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FIELDNOTES : BREAKING THE SILENCE

Khatijah Abdullah
University of Southampton
Highfield
Southampton
United Kingdom
kagkl101@soton.ac.uk

Abstract: Making notes of ones observations and working process is


considered good practice for any research. And research gains credibility to the
extent that the whole process by which one arrives at conclusions is laid open to
scrutiny. While the research design, mode of data collection and analysis may
often be made explicit, not all of the thinking which is evident in one fields
notes is often discussed when researchers reported on their studies. Whatever
the research design, it can be invaluable to be able to look back over the
evolution of ones ideas, to reflect on why particular decisions were made, and
to become aware of the assumptions and values implicit in the research. This
paper attempts to draw attention to the role of field notes in the process of
research. Practical issues such as how, when and where to make notes will be
explored.

Keywords : field notes, practical issues, data analysis.

1. INTRODUCTION

At first glance, writing field notes seems deceptively straightforward. But exactly how
does one decide what to write? Comparatively little attention has been paid to field
notes (Emerson et al 1995). Emerson et al (1995), the only monograph length of
fieldnotes to date, provide much valuable information but gloss over the taken for
granted mechanisms involved. The next few sections will address the issues
surrounding writing field notes : the how, when and where. However before exploring
these issues, it is pertinent to consider what is meant by the field to provide the
necessary background.

1.1 Definition

Naturalistic observations take place in the field. For ethnographers, the field is a
cultural setting. For qualitative organisational development researchers, the field will
be an organisation. For evaluators the field is the program being studies. Some of the
terms used included field work and field research. All these terms refer to the
circumstances of being in or around an on-going social setting for the purpose of
making a qualitative analysis for that setting (Lofland & Lofland 1984)

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Realists consider that the field represents a natural entity, out there, which needs to be
objectively described by the observer, who acts as an impersonal channel through
which information is conveyed to the reader. Atkinson (1992 p5) consider that the
field is, something we construct both through the practical transactions and activities
of data collection and through the literary activities of writing field notes, analytical
memoranda and the like.

1.2 So what are field notes ??

Research, particularly qualitative research in social and cultural settings, is


experienced subjectively. The quality of the data gathered is intimately related to the
quality of relationships the researcher is able to establish with the informants in the
field, as Hasrup (1992) notes , fieldwork is situated between autobiography and
anthropology (pg117). The field note provides a form through which the interaction of
subjective and objective aspects of doing research can be openly acknowledged and
brought into a productive relationship. Thus field notes can be understood as notes
created by researchers to represent aspects of field experience (Sanjek 1990)

Some of reasons for making field note were an attempt to enhance memory, enhance
attention and record experience. Writing field notes can help you see things, hear
things, think things, feel things and understand things that would never occur without
focused attention.

2 FIELD NOTES

2.1 Taking field notes

Some consider field notes to be the essence of a study. In contrast, others claim that
field notes are secondary to becoming immersed in a culture. It was contended that if
too much time is devoted to writing detailed notes then the deeper, intuitive
experience of being within the culture will be lost (Emerson et al 1995). While in the
field, researchers presumably identify certain phenomena as interesting and worthy
annotation. They therefore must exercise discretion in deciding what should be
documented in their field notes (Wolfinger 2002)..

Many options exist for taking field notes. Variations include the writing materials
used, the time and place for recording field notes, the symbols developed by observers
as their own method of shorthand, and how field notes are stored (Sanjek 1990). No
universal prescriptions about the mechanics of and procedures for taking field notes
are possible because different settings lend themselves to different ways of
proceeding. The precise organisation of fieldwork is very much a personal style and
individual work habits. Thus what may be considered as important and interesting to
write into field notes will be affected by the researchers professional and personal
world view (Atkinson 1992).

Ethnography places much discretion in the hands of the researcher. Symbolic


interactionism (Blumer 1969), social setting analysis (Lofland & Lofland 1984) and

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grounded theory (Glaser 1978) advocates letting ones experiences in the field guide
as a studys focus.

2.2 The how - Writing field notes

There are no rules as to how field notes should be complied, the prime consideration
is finding a format and style that fits with the needs of the research project , and which
is found to be workable and useful by the researcher. Nevertheless it is often useful to
be able to compare ones own approach with others. Unfortunately, the making of
notes and the writing of field notes is not often discussed when researchers report on
their studies.

A decision must be made concerning the order in which researchers document what
happened in the field. Schatzaman and Strauss (1973) advocate an approach that
packages material into three categories : observational notes, theoretical notes
and methodological notes.

2.2.1 A strategy for recording Schatzman and Strauss (1973)

Despite the title of the chapter in their book, Schatzman and Strauss (1973) are keen
to emphasise that field note taking are much more than a mechanical means of storing
information for later retrieval. Instead they argue that the the researcher requires
recording tactics that will provide him with an ongoing, developmental
dialogue(p94). They emphasise the importance of recording observations from the
very beginning of the research; first encounters and the routes to gaining access to
research situations are all considered important research data.

Observations notes are statements bearing upon events experienced principally


through watching and listening. They contain as little interpretation as possible, and
are as reliable as the observer can construct them. Each of the observational note
represents an event deemed important enough to include in the fund of recorded
experience, as a piece of evidence for some proposition yet unborn or as a property of
a context or situation. An observation note is the who, what, when and where and
how of human activity (p100).

Theoretical notes represent self-conscious, controlled attempts to derive meaning


from any one or several observation notes. The observer as recorder thinks about what
he has experienced, and makes whatever private declