I sometimes get asked by people who don’t know much about the kind of research I do what it entails. In many settings I’m in, I’m an incurable note-taker, constantly writing, furiously. What’s going on in my note-taking, they wonder, and how is it research? Am I writing private judgments and opinions, copying every uttered word like a stenographer, drawing caricatures of people dressed up as superheroes?
Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw is a book I’ve been waiting to read, timed with the beginning of qualitative research I’m conducting for my doctorate. (For anyone keeping count, it’s the fourth of five books I plan to read simultaneously and record on this blog, along with occasional journalism, academic articles, pieces of culture, etc.) From my skimming, it will package up and remind me of what I learned from taking courses with and hanging around anthropologists as a graduate student, and what I have taken away as the intellectual practice of being-in-a-place and taking-notes-while-there, which I think is a theoretically important, rich, and potentially weird thing to do.
The authors begin by pointing out classic works on ethnographic writing, analysis, and fieldwork (Geertz, Sanjek, etc) that, despite their import, don’t provide an organized introduction to the act of writing while in the field, or taking fieldnotes. The authors describe very different uses and conceptions of fieldnotes in practice– how they’re done, why (or whether) they matter to the ethnographer, how organized or idiosyncratic they should be– which make it difficult to transparently discuss or teach how to do fieldnotes.
Transparency, or “making explicit the assumptions and commitments [held] about the nature of ethnography as a set of practical research and writing activities,” is the authors’ response to the different conceptions about fieldnotes specifically and ethnography generally. In that spirit, the authors are ethnomethodologists and symbolic interactionists, which I think gives them sensitivity to “mundane” practices that compel them to think this carefully about fieldnotes as a kind of habitual practice for ethnographers. Their experiences teaching courses about taking fieldnotes and their imagined audience of not just ethnographers in anthropology and related fields, but also people in experiential education and service learning– those are interesting to me as a writing educator. They talk about writing not only about the “critical incidents” one encounters “in the field,” but also the everyday practices, habits, and routines that get taken for granted, which is of course core to the ethnographical enterprise, but also important to learning and reflection for people who don’t consider themselves academic researchers.
The book’s organization is structured based on the actual processes by which takers-of-fieldnotes, including non-experts, experience them, beginning with the notetaker’s assumptions and stances, then moving to the step-by-step aspects of writing, describing, developing analyses, organizing, etc. The first chapter begins with detailing the place of fieldnotes in ethnographic research, essentially the interconnected activities of being in the field and writing about it. Here, the ideas of social worlds, the interactional accomplishments of everyday situations that are defined between people, and the interpreted meanings of interactions, those kinds of concepts that ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism are concerned with, become developed between the ethnographer’s participation in the field and all that’s entailed in writing description.
Being in the field means the immersion of body, self, personality, in the social situation, not as objective outside observers, but as participants in the lives, interactions, and practices of the people studied. Then, the ethnographer can understand the ways of thinking, the struggles, and the meanings of people in that setting. But because of this, writing isn’t just noting what you observe and witness impartially, but working through perceptions and interpretations that you the ethnographer make. The authors provide the examples of three different descriptions of supermarket checkout lines in LA to exemplify how “orientations and positionings” of the observers change the accounts, the representations in writing. These show how fieldnotes involve selection, emphases, choices, filters and lenses of interpretation.
Therefore, fieldnotes involve a kind of inscription, a notion from Clifford Geertz, where the ethnographer takes “social discourse,” passing events happening in moments, and turns them into writing through a transformation, onto paper, of the events. Selection, framing, and other reductions are involved, of course, and that’s why method matters. What are we selecting for, looking for, viewing for? And yet, even while defining those lenses, the ethnographer’s job is to be aware of context, details, factors, influences, all that might go into a “thick description” (Geertz again) that understanding people requires.
The four implications the authors draw: (1) data is always tied to the observational processes, and whatever the method is always the data at the same time; (2) the ethnographer is always looking for indigenous meanings, local interpretations, not imposed though mediated through the ethnographer; (3) writing fieldnotes contemporaneously is necessary, though not sufficient, to build the account, because the writing nearest to the occurrence maintains the character of contingency and specificity of the moment; and (4) the everyday activities, the mundane interactions, the microscopic moments– those are the ethnographer’s concern, with detail, attending to sequences, eventually leading to identifying processes, to document life.
The authors conclude by summing up some different takes on what’s involved when ethnographers write down the cultures and localities they’re immersed in– is it, as Geertz called it, inscription, putting into words a moment? Or is that too much like “salvage ethnography,” the rough notion that anthropologists are about capturing and bottling up disappearing languages and heritages before they pass into extinction? Is it narrating, translation, or “textualization,” as Clifford calls it? Each perspective tells us something about what’s involved in fieldnotes, the authors explain, and yet none adequately parse out what’s involved in the daily “way of life” that ethnographic fieldnotes invites a researcher into.
As I said at the top, these are ideas I’ve been familiar with and have influenced me, but I appreciate the clarity and coherence with which the authors introduce ethnographic fieldnotes in the larger context of what ethnography is. As a qualitative researcher (I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m an anthropologist or ethnographer formally, since my discipline lets me pick and choose what’s most useful and necessary to answer whatever research question), I am pretty aligned to these authors’ perspectives about research work. There are more critical questions about research and communities that the authors haven’t taken up yet– in the “immersion” experience, we can’t forget that the farther and faster we “swim” into the waters, the more we push out waves that ripple through the ecology of the lake. But I appreciate this refresher as I set up the infrastructures to take fieldnotes in my own work.