SSW2 Session 03: Ethnographic tales part 2

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW2)

30.01.2012 13 - 15 : SSW Session 02: Ethnographic tales part 1

.

Exercise: Cafe Observation Perec-style Feedback

3-4 People at random will share their writing based on last week's proposal to visit a cafe, and write 'flatly' about what one sees, Perec-style

.

In what way did subjectivity and previous knowledge affect your text?

.

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes

Introduction

Emerson et al. note even in their preface that ethnographers in the 1970s (eg Geertz, Gusford) have emphasized the cental place of writing in their craft – Geertz (1973) with his “characterisation of 'inscription' as the core of ethnographic 'thick description'”..

Also noted are Clifford & Marcus's edited collection Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986), Van Maanen's Tales of the Field, and Atkinson's The Ethnographic Imagination (1990)..

Examinations of ethnographic writing are mostly partial in scope: beginning with already written fieldnotes, and deal with rhetorical or representational issues.

According to Emerson et al., “they neglect a primal occasion of ethnographic writing – writing fieldnotes.. they ignore a key issue n the making of ethnographies – understanding how an observer/researcher sits down and turns a piece of her lived experience into a bit of written text in the first place”.

Polished accounts of social life, published monographs as finished texts

“incorporate and are built up out of these smaller , less coherent bits and pieces of writings – out of fieldnotes, many composed long before any comprehensive ethnographic overview has been developed. Moreover, fieldnotes in finished ethnographies are reordered and rewritten, selected and molded to some analytic purpose. They thus appear in very different forms and carry very different implications than the original corpus of fieldnotes that the ethnographer produced in the field. In these respects, writing fieldnotes, not writing polished ethnographies, lies at the core of constructing ethnographic texts.”

(Emerson et al. 1995: preface vii-viii)

Sanjek's edited volume Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology (1990) has addressed this neglect to the nature and uses of fieldnotes, examining “what anthropologists do with fieldnotes, how they live with them, and how attitdes toward the construction and use of fieldnotes may change through individual professional careers.”

Note that the people who took the notes might think about them differently, many years later, maybe even regret or question their relevance.

Emerson et al, note that Atkinson in his The Ethnographical Imagination calls attention to the importance of analysing fieldnotes, emphasizing that traditionally field notes often remain private documents, unavailable for analysis.

“Several factors underlie this long-term if perhaps now dissipating neglect of ethnographic fieldnotes. To begin with, ethnographers are often uneasy or embarrassed about fieldnotes. Many seem to regard fieldnotes as a kind of backstage scribbling – a little dirty, a little suspect, not something to talk about too openly and specifically. Fieldnotes seem to revealingly personal, too messy and unfinished to be shown to any audience. For these and other reasons, sholars do not have ready access to original, unedited fieldnotes but only to completed ethnographies with the selected, reordered fieldnotes they contain. As a result, how ethnographers write fieldnotes remains largly hidden and mysterious.”

How have things changed since the information publishing revolution where people are not restricted by material or market forces in sharng their notes about lived experience? Is there an Open Ethnography Data movement in 2010's?

Later stages of ethnographic writing are often more theoretically driven, less personal..

“With a body of fieldnotes assembd , the ethnographer withdraws from the field to try to weave some of these strands into an ethnographic story. At this point the ethnographer handles fieldnotes more impersonally as data – as objects to be studied, consulted, and reordered in developing a tale for other audiences. The issues and procedures that mark this phase of ethnographic writing – coding, developing an analytical focus etc – are closer to the finished, published product and, thus, more amenable to presentation to others.”

(Emerson et al. 1995: preface ix)

Participant oberservation

“Ethnographic field research involves the study of groups and people as they go about their everyday lives.”

As mentioned previously, the ethnographer enters this social setting, and gets involved with people, towards understanding them and maybe knowing them.

Participating in the daily routines of this situation, developing ongoing relations with the people and the site, the ethnographer is

“observing all the while what is going on. Indeed the term 'participant-observations' is often used to characterise this basic research appoach..

[T]he ethnographer writes down in regular, systematic ways what she observes and learns while participating in the daily rounds of life of others. Thus the research creates an accumulating written record of these observations and experiences.”

Participation, Observation and production of written accounts based on these actions comprise, according to Emerson et al., as being the core of ethnographic research.

(Emerson et al. 1995: 1)

Immersion

Taking up positions in the midst of key sites & scenes of other's lives in order to observe and understand them,

the ethnographer “seeks a deeper immersion in others' world in order to grasp what they experience as meaningful and important..

With immersion the field researcher sees from the inside how people lead their lives, how they carry out their daily rounds of activities, what they find meaningful, and how they do so..

