on: trace the origins of the connotation that field work is more “real”, “natural”,  or “practical” than lab work or theoretical work, or less “abstract”. Therefore making field work superior to lab work or theoretical work, or at least an essential complement to lab work and theoretical work. That connotation is absent from the cartographic use of the term “field work”, because there was nowhere else cartography could be pursued at the time except outdoors. At a guess, I bet the connotation traces back to the mid-19th century, when the flowering of amateur natural history clubs was paralleled by the professionalization of science. Professional scientists began to acquire labs and specialized equipment not easily available to amateurs. Leading to tensions between amateurs and professionals, and perhaps between nascent lab-based and field-based disciplines as well, with each highlighting the virtues of their own approach. For instance, here’s Helen Harelin Walworth’s letter to the AAAS in 1880 (Science 1:198-199) on the importance of “Field Work by Amateurs”:

How can the popular interest in science be stimulated and increased? A majority of educated people shrink with aversion from the memory of tasks performed at school. The bare mention of a natural science recalls pages of unpronounceable words and incomprehensible classifications. Yet, if a practical geologist or botanist will take any three of these individuals into the field with him and beguile them into breaking rocks or gathering flowers scientifically, two out of every three will be delighted with the occupation, and will strive to recall the classical names which inspired then with disgust while they were merely theoretical. It is then only while science is an abstraction that it repels; render it practical and it invariably attracts.

But as I said above, I have no idea what I’m talking about, so please comment to correct me!

*Actually, his title is much longer than that, but I couldn’t be bothered to copy and paste the whole damn thing.

image source.

18 thoughts on “What’s the origin of the term “field work”?

  1. I couldn’t figure out where Daumergidda is considering that lot of names of places in India was changed by the British who couldn’t pronounce the local names. But if you think of India as a whole country or even just peninsular India, its HUGE. Even with today’s super connected rail, road and air network here, three months and nine months definitely is a very very less time for the study described.

    Very interesting, this article!

      • I’m pretty sure Punnae is Pune, which by 1818 would/might have been under British control, and which is a major city now.
        The suffix -guda (likely Anglicisation to -gidda?) in place-names is probably from Telugu, so Daumergidda is likely a village in the then State of Hyderabad, with which the British EICo would have had a subsidiary alliance.
        A simple search reveals that this name appears several times in documents from British India in the 1800s, but I’m quite sure it’s still a village.

  2. Punnae, the referenced paper says, is “near Cape Comorin”, which Daumergidda is “in the Nizam’s dominions”.
    So wrong on one count, but fair guess on the second one.

    Asiatick Society (Calcutta, India). (1820). Asiatick Researches, Or, Transactions of the Society Instituted in Bengal, for Inquiring Into the History and Antiquities, the Arts, Sciences, and Literature of Asia (Vol. 13). Bengal Military Orphans Press.

  3. “a rare foray onto Twitter,” yeah right. You like to yell “kids, keep off my lawn,” while you secretly spend your free time on the lawns of your neighbors…🙂

  4. No idea when the first official use of the term was, but I think the idea of ‘the field’ compared to indoor study was around before the 1860s. I’ve seen it referred to as ‘expeditionary’ vs ‘closet’ science, i.e. natural historians & collectors vs systematic biologists working in museums. I think ‘labs’ proper became established in the mid-1800s, so the terminology of ‘in the field’ gradually took over as something to distinguish from lab scientists. It was probably borrowed from archaeologists, who had been doing field work for decades and was very grounded in the cultural divide that existed (still exists!) between naturalists who observed the ‘real world’ and systematists who worked mostly with dead specimens, eg whoever (Cuvier? Sachs?) tried to discredit Darwin’s experiments as being done at a ‘country estate’. I recommend reading some of Robert Kohler’s work, as he has written a lot on the field vs lab history of biology. Also this great quote from Gosse’s naturalist’s trip to Jamaica (1851) “Let closet science take its true place as the handmaid of Natural History…the former may be compared to the shelves, drawers and pigeon-holes of a cabinet, carefully arranged and affording a place for everything; the latter to a room full of valuable objects and curiosities, thrown promiscuously in a heap…it is obvious that the shelves are for the sake of the objects, not the objects for the sake of the shelves.”

    • Cheers for this, you’ve clearly read more history of this time than I have!

      I didn’t turn up any uses of the term “field-work” in archaeological or taxonomic writings in my JSTOR search. But that may well just indicate the limitations of JSTOR full text searches. Quite possibly, some journals are available as full text further back than others (possibly depending on whether optical character recognition can deal with the fonts?)

