Through the Looking Glass (regarding field research)

Field research is a skill honed through practice. Not only does interviewing take some time to develop a level of comfort and confidence, but so too does our ability to actively observe. Active observing necessitates that the researcher not only engage the object of his studies in complete sensory digestion, but also balance the recording of field notes. After all, it is these notes to which we return after we have retired from our field studies. It is our recorded observations which we rely on to jog our memories and fuel the spark from basic notation to vivid experience.

Above all, our purpose as ethnographic researchers is to “describe a social world and its people.” (Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, p. 68)

We recently had the pleasure of putting these skills to work as part of our Research Methods for Writers course (see Bowling for…Research!). Part of our responsibility was to upload, share and discuss our field notes transcriptions and the experience itself. As is to be expected, the experiences and reactions of my peers were widely varied.

This seemed to hold true especially for a perceived feeling of general animosity toward us as outside “observers” and a discomfort level with conducting interviews. Understandably, interviewing is a developed skill. Approaching complete strangers and getting them to open up to you requires a measure of trust, and a mutual thread of reward. You gain valuable information, while the interviewed enjoys the value placed upon their information and the interest with which it is gathered.

I did not perceive this same feeling of animosity that a majority of my peers felt. Neither did I find myself unwilling or hesitant to approach any of the bowlers with questions. I was not alone in this, but it did seem that we few were the minority. Now, it is interesting to me, as I reflect on my own levels of research, that perhaps those who are on the more cautious side have a self-preserving shield.

As discussed in J.W. Creswell’s book, Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design (2nd ed.), ethnographic research carries with it an implied risk. Proper data collection requires longer time in the field, longer time living amongst your research subjects. The danger is in the researcher losing himself in the process, or as Creswell states, “going native” or “compromising oneself.” I wonder if it is easier for those lacking this hesitation in interview approach or ease of comfort in field situations to succumb to such compromising? Do we, who do not know this level of separation, place ourselves in jeopardy of losing ourselves in the very same culture that we elect to observe and report upon?

It’s an interesting thought. It’s akin to a gun that has lost its safety. There is no fail safe. These are the dangers of the ethnographic researcher. There is that desire to creep closer to our research. Closer. Closer, until we teeter on the edge of responsibility and hope that we’ll fall back the other way, onto “our side of the fence.”

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Bowling for…Research!

Ethnographic research necessitates the researcher immersing himself in the culture or society he wishes to learn more about. It involves observation with minimal distraction. It is the goal of the researcher to record and observe events as they unfold, as naturally as possible, and without undue influence of outside research.

On Tuesday, February 22, 2011, our graduate “Research Methods For Writers” class participated in an ethnographic field study. We met at the Glassboro Recreation Center, 503 Delsea Drive North, Glassboro, NJ for practical application of our ethnographic studies.

We broke into research teams of four. Our goal was to study a little known culture called “The Bowling Alley”. We were to conduct our study and gain as much information as possible, recording our notes in our field notebooks. The next step (this step) requires the transcribing of field notes into organized thought and coherent sentences. Finally, we (as a group) will create a GoogleDoc detailing our team’s findings, presented in a unified write up.

We divided our team into four research areas:

1. The staff, to include pro shop, snack stand, pin setters, announcements, etc.  2. The building itself: operation, facilities, layout, bowling alley tangibles, furniture, utilities, services.  3. The bowlers on side “A’ (Women’s league) 4. Bowlers on side “B” (Mixed league). I was responsible for observing the mixed league.

Here then, for your viewing pleasure are my notes as I attempted to capture the essence of the bowling alley. Following the images, I will transcribe the apparent scribblings of a madman into a clearer depiction of the bowlers in their native culture.

Ethnographic Field Notes; Bowling Alley (Transcribed):

The Glassboro Recreation Center is a cacophony of sensory stimulation. I tuck my Moleskine notebook in my pocket, easily within reach, and move toward the center of activity. There are tables in place, with high-legged chairs, that one can sit at (or stand, which is what I chose to do) and eat, drink and observe the action. I situated myself behind a group of bowlers that seemed to be hitting strike after strike (a strike is when all of the pins are knocked down in one throw) and let myself drink in the scenery.

Once one passed the tables, there were smaller tables for the bowlers. Each seated four and had the scoring computer at one end. The tables were covered in food, drinks, scoring and roster sheets, ball towels, raffle tickets, keys and assorted personal belongings. It appeared to be the same up and down the entire side. Tables were packed with very little room or clear space to be found. Taco dip, onion rings, french fries, bags of chips and pretzels assaulted the olfactory. Bottles of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, or Miller Light, along with plastic cups of draft Yuengling thrust themselves prominently into sight. In fact, it seemed as if the bowlers, as a whole, were constantly eating and drinking.

