4a- Rhetorical Strategies for Writing Observations

What does it mean to “do field­work,” to “take field­notes”?  The answers to these ques­tions are at once sim­ple and com­pli­cat­ed.  Sim­ply stat­ed, one “does research” by hang­ing out in your research site, observ­ing what goes on and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the activ­i­ties and con­ver­sa­tion going on around you.  This process is under­stood as par­tic­i­pant-obser­va­tion research method­ol­o­gy. How­ev­er, sim­ply par­tic­i­pat­ing and observ­ing isn’t enough.  You need to record your obser­va­tions and thoughts on paper.  You need to record what peo­ple in the site say and do. You need to “take field­notes” and write down what you see, feel and think about your research.  When you write these obser­va­tions, thoughts, feel­ings and analy­ses, you are cre­at­ing pri­ma­ry data.

Your first vis­it to your site presents the oppor­tu­ni­ty to “see” the site for the first time as an observer/ethnographer. Make sure that you some device (pen, paper, phone, lap­top) avail­able to record in writ­ing every­thing that you see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and feel. You’re going to try to cap­ture the atmos­phere and mood.  You want to gath­er the kind of infor­ma­tion that will make it pos­si­ble to bring your site alive through your writ­ing. In your first vis­it to the site, you also want to walk away with a good idea of how you see the site now.  This will be the first set of pri­ma­ry data, data that you will col­lect and add to, moments and obser­va­tions that you will lat­er exam­ine in order to see pat­terns in the actions and behav­iors in oth­ers, pat­terns in what it was that you found par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing.  Your pri­ma­ry data set—your fieldnotes—will evolve over time and you will, at the end of this course, be able to com­pare the now infor­ma­tion with how you see your site lat­er, at the end of your project.

At the site, you should try to take notes that address all five senses:

  • VISION: What is this place? Who are the peo­ple? What do they look like? What are they doing? In what order do peo­ple do things? What arti­facts and objects do you see? What do peo­ple do with them?
  • HEARING: What do peo­ple say? What nois­es do you hear? How loud is it?  How qui­et?  Are is the sound from voice or oth­er activity?
  • TASTE: Is there food involved in this set­ting?  Does the space taste like any­thing you know?  Is taste impor­tant in this site?
  • SMELL:  What odors do you encounter here?  Do peo­ple ref­er­ence smell?  Does it smell like oth­er places you know?  Does the smell remind you of oth­er places?
  • TOUCH: Is there any­thing here to touch or feel?  Are bod­ies close to each oth­er?  Is this place sex­u­al­ly charged?  Is it intel­lec­tu­al­ly charged?  What does the place make you feel like?  Where and how and when do peo­ple here touch each oth­er?  Are you engaged in this touch?  Is the touch rit­u­al­is­tic or random?

You should also note how you feel about being present at the site. Are you com­fort­able? Do you feel out of place? Are you inter­est­ed in what you see? Are you com­par­ing this con­text with a sim­i­lar con­text in your own cul­ture? Is this your own cul­ture? What, specif­i­cal­ly, makes you feel that way?

Keep in mind that these notes are just notes. They don’t have to be com­plete sen­tences or beau­ti­ful words. If your native lan­guage is not Eng­lish and you are more com­fort­able writ­ing quick­ly in your native lan­guage, these on-site notes, or “jot­tings,” don’t even have to be in Eng­lish. What they do have to do is pro­vide enough infor­ma­tion for you to expand on when you revis­it the notes to begin to write.  In sev­er­al weeks, when you have record­ed many, many pages of field­notes, you will read through them care­ful­ly, look­ing for pat­terns. What actions/behaviors/words/thoughts reoc­cur?  What did you find to be of extreme inter­est to you as you con­duct­ed your research? You will use those things to frame and write your final ethnog­ra­phy paper, but in the mean­time, you’ll be work­ing with your field­notes to pro­duce quite a bit of writing.