To Write or Not to Write…(the Field Quandry)

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing the ethnographic researcher is knowing when to open the notebook and when to keep it shut. If you commit yourself to putting pen to paper while in the field, you risk two things. First, your note taking immediately takes you out of the involvement of regular activities. It takes you outside the circle and could quite possibly anger, upset, or create discomfort with your research subjects. Instead of an involved insider, you become a detached outsider. Secondly, you may miss important bits of information happening right under your nose.

While reading “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” (Emerson, Fretz and Shaw, University of Chicago Press, 1995), I drew a parallel to chapter two: In the Field: Participating, Observing, and Jotting Notes.  The book makes mention of fieldworkers retreating to private places, such as stairwells, deserted rooms, or even closets or bathrooms to jot down details while they are fresh in their head.

This jogged my recent experiences while attending the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention. I remember retreating to remote corners, away from the bustle of activity, to jot down notes and information. I particularly was concerned with recording my meeting with Philadelphia Eddie and did not want to let the rest of the afternoon influence my memory of our conversation. It was refreshing to see my same method mentioned in the text as usual practices for ethnographic researchers.

The book also mentions that some researchers avoid writing in the field at all, but “immediately upon leaving the field, they pull out a notebook to jot down reminders of the key incidents, words, or reactions they wish to include in the full field notes.” (Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, p. 24)

Again, this was me. No sooner had I reached my truck, I had my notebook out and was scribbling furiously in it. I had a dinner engagement and had to leave the parking garage, but I wrote at red lights. I wrote when the traffic slowed down, and I wrote when I reached the restaurant ahead of my family.

This was the only way I felt confident that I could do the experience justice. Some people have minds like industrial strength super glue, capturing every lint speck dust ball of detail where it remains until scraped off. Some people, like me have spaghetti strainer memories with holes the size of croquet balls.

However strong (or not so strong) your memory is, it is important that you, as a field researcher, adopt a method that works best for you. No two people, or methods will be exactly the same. Often your method will involve some hybrid of standard practices, dictated at times by ongoing events and research environment.As noted above, I employed a couple of the types of observation/note taking mentioned in this early chapter of the book.

I urge you, the researcher, to find what works best for you.

I have included a sampling of my field notes here:


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