Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes

Now I will be commenting on my next reading: "Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes", by Robert M. Emerson, Rachel l. Fretz and Linda L. Shaw.
I read this book right after I had read Michael Agar's "The Professional Stranger" and there was quite a difference between the two. The main difference was that as I have said before, Agar does not think that field notes are that important and can serve as a distraction. This book was entirely on the importance of field notes, how they are thought out and how the final ethnographic work should be written. I imagine that these four anthropologists would have a lot to discuss if they met and that it might be quite a heated conversation.
In the preface, they discuss how the importance of field notes has been dissipating over the years, even with the new-found concentration and/or discussions on methods in anthropology. They attribute this decline in importance to a number of things that include: embarrassment of field notes by the ethnographers themselves which lead them to keep them so private that one might even never see any direct quotes from them, or any usage at all in the final ethnographic project. They say also that field notes can be too "revealing" or "too messy". For these reasons they say that how anthropologists create field notes is "mysterious".(p.ix). But I suppose that the more that we talk about methods in anthropology these days, more anthropologists might be more willing to discuss their personal methods. They also say what I have mentioned before and that is that many anthropologists disagree on the importance of field notes as well as whether they help with the final ethnographic project, or whether they are merely a diary to help with the stresses of fieldwork.(p.x). They think, and I have to agree at this point, that every ethnographer sees the importance of field notes in very different ways as well as differ in their techniques for writing them.(p.xi). Some anthropologists feel that the technique for writing field notes is a subject that can't be covered in the teachings of methods. I think that different anthropologists should share with students how they go about writing them along with the rest of their methods, yet possibly point out that it can be a personal choice and that there is no correct way. Turns out that these authors think the same thing as they have stated at the bottom of page xi. They also say that the tendency for some anthropologists to regard field note writing as a nuisance is probably because they want people to understand that it is still very important to grasp the 'big picture' and not get honed down on detail. I can understand that but some people do not trust their memory as well as others and it seems to me that they can be quite useful in "capturing the moment" with as much recorded detail as possible. I really like what they say here about the writing of field notes: "Writing field notes would encourage experiential education students to observe more finely and systematically, to consider both the mundane and the dramatic, and to attend to others' activities and concerns as closely as their own".(p.xv). They also think that field notes are especially important for beginners in the sense that they can help document the "explicit and implicit instruction given interns about what things are important and how things should be done".(p.xv). I think that this makes a lot of sense and for my final project I think that I will use them for that purpose amongst many others I am sure.
Field notes are indeed part of their definition of ethnographic field research methods: "These two interconnected activities comprise the core of ethnographic research: First-hand participation in some initially unfamiliar social world and the production of written accounts of that world by drawing upon such participation".(p.1).
"...the task of the ethnographer is not to determine "the truth" but to reveal the multiple truths apparent in others' lives".(p.3).
One very important point that they make that the other books did not really cover is the consciousness of the effect of the ethnographer in the study and consequently an influence on the written account. I suppose if one is to merely observe from afar then this might not be seen as important, but I think that one would really have to be a fly on the wall in order to not have some sort of effect on the group that is being studied. They call this "reactive effects" and say that they "should not be seen as 'contaminating' what is observed and learned. Rather, these effects are the very source of that learning and observation".(p.3). They think that instead of 'contaminating' the "evidence", if you will, these "reactive effects" help to illuminate how the said culture interacts with each other and others who are not necessarily an integral part of their culture. I agree and as I have said before, honesty in the ethnographic writing as to the process of how the interpretations were reached is a must and the reader will be able to determine these "reactive effects".
Contrary to the old view of ethnographic field research which highlighted learning about the culture from a distance, they encourage direct participant observation and believe that this helps to "acquire empathy for local ways of acting and feeling".(4). I see method in ethnography as progressing from the "armchair" techniques, to distant observation and now as participatory as possible. Makes sense to me. I am going to embark on my final project on local Creole food in New Orleans...what am I going to do? Not eat it?!!!
To go a step further here into participatory studies, not only does it help "being there" as well as involving oneself in the group actions, but it helps determine the emotions behind the culture that determine their actions. It also helps the observer understand what motivates speech and how "people grapple with uncertainty and confusion".(p.4).
Now that we have the reasons for participant observation down, we have to think about what interpretations are the best and most accurate. Are there any that are the best and most accurate? No and that is why I like to use the term interpretation. They also think along these lines and believe that there are numerous ways to perceive and interpret and that none are the only 'natural' or 'correct' way.(p.5). I think that this subject might possibly one of the most hotly debated topics in anthropology today.
I like the way this book was written because Emerson, Fretz and Shaw are professors who teach a class on methods and so they use the students work as examples which is nice for a novice like me.
They describe field note writing as a process of interpretation whereby we can create many different interpretations of the same situations. They say that this is where we can write down the 'significant' and leave out what we think is "not significant'.(p.8). I wrote this in my notes: "So how do we then account for the "missing" of the proposed significant?". I guess that is it-different interpretations are caused by different thoughts on what is 'significant'. I guess that we do not have to account for it. But then what if we are Margaret Mead and years later our work is completely challenged by someone and they accuse us of not seeing the properly 'significant' and that our interpretations are wrong? I guess we sit and pray for the rest of our lives that even if someone thinks this, they will not share it with the rest of the world of anthropology!
I do see now, however, why they suggest writing different interpretations down because then they go on to say: "...it is important to recognize that fieldnotes involve INSCRIPTIONS of social life and social discourse. Such inscriptions inevitably REDUCE the welter and confusion of the social world to written words that can be reviewed, studied, and thought about time and time again".(p.8). They say that we write our field notes to "transform" events into writing which involves the "inevitable processes of SELECTION".(p.9). No pressure or anything. It is no wonder that this is a slightly sensitive topic for both the ethnographer and the culture subject.
So then we transfer observation to writing and this here is a pretty amazing way of describing this transfer:
"Further reduction occurs with the representation of a recorded slice of embodied discourse as sequential lines of text in a 'transcript'. For while talk in social settings is 'multichanneled event', writing 'is linear in nature, and can handle only one channel at a time, so we must pick and choose among the clues available for representation".(p.9). Apparently somebody by the name of Walker in 1986 said this and I think it is a truly brilliant way of describing the transfer of observations into writing.
Another interesting point that they make is that the method that an ethnographer chooses reflects how the ethnographer personally views "social life and how to understand it".(p.10). In other words, how he or she finds meaning in his/her own life will tend to be how they methodically interpret the lives of others. Field notes thus change over time with information added and taken away, much like we do in our own minds in our everyday lives.
'Rather it is both intuitive, reflecting the ethnographer's changing sense of what might possibly be made interesting or important to future readers, and empathetic, reflecting the ethnographer's sense of what is interesting to the people he is observing".(p.11).

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