They moved like clockwork. Retrieve Ball. Bowl. Watch screen. High Five. Retrieve ball. Bowl. Watch screen. High five (or shake head). Sit down. Eat. drink. Talk to surrounding bowlers. The air was filled with the chatter of conversation, the dull thud of the ball hitting the alley, the crash of the pins and the quiet hum of the ball retrieval belt system.

I watched the routing with great interest. If the bowling alley collected on “high fives”, they could have rebuilt their building as the Taj Mahal. High fives appeared to be the proper etiquette for anything short of missing the pins completely.

I watched the team before me wrap up their game. A gentleman by the name of Walt finished highest with a 278 (300 is the highest score one can achieve).

“Wow, nice score,” I said. “How long have you been bowling?”

He laughed. “A long time.”

Walt told me that he had bowled two 300s in his bowling career. He went on to explain that this was the mixed league. Teams were required to have two men and two women. The season started in September and they were getting near the end. Their league was Tuesday night, starting at 6:30. He put on his Teamsters Local Union 676 jacket and walked out the side door for a smoke. There is no smoking in the building.

I continued to watch the bowlers. It seemed that every bowler had their own bag for their ball (or balls, some have more than one). Shoes cluttered the area in front of the house balls. But tonight this would not matter, no competitive bowler used a house ball. And make no mistake, these bowlers were competitive. I watched an older man limp down six lanes to slap another guy on the back and gloat over his third strike. Wrist guards were unstrapped and tightened. I watched a man spin his ball over and over, wiping down with his towel until it gleamed in the light. It seemed as though every bowler had a towel or two, the purpose being to wipe away dust or dirt that could interfere with the ball’s trajectory. I was amazed at the curve these bowlers could put on the ball, sending it from far right to the left center of the headpin.

I asked another bowler how they were able to make their ball curve like that. He told me that it was not in the arm or wrist action of the bowler, but in how the ball is drilled and weighted at the pro shop.

There is another aspect of the competition taking place in the mixed league. This is the side wagers constructed to make the game more interesting than just the score. The first game is for the teams playing themselves only. The bowlers buy into the pot and every time they get a strike or a spare (finishing off the rest of the pins on your second throw), they get a playing card. Whoever has the best poker hand at the end of the match wins the pot. Cards and dollars fanned out across the cluttered table.

The other game covers all of the teams. Bowlers buy a raffle ticket. A red, paper raffle ticket. At some point during the night, a random ticket is drawn. If that bowler who is called bowls a strike in that frame, they win the pot. If not, it goes to the next ticket pulled and they get a shot. I was fortunate enough to be right behind the team whose bowler was called. Carl was a  big, burly man with a shaggy beard. The announcement was made and the other teams stopped to watch what Carl would do. He ambled up, took aim and bowled true. The pins crashed apart, all ten of them. Carl had won the pot. “I need the money,” I heard him say as he sat down. The young girls (maybe 12 years of age?) whose job it was to sell tickets and collect money while their parents bowled, brought Carl his wad of cash and the woman Carl was with began to count it out. I asked a couple of other bowlers about the strike pot, or more specifically what it amounted to, on average.

They told me that it was, on average, $100 and that in the men’s league it usually went to the first bowler. He said that when the women bowled, it was 50-50, often times going to the second or third bowler. The guy made a finger rubbing gesture, signifying the gaining of money. “It’s a nice little bit of extra cash,” he said.

But the bowling isn’t just about the side cash, or the competition, it’s about getting out and having fun with people who share a common interest: the enjoyment of bowling. I watch as they greet each other, and ask about each others lives. I sit next to a man who, while slipping shoe covers over his sneakers, discuss diets, health, losing weigh with an older man, named Johnny. Johhny asks after the man’s children. It seems that this is more than competition and cash. This is a chance to get out and share a few hours with friends. Bowling is an escapist hobby.

Now, it is important to note here that we had to spend a short amount of time observing a fellow student (as assigned by Dr. Wolff). I observed Tamikka. Our goal was to observe their methods and actions in gathering their own research. When I caught up with Tamikka she was asking some questions of the counter staff. Then, she seated herself at her table, behind the women’s league bowlers. She wrote in her notebook and ate some nachos. At this point, some of the bowlers were agitated by our intrusion. Tamikka told me, “There’s only so much you can do and we already stick out like a sore thumb.” Tamikka remained at her table for the length of my observation. I believe she was recording notes gathered in her mind from her observation. This was a good wind down time, especially in light of aggravated bowlers.

Ultimately, this was an interesting practice. It was a relatively non-threatening and busy environment, offering a wide range of information and experience. Even in transcribing my notes, I think about opportunities I may have missed, or would like to cover in more detail. But that is the beauty of ethnographic research. Had we be doing this as an actual field study, that would have been only the first night of observation. After having reviewed and transcribed my notes, I would have prepared to look into those areas I found deserving of more attention on the subsequent visit.

I thank Dr. Wolff for bringing us out into the field to “play” with ethnographic research. It was worth the time.