Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Reading :: Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Second Edition
By Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw

I've been meaning to read this book for a while. It didn't disappoint—although it's not a perfect book.

First the plusses.

Field notes are an essential part of ethnography, the main way of collecting data and beginning the analysis. And like any essential tool, field notes have developed into several variations, with different strengths and applications. Yet in many ethnographic textbooks, the discussion of field notes is relatively underdeveloped. Yes, we're told to write things down. But what things? When? How? How do we process field notes? How do we turn them into an analysis? Ethnographers and other qualitative researchers can generate an enormous amount of text, but may not be consistent enough to examine the same thing over time, or may not be organized enough to extract consistent insights from that writing.

That is, field notes don't simply involve writing down what the ethnographer sees, hears, and experiences. There's enough in a minute of observation to fill a book if one were meticulous enough. Field notes have to interpret and record what the ethnographer believes is the most important information, and they have to do this consistently in order to generate comparable data over time. That's tough.

In this book, the authors systematically address various aspects of field notes—from jotting to creating scenes, from stylistic considerations to member meanings, from coding to memoing, and finally to inserting fieldnotes into an ethnography. At each point, the authors provide plentiful examples and discuss the different sorts of choices ethnographers make as they write.

And that brings us to the minus—the drawback to the book. Field notes tend to be detailed, and the book similarly dives into the details of producing and processing them—often too quickly, without doing enough to surface and signal the overall structure of each chapter. I had to read each chapter with one finger on the first paragraph, flipping back periodically to remind myself what these particular details were meant to address.

But that's a relatively small issue. If you are interested in learning more about field notes, put Post-Its on the appropriate pages and dive into this book.

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