      I don’t think we actually disagree on the timeframe of the developing tension between field- and lab-based scientists. That 1880 quote was meant to illustrate but not date the field/lab divide (sorry if that wasn’t clear). The first natural history clubs in Britain date from the early 1830s, I believe. And although professionalization of science was a gradual process, dating its starting point from Whewell’s coining of the term “scientist” in the 1830s (IIRC) seems a reasonable choice. So, 1830(ish) onward seems like the timeframe for this tension to take root and then gradually get worse.

      Don’t think it was Cuvier who criticized Darwin as a amateur working on a country estate. Cuvier was too early (?) As I recall, it was to do with Darwin’s attempts late in life to measure plant root growth using homemade gear, which were criticized by a lab-based plant biologist. But I don’t recall who it was. The incident is in Janet Browne’s Darwin biography but I’m too lazy to go look it up. Or, perhaps Darwin was criticized by multiple “pros” at different times for the “amateurishness” of his methods?

      • I just checked, I was thinking of Sachs who criticised the root experiments, but yes there were others as part of growing rivalry between lab-based vs ‘country naturalist’ scientists…. I guess the “amateurishness” of Darwin’s experiments are a matter of perspective😉

      • Darwin himself of course famously (and f0ndly) described his own experiments as “fool’s experiments”, so I don’t think he had an overinflated opinion of them. But he did think them sufficiently rigorous to be worth doing. So I’m sure he disagreed with Sach’s dismissal of his root growth experiments, though offhand I don’t recall his precise reaction.

  5. Must have been quite a game, what with two runners dying at first in the ninth inning and the fans calling for umpire homicide after a called strike one. 🙂 And seems likely that Casey was looking breaking ball or off speed there but we’ll never know, as the game was played pre-MLB.com. Pretty clearly though, he had zero concept of small ball, especially with a cake at 2nd base as the tying run.

    I like that referenced article–a 32 page “abstract” of the full study. And also the authors’ boasting of having surveyed the longest *single* lat. arc on the planet–pretty sure that went into the next grant application.

    Seriously though, the data he gives on what is now called the ellipsoidal flattening ratio (his “compression at the poles”) is interesting. The most commonly used ratio now, in the GRS80 ellipsoid, is actually closer to a value measured by Bessel in 1830, than to values measured later, by Clarke and others. Little known geodesy fact!

    • “I like that referenced article–a 32 page “abstract” of the full study. ”

      That was the Victorian way. Recall that Darwin’s Origin–all 454 pages of it–was an “abstract” of a much longer work (to be called “Natural Selection”) that Darwin eventually abandoned.

      “Seriously though, the data he gives on what is now called the ellipsoidal flattening ratio (his “compression at the poles”) is interesting.”

      Thanks for this, I didn’t really read the piece and had no clue what the heck he was talking about or why it would be considered interesting even by early 19th century standards of “interesting”. Now I have some idea.

      “Must have been quite a game, what with two runners dying at first in the ninth inning and the fans calling for umpire homicide after a called strike one. 🙂 And seems likely that Casey was looking breaking ball or off speed there but we’ll never know, as the game was played pre-MLB.com. Pretty clearly though, he had zero concept of small ball, especially with a cake at 2nd base as the tying run.”

      Never change, Jim.🙂

      • “Recall that Darwin’s Origin–all 454 pages of it–was an “abstract” of a much longer work (to be called “Natural Selection”) that Darwin eventually abandoned.”

        Whoa, I don’t think I ever knew that…and maybe without the health issues, he would have produced it! Good grief, the guy was just something else again.

        The relevance of the flattening ratio discussion is that one’s model of the shape of the earth (which by then they did realize was not a perfect sphere), and the measured ground distances and astronomical observations (star angles) taken during the survey work, all have to agree with each other. The big unknown of the time was the exact degree of deviation from a sphere, which can be estimated from the other two, if one covers enough latitudinal distance. Pretty sure that’s why he was boasting of having completed the longest latitudinal survey arc to date. The thing is, the survey was done in southern India (i.e. pretty equatorial), and it’s the more northerly measurements that are more informative on the matter.

  6. I was just writing something and realized the word “field” also applies to scientific disciplines. i.e. we work in the field of ecology. I wonder if the original term “field work” might have had this sort of meaning of “field” — so meaning working on a scientific endeavor, not necessarily one outdoors. (Totally random thought, without any research to back it up.)

    • Hmm. That use of the term field does go back a long ways–much longer than “field” in the sense of “field work”. But my sense from my super-limited reading is that that wasn’t the pre-existing sense of “field” that got modified when the term “field work” came in to use.

  7. Pingback: Do field ecologists need field stations to do research? – Ecology is not a dirty word

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