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.