Immersion in ethnographic research.. involves both being with other people to see how they respond to events as they happen and experiencing for oneself these events and the circumstances that give rise to them.”

According to Emerson et al., being immersed precludes the ability to conduct field research as a detached passive observer, and so the field researcher can only get close to by actively participating in their everyday affairs, and so entails some degree of what they call 'resocialisation': “to become a member of that world, to experience events and meanings in ways that approximate members' experiences”.

(Emerson et al. 1995: 2)

“In learning about others through active participation in their lives and activities, the fieldworker cannot and should not attempt to be a fly on the wall. No field researcher can be a a completely neutral, detached observer, outside or independent of the observed phenomena..

The ethnographer cannot take in everything; rather, he will, in conjunction with those in the setting, develop certain perspectives by engaging in some activities and relationships rather than others. Moreover, it will often be the case that relationships with those under study follow political fault lines in the setting, exposing the ethnographer selectively to varying priorities and points of view. As a result, the task of the ethnographer is not to determine 'the truth' but to reveal the multiple truths apparent in others' lifes.”

(Emerson et al. 1995: 3)

“Even with intensive resocialisation, the ethnographer never becomes a member in the same sense that those 'naturally' in the setting are members.”.. “neither as committed nor as constrained as the natives'” (Karp and Kendell 1982:257). Furthermore, the fieldworker orients to many local events not as 'real lifre' but as objects of possible research interest, as event that he may choose to write down and preserve in fieldnotes.

In these ways, research and writing committments qualify ethnographic immersion, making the field researcher at leaase something of an outsider, at an extreme, a cultural alien.

Fieldnotes are accounts describing experiences and observations that researcher has made while participating in an intense and involved manner.

(Emerson et al. 1995: 4)

Inscriptions

“[W]riting description is not merely a matter of accurately capturing as closely as possible the observed reality, of 'putting into words' overheard talk and witnessed activities. To view the writing of descriptions simply as a matter of producing texts that correspond accurately to what has been observed is to assume that there is but one 'best' description of any particular event. But in fact, there is no one 'natural' or 'correct' way to write about what one observes. Rather, because descriptions involve issues of perception and interpretation, different descriptions of 'the same' situations and events are possible.”

(Emerson et al. 1995: 5)

“Writing fieldnote descriptions.. is not so much a matter of passively copying down 'facts' about 'what happened'. Rather, such writing involves active processes of interpretation and sense-making: noting and writing down some things as 'significant', noting but ignoring others as 'not significant', and even missing other pssibly significant things altogether. As a result, similar (even the 'same') events can be described for different purposes, with different sensitivities and concerns.

In this respect, it is important to recognise that fieldnotes involve inscriptions of social life and social discourse. Such inscriptions inevitably reduce the welter and confusion of the social world to written words that can be reviewed, studied, and thought about time and time again.”

(Emerson et al. 1995: 8)

Emerson et al. quote Clifford Geertz (1973: 3-30) who writes that..

“The ethnographer 'inscribes' social discourse; he writes it down. In doing so, he turning it from a passing event, which exists only in his own moment of occurence, into an account, which exists in its inscription and can be reconsulted.”

They continue by adding..

“As inscriptions, fieldnotes are products of and reflect conventions for transforming witnessed events, persons, and places into words on paper. In part this transformation involves inevitable processes of selection; the ethnographer writes about certain things and thereby necessarily 'leaves out' others. But more significantly, descriptive fieldnotes also inevitably present or frame objects in particular ways, 'missing' other ways that events might have been presented or framed. And these presentations reflect and incorporate sensitivities, meanings, and understandings the field researcher as gleaned from having been close to and participated in the described events”.

Reductionism

There are other ways to reducing social discourse to written form, according to Emerson et al.

“Survey questionnaires, for example, record 'responses' to pre-fixed questions, sometimes reducing these answers to numbers, sometimes preserving something of the respondants own words. Audio and video recordings, which seemingly catch and preserve almost everything occurring within an interaction, actually capture but a slice of ongoing social life. What is recorded in the first place depends upon when, where, and how the equipment is positioned and activated, what it can pick up mechanically, and how those who are recording react to its presence.

Further reduction occurs with the representation of a recorded slice of embodied discourse as sequential lines of text in a 'transcript'. For while talk in social setting is a 'multichannel' event, writing is 'linear in nature, and can handle only one channel at a time, so must pick and choose among the cues available for representation (Walker 1986:211)

A transcript thus selects particular dimensions and contents for discourse for inclusion while ignoring others, for example, nonverbal cues to local meanings such as eye gaze, gesture, and posture..

