“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.

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd Edition)” by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw (2011) Chapter 2

writing ethnographic field notes
The second chapter is entitled, “In the Field: Observing, Participating, and Jotting Down Notes.”  My summaries and reactions:
To the wary new ethnographer, chapter 2 provides a lot of reassurances and helpful clarifications.  Telling someone to be an observer and a participant among people, without the “scientific” goal of slicing away variables and maintaining an extremely tight focus, means always tangling with perceptions, reactions, emotions, and positions of self in relation to others.  This prospect can fill you with doubt.  Am I capturing what matters?  Do I pollute my observations with my own feelings or subjectivity?
The ethnographer’s fieldnotes always involve perceptions of significant ideas and facts, but that significance is determined first and foremost by the priority to the perspective from “within,” rather than the outsider’s perspective.  Yes, ethnographic writing wants to include initial impressions and reactions of the participant observer, but not uncritical ones.  Those impressions are good for identifying things that regular participants might take for granted, like when a commonly-used saying strikes the observer as strange or unrelated, or a behavior doesn’t appear logical even though everyone takes it for granted.  But the ethnographer is certainly not satisfied with their own perceptions of weirdness.
Rather, the ethnographer does well to note her reactions and responses, observe the reactions and responses of locals or those being studied, and consider the indigenous meanings, narratives, practices, perspectives that make events significant or not, etc.  How do local actors attribute importance or grant attention?  The authors give an example of the observer in an ex-prostitute’s residential program who notes a brief conversation about a woman’s new haircut, jotted down, easily passed over as insignificant, except that people at the site grant it significance by further talking about the haircut and identifying its significance: it turns out to be consequential because the haircut is a step towards the trappings of a sex worker lifestyle that the observed woman is supposed to be getting away from.
Overall, the authors convey that the writing of fieldnotes is tied in with observation, and observation does not dismiss the subjectivity or judgments of the observer, but must discipline them under the endeavor of the anthropological task.  This includes become a systematic observer and recorder, including being attentive to the “where, when, and whom” that are often taken for granted in events by local people, as well as the “why” and “how” of routine and mundane interactional accomplishments.  Over time, then, the writing can narrow and focus, after starting as a broad net, becoming more and more focused on a set of issues.
The authors then talk about “jottings,” writings in the field done to capture a moment before it’s lost to memory, often in the form of mnemonics to be filled in later with detail.  Dialogue, topics, etc.  Jottings are the ethnographer’s activity but also their mindset, approaching the experience in the field with the thought of capturing for later writing.  These jottings involve
–capturing key components, fragments of talk as focal points, sometimes just as reminders of the specificity of the moment,
–sensory details, needed to later reconstruct the feel of what happened,
avoiding “characterizing scenes or what people do through generalizations or summaries,” which are often used by novices as convenient or efficient notes but not helpful for close descriptions.
–details of scenes, conversations, interactions, quotes, concrete events that show rather than tell.
–emotions– how they are exhibited, what they come out as, etc.
–general impressions and feelings, even if their significance isn’t immediately apparent.
Besides the content of field notes, field workers have to think of the occasions and places they can pull out their notebook or Macbook or whatever writing tools.  This isn’t just a practical question of what feels convenient, because the field worker has to be conscious of how the act of writing interacts with the ethnographer’s presence and participation in the field.  The fieldnote writer is torn between being present in the field and pulling away, whether physically or interactionally, for taking notes.  Where does one position oneself?  Does one begin taking notes during a delicate situation, and risk offending or scaring the participants?  Is the ethnographer distracted by the task of writing and missing the actual cues of the interaction?  Whether jottings are open or hidden, strategic and conscious jotting is a key and sometimes evolving part of ethnographic writing.  And of course, there is the ideal that the ethnographer becomes someone the participants trust and have gotten used to, standing by and writing away and recording the situation where the participants are freely doing what they would do, comfortable with the ethnographer’s work and place in the ecosystem.  But reaching that point obviously takes a long process of building trust and familiarity, and introduces a different sort of “weirdness” to the regularity of everyday life.
It’s a weird stance, a weird place to be, and one that requires my sense of judgment and constant critical analysis.  In my case, especially as something more than just a participant observer, I know the colleagues I work deserve that I am being open and honest, remaining critical and analytical of myself in order to be nonjudgmental of others, and striving to be descriptive and purposeful in my writing.  Those are the challenges of ethnographic writing, but dealing with those challenges is the work that you’re doing.
As I read the chapter, I think of the awkwardness of being a fervent notetaker wherever I’ve been.  I just gave a little talk with some middle schoolers at the school (though not the classroom) where I’m doing my observations, explaining how being a note-taker has changed my life.  (This is all tied to the course’s curriculum, which introduces student skills like note-taking in all classes).  Being an inveterate note-taker has utterly shaped the way I belong to social situations involving work, and balancing that with the awareness of faces and voices and presences that I’ve also worked at being attuned to, that’s hard to reconcile sometimes.  When I’m at the site, sometimes I don’t know whether to pull out the recorder, the scrap of paper, the laptop, the notebook, and when to simply be present and conscious.
I do know, however, that I’m guided by the ultimate goal of ethnographic writing, and that requires the tension between participating, belonging, being fully present and heads-up, and stepping back to think, to capture stories, to consider, to tie in with theory, to identify and sometimes make meaning.  That tension is a familiar one, one that I think has some close overlap between other tensions I try to hold together in my work as a teacher-coach and my work in education as a whole.  I feel like it’s an important posture to maintain, the commitment to live with and understand and learn people, but the devotion to an ongoing conversation of reflection and analysis about that living.  There are specific ways that reflection and analysis goes on, a certain kind of disciplined inquiry that ethnography entails, and those commitments are also vital.

