Saturday blast from the past: what’s the origin of the term “field work”?

This is the start of a new feature round here! Well, new but yet…old.* 🙂 Meghan, Brian, and I have been blogging for 7 years and between the three of us we’ve written over 2000 posts. Many of those posts are still as relevant today as when we wrote them, but you’re not likely to stumble across them via casual browsing, social media, or the first page of a Google search. So on Saturdays, we’re going to start re-upping old posts. Hope you enjoy them and find them useful.

Today: what’s the origin of the term “field work”? Click through or keep reading for the answer! And then in the comments, tell us: in future should we just link to the old post, or repost it? Because it seems a little silly to do both…

In a rare foray onto Twitter the other day [note: I no longer make any forays onto Twitter], I made a silly joke about “the field”, as if there was literally just one field where ecologists collect data:

Which prompted Meghan 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”:

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.

*Second joke link** 🙂

**Third joke link 🙂

5 thoughts on “Saturday blast from the past: what’s the origin of the term “field work”?

  1. You may want to investigate whether it comes from German (“Feldarbeit”) or another non-English language – the Anglosphere’s dominance of science is a rather recent invention.

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