[A] transcript is the product of a transcriner's ongoing interpretative and analytical decisions about a variety of problematic matters: how to transform naturally occuring speech into specific words (in the face of natural speech elisions); how to determine when to punctuate to indicate a completed phrase or sentence (given the common lack of clear-cut endings in ordinary speech); deciding whether or not to try to represent such mattters as spaces and silences, overlapped speech and sounds, pace stresses and volume, and inaudible or incomprehensible sounds or words. In sum, even those means of recording that researchers claim come the closest to realizing an 'objective mirroring' necessarily make reductions in the lived complexity of social life similar in principle to those made in writing fieldnotes.”

(Emerson et al. 1995: 9-10)

Summary

Ethnography as Van Maanen (1988: ix) writes is "the peculiar practice of representing the social reality of others through the analysis of one's experience in the world of these others"

According to Emerson et al.,

"Fieldnotes are distinctly a method for capturing and preserving the insights and understandings stimulated by these close and long-term experiences. Thus fieldnotes inscribe the sometimes inchoate understandings and insights the fieldworker aquires by intimately immersing herself in another world, by observing in the midst of mundane activities and jarring crises, by directly running up against the contingencies and constraints of the everyday life of another people. Indeed, it is exactly this deep immersion - and the sense of place that such immersion assumes and strengthens - that enables the ethnographer to inscribe the detailed, context-sensitive, and locally -informed fieldnotes that Geertz (1973) terms 'thick description'.

This experiential character of fieldnotes is also reflected in changes in their content and concerns over time. Fieldnotes grow through gradual accretion, adding one day's writing to the next's. The ethnographer writes particular fieldnotes in ways that are not pre-determined or pre-specified; hence fieldnotes are not collections or samples in the way that audio recordings can be, i.e. decided in advance according to set criteria.

Choosing what to write down is not a process of sampling according to some fixed-in-advance principle. Rather it is both intuitive, reflecting the ethnographer's changing sens of what might possibly be made interesting or important to future readers, and empathetic, reflecting the ethnographer's sense of what is interesting or important to the people he is observing"

A transcript thus selects particular dimensions and contents for discourse for inclusion while ignoring others, for example, nonverbal cues to local meanings such as eye gaze, gesture, and posture..

[A] transcript is the product of a transcriner's ongoing interpretative and analytical decisions about a variety of problematic matters: how to transform naturally occuring speech into specific words (in the face of natural speech elisions); how to determine when to punctuate to indicate a completed phrase or sentence (given the common lack of clear-cut endings in ordinary speech); deciding whether or not to try to represent such mattters as spaces and silences, overlapped speech and sounds, pace stresses and volume, and inaudible or incomprehensible sounds or words. In sum, even those means of recording that researchers claim come the closest to realizing an 'objective mirroring' necessarily make reductions in the lived complexity of social life similar in principle to those made in writing fieldnotes.”

(Emerson et al. 1995: 10-11)

.

Exercise: Common Action Writing

What are the goals:

  • To learn about observation practices and note-taking
  • To practice writing about the same action/event, recognising the particular and multiple perspectives that can be gained.

Social matrix:

  • Group decision, Individual work (writing), with group contributions and listening.

Timespan:

15mins group decision-making & 30 mins writing.

Preparation

  • None

Introduction (0 mins)

  • None

Activity (15mins + 30 mins minimum)

  1. As a group decide upon a common, simple, everyday action that is situated, and can be documented.
  2. Go to the site of the action seperately
  3. Write first line "date, month, year, time (approximate or exact depending on preference)
  4. Start by writing where you are situated
  5. Write down your notes in which ever way you like/feel comfortable doing for at least 30mins

Discussion (15 mins)

When the group meets up again, read out several examples

.

References shared in this session:

Atkinson, Paul (1990). The Ethnographic Imagination: Textual Constructions of Reality. New York: Routledge.

Clifford, James and Marcus, George E. (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R., and Shaw, L. (1995). Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Chicago: Unversity of Chicago Press.

Geertz, Clifford (1973). Thick Description: Towards an Interpretative Theory of Culture, In The Interpretation of Culture, New York: Basic Books
http://hypergeertz.jku.at/GeertzTexts/Thick_Description.htm

Karp, Ivan and Kendell, Martha B. (1982). Reflexivity in Field Work. In Paul F. Secord, ed. Explaining Human Behaviour: Consciousness, Human Action and Social Structure, 249-73. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Sanjek, Roger, ed. (1990). Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology. Ithica, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Van Maanan, John. (1988), Tales of the Field: on writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Walker, Anne Graffam (1986). The Verbatim Record: The Myth and the Reality. In Sue Fisher and Alexandra Dundas Todd, eds. Discourse and Institutional Authority: Medicine, Education and Law; 205-22. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License