Taking notes


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  • 1.Fieldnotes as a form of qualitative data that is produced by ethnographers, by qualitative researchers when they do participant observation 2. Why a session on fieldnotes: We have already seen that fieldnotes provoke a lot of feelings and debates and that there is something almost mysterious about them. At the same time, fieldnotes are central to what ethnographers do – they are a central form of data they use which perhaps explains why there is so much controversy around them. Laura Bohannan, in Return to Laughter, 1954, advises prospective fieldworkers: ‘You’ll need more tables than you think.’ 3. Ethnographic texts do not directly and naturally emerge out of the experience of fieldwork; attention needs to be paid not only to the ‘doing’ of fieldwork, but to the ‘writing’ of ethnographic texts (very few studies/texts exists, much more on doing fieldwork than on writing fieldnotes, refer to Emerson et al.) 4. I am particularly interested today in examining fieldnotes from an epistemological perspective and to discuss how fieldnotes are central in the process from collecting data to analysis and writing
  • An ethnographic perspective: part obs grounded in s particular understanding of the social`world (ontology) and how it can best be understood (epistemology) and in a particular understanding of research and its purposes 1. Ethnography more than describing 2. Actor –oriented, kind of research questions that try to find out about people’s views, their understandings of a particular issue, their reasons for acting in a particular way 3. Depths: holistic, don’t isolate factors, ethnographers’ understanding of the social world as complex, many factors that interrelate, changing, etc. critical realism, complexity theory Theory building through ethnography: to be grounded in data, mostly inductive, fieldnotes central to this process of inductive theory building Link between theory and methods here: part observ and fieldnotes good for some research questions, not for others
  • Writing central to any ethnography, central activity of the researcher, show images, central to the process of understanding the social phenomena that you study and to translating them into some form of written account that will make sense to who ever will be the audience. Headnotes: often mentioned all that what is not written down Diary, some researchers may say that the diary is part of the fieldnotes, others distinguish between the two, give my example
  • No general answer possible, depends on researcher and situation she observes. Notes can sometimes be taken easily: my classroom observations, my attendance of national Literacy Day’ other situations: note-taking inappropriate (Ismail, Burns night), so writing detailed notes or any notes at all may not be possible. Researcher may decide not to take any notes, but leave that till later, evening, maximise immersions in the event, foreground experience itself, issue: writing is always a move of detaching oneself from the event, writing makes complete participation impossible. In that case mental notes only, headnotes. Decision that needs to be taken on a case to case basis. Frequently first step just jottings, done while in the situation, or while taking brief breaks from the event (toilet). Jottings are written in different ways, researchers may create their own system of abbreviations and code Start taking notes early on in the study: establishes a role for you as researcher, but people will react to this role: may tell you what to write down, may in some contexts feel that writing is an intrusion, may challenge your choice of what you write, seeEmerson et al. p.23
  • The ethnographer Joan Larcom while on her fieldwork in Vanuatu (Pacific) What this photo might show: the moment of distraction, when the ethnographer turns away from the social interaction she participates in in order to take not, jots down a few words, it seems, to fix and observation or to be able to recall it later. Larcom seems preoccupied with her notes, people surrounding her do not seem to pay much attention to her.
  • For the fieldworker herself, therefore fieldnotes are often not easily comprehensible in themselves, they may in fact be incomprehensible to others. But fieldworker may also envisage/imagine possible audiences and working for an MA dissertation you may very well do this
  • 1. The researcher has a stance and has to be aware of it, ultimately it his her theoretical orientation to her topic and even more fundamentally her outlook on life that shapes her stance. To be aware of her stance is important, can enable fieldworker to write notes that highlight this perspective and foreground the issues that relate to it. 2./3. How to write just from memory: start with a particular event and develop the narrative around it, or, just organise your notes according to time, what ever works best, if you have jottings, your full account will develop around these 4. Most fieldworkers write in first person, emphasises that researcher presents the events she witnessed from her perspective, allows researcher also to bring in not only what she saw and heard but how she reacted to and felt about this. Third person perspective is an alternative, more effective for conveying other people’s thoughts and feelings. 4. Changing point of view in fieldnotes may be used, depending on whether you describe a scene or recall a dialogue, what also is done frequently (and often students asks about this) is that the researcher will write down conversations that occur in her presence or that members report having had with others, so there may be snippets of verbatim talk in your fieldnotes in between descriptions of events. Representing dialogue is not easy and necessarily leads to quite extreme reductions, there is not only the problem of verbatim quotes but everything else such as facial expressions, body language etc.
  • Analytic comments may be written down while you describe the event you participate in, or, as often the case, may be added in the evening, when notes or jottings are being reread and typed up. Commentaries may include reflections on how the ethnographer felt, comparisons with other events already observed, reflections on the process of the research, how it goes, comments on themes that have emerged, etc. (Practically, you may want to separate comments from the more descriptive accounts: using a different font, putting them in brackets, adding handwritten notes in a different colour, large margins when typing up are useful) Writing mode: primary purpose to recall what was going on and any conversations Reading mode: grounded in the process of reflection on what happened and what was said, sets off the process of analysis, this is a heuristic device, in reality of course the two modes can’t always be separated.
  • 1. First step in the process from being there to producing a coherent account and argument Purpose: not only to describe events and activities people engage in, but to understand the meanings and concerns they attribute to these events 2. Various researchers have tried to describe this process, using different metaphors: Proximity-distance (Powdermaker) immediacy of the experience – distance through writing, putting it down, needed to begin analysis 3. Inscribing: implies a writing down, a straightforward process of translation, a mirror of what the researcher sees, but: what happens when an event is turned into an account – can never be a pure account of this event, cannot be objective, mere mirroring, always framing, shaping, creating the event Clifford, 1990: 58, suggests to talk about writing up, in the sense of interpretive description, not inscription. Also: inscription implies cultures to be coherent, but this is not the case, they are composed of confliction discourses, no single inscription possible, whose inscriptions are we talking about anyway? Clifford criticises central role of researcher: need for multiple voices
  • C.G. Seligman, Malinowski’s teacher, in New Guinea, 1898 Both photos from Georg Stocking’s Observers observed Seated at a table surrounded by half a dozen Melanesian men Note here “the natives” gathering around him, armchair anthropology, his authority, “inscribing”?
  • 1. How much closeness and empathy with her research subjects can the researcher achieve? 2. the researcher’s ability to understand ‘different constructions of reality’ (Davies 1999:6) and to mediate between such varying representations (3. contemporary, post-structuralist ethnography would always argue that ethnographic knowledge is partial (which is not necessarily negative) and that there will always be several voices present in ethnographic writing: those of the researched and that of the researcher. What it is in the end is a process of translation and negotiation between these, a dialogue between these and on the basis of this some joint understanding. )
  • Taking notes

    1. 1. Collecting and analysing qualitative data What are fieldnotes? C.G. Seligman in New Guinea, 1898
    2. 2. Fieldnotes as part of ethnography: <ul><li>More than an information gathering exercise, but basis for generating theoretical insights </li></ul><ul><li>Actor (people) oriented perspective (emic) </li></ul><ul><li>In-depths understanding of social phenomena </li></ul>
    3. 3. Writing in the field <ul><li>Fieldnotes </li></ul><ul><li>(Headnotes) </li></ul><ul><li>Diary </li></ul>
    4. 4. Writing fieldnotes: practical issues <ul><li>When, where, how, what to write? </li></ul><ul><li>To write or not to write? </li></ul><ul><li>First step: jottings (mnemonic devices) </li></ul><ul><li>Establish role as ‘note-taker’ </li></ul>
    5. 5. The Paradox of Participant Observation Joan Larcom while on her fieldwork in Vanuatu (Pacific)
    6. 6. The Paradox of Participant Observation <ul><li>The ethnographer Joan Larcom while on her fieldwork in Vanuatu (Pacific) </li></ul><ul><li>What this photo might show: the moment of distraction, when the ethnographer turns away from the social interaction she participates in in order to take not, jots down a few words, it seems, to fix and observation or to be able to recall it later. Larcom seems preoccupied with her notes, people surrounding her do not seem to pay much attention to her. </li></ul>
    7. 7. How to write fieldnotes <ul><li>Are produced incrementally on a day-to-day basis </li></ul><ul><li>No sustained logic or underlying principle: changing form and style </li></ul><ul><li>Audience: mostly the researcher herself </li></ul><ul><li>Next step: typing up </li></ul>
    8. 8. Different strategies and styles <ul><li>Fieldworker’s stance </li></ul><ul><li>Tips for initial writing: don’t focus on particular words and sentences, on grammar and spelling, but on the events and people who you observed </li></ul><ul><li>Recalling in order to write </li></ul><ul><li>Multiple voices and point of view </li></ul>
    9. 9. Fieldnotes and analytic writing <ul><li>Fieldnotes: mainly descriptive, but include various forms of analytic comments </li></ul><ul><li>Move from writing mode to reading mode (Emerson et al. 1995) </li></ul>
    10. 10. Epistemological issues <ul><li>First step in the process from event to account: entails selection and framing </li></ul><ul><li>Proximity and distance </li></ul><ul><li>Inscribing, translating? Writing down or writing up (cf. Clifford 1990)? </li></ul>
    11. 11. The Power of Inscription C.G. Seligman, Malinowski’s teacher, in New Guinea, 1898
    12. 12. The Power of Inscription <ul><li>“ the natives” gathering around him, armchair anthropology, his authority, </li></ul><ul><li>C.G. Seligman, Malinowski’s teacher, in New Guinea, 1898 </li></ul><ul><li>Both photos from Georg Stocking’s Observers observed </li></ul><ul><li>Seated at a table surrounded by half a dozen Melanesian men </li></ul><ul><li>Note here “the natives” gathering around him, armchair anthropology, his authority, “inscribing”? </li></ul>
    13. 13. <ul><li>A ‘pure’ emic perspective? </li></ul><ul><li>Ethnography as dialogue? </li></ul>