“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” by Emerson and Fritz Chapter 3

writing ethnographic field notes
The third chapter is entitled, “Writing Field Notes I: At the Desk, Creating Scenes on a Page.”  My summaries and reactions:
Recognizing that all writing, even that which attempts to take a neutral stance and remain as descriptive as possible, is a kind of construction, the authors are mindful about what influences this construction and attempt to raise, in this chapter, several of the circumstances, questions, and decisions that factor into the ethnographic description that the fieldworker puts on the page (or screen) after being in the field.
Issues of how soon and how long the ethnographer gets to the desk (as fresh as possible, as soon as possible, ideally an hour writing for every hour in the field, as much unpolished memory as an outpouring can produce) get squared away pretty quickly.  Techniques for recalling the day (use of jottings, initial lists of topics, beginning with high points, turning jottings into extended texts) are exemplified.  These seemed fairly obvious to me, but might be helpful to someone else.  I find myself to be that kind of extensive, compulsive note-taker anyway.  This method sounds like second nature to me.  Sometimes in the course of going from jottings to notes, new or fresh significance emerges, and that’s something I see happening often in my field note taking.
The technique of writing “lushly” (Goffman), depictions of scenes, including spatial arrangements, details of the setting, the appearance of people to contextualize talk and action (while resisting the too-easy categorizing and stereotyping we tend to do in taking in other human beings), casting evocative images… these produces portraits of irreducible importance, where the discovery lies in the ethnographic task.  Otherwise, everything defaults to the bell curve, the expected scene, without idiosyncrasy that makes the scene matter.  Dialogue can flow in and out without repeatedly adding the she saids and he saids, and the authors make their pitch for capturing verbatim dialogue however possible and getting the narratives of the speakers as important artifacts of culture, something which is already my starting point into ethnography.  Aspects of transcription like capturing breaks and rhythm, pitch and prosody, as Hymes and company articulated, create many decision points in transcription, ones that the responsible ethnographer makes deliberate decisions about.  Characterizations are discussed, as is the use of active rather than passive verbs.
Organizing writing about the day’s events can be broken down with these tools:
sketches: like a still-life picture, a multi-sensory scene.
episodes: capturing action, a “slice of life.”
transitional summaries: because a full sequence is often impossible, linking episodes with transitional summaries segments and coheres the account.
Finally, including in-process analytic commentaries or asides also helpfully warrants a discussion here.  Asides are quicker, commentaries are fuller.
As a reflection, the authors describe a “writing” mode where the ethnographer is intent on producing the observation text, and then a “reading” mode that involves looking again, reflection, etc.  It’s helpful to think about the discipline of ethnography, for me, as investing enough in this writing mode to work fully and intently as an observer, before leaping too quickly, all-too-quickly, to the analytical or interpretive mode.
Overall, the chapter feels the driest, but perhaps because this is the most obvious, practical, and re-tread territory, and the authors want to give details and procedures in pretty straightforward fashion without overproblematizing or over-thinking these steps.  The examples are helpful, but for the most part, I’d be more interested in a version of this chapter organized around common dilemmas or problems that the fieldnote taker encounters in attempting the work, and the way these tools are solutions.

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