CLEVR, Argumentation, Logic, and Authorities/Audiences


As with so many across the country in the wake of Common Core, my partner and I, who share a job as middle school English coaches in our district, have been working on Argument Writing. The intrepid colleagues that we collaborate with have stretched our thinking about what argumentation looks like, how it’s taught, how it can be assessed, and what value it has.  The poster is a reinterpretation of George Hillocks’ schematic representation of Stephen Toulmin’s now-classic delineation of the elements of argument, which he arrived at inductively from a study of arguments in contemporary usage (in contrast, to, say, Aristotelian logic).  Trying to be conversant with the parlance of the field, we’ve used the language of claim, evidence, and reasoning.  That differentiation seems to have a lot of utility and currency in Science, Social Studies, and literacy in the Common Core standards themselves.  The teachers we work with now make reference to introducing “CLEVR” as a means of analyzing and evaluating arguments and of developing their own arguments.

Even as I applaud the rigorous thinking that elaborating this construct is developing, I admit I’m lukewarm on it.  Yes, much academic and professional writing is conventionalized to require an explicitness in the logic, premises, criteria, and so on, that undergird an argument.  The need for students to develop that facility is not lost on me.  (I could probably use a good dose of it myself).  Yet, consider this paragraph from Steve Coll in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column this week:

The Tea Party’s anti-intellectualism reflects a longer, deeper decline in the Republican Party’s ability to tolerate a diversity of iras and public-policy strategies, and to adapt to American multiculturalism. Mitt Romney’s poor showing among Latino voters in 2012 helped insure Barack Obama’s reëlection.  Republican leaders, chastened and without any other obvious way to increase their vote base before 2016, pledged earlier this year to revive a comprehensive immigration-reform bill.  Yet party leaders, in part because they have been tied down since July by the debt confrontation, haven’t found a way to move legislation past the nativist caucus in the House.

Try to isolate the pieces of claim, evidence, and reasoning from that paragraph and you’re likely to realize that New Yorker audiences would be insulted by such explicitness about inferences they do not need an author to make for them.  Indeed, the same goes for a television sketch that would feel the need to explain why it’s funny, or virtually any other form of discourse which makes some kind of point or claim.  “If I have to explain the reasoning to you, then what are you doing here?”

Of course, the very function of language of schooling is to not rely on such inferences, implicitness, innuendo, in-crowd language, inside jokes… to express all complexities on the surface of language.  But I think teaching students claims, evidence, and reasoning without a concomitant attention to the irreducible element of an argument’s situated-ness in particular authorities and audiences is an incomplete education.  What reasoning is good reasoning?  Depends on who you’re speaking to.  What evidence is good evidence?  Depends on your sources of authority, your notions of truth, your epistemology.  What claims are forceful claims?  Who knows but those from whom we learn and to whom we speak, in the dialogicality of real-life interaction?

It seems like Toulmin extracted a nice scheme from real-life arguments.  I argue that we need to teach with a relentless consciousness of putting arguments back into real life.  Analyze the claims, evidence, and reasoning, but lay bare the addressivity and addressees.  Identify the warrants and backing, but know those aren’t abstractions, but the narratives and worldviews of living and breathing speech communities, cultural groups, participants of discourses.  And when we unfold the dimensions of claims, evidence, and reasoning that belong to the scientific community or the field of historians or the lingo of BBoys or culinary patois, we should not withhold from students reflection on all their specificity of location, politics, and development.  “Copernicus derived these conclusions from these calculations.  And he analyzed in this way in contrast to these predecessors for these reasons.  He ultimately published in this fashion and was taken up in these ways by these proponents.”  No arguments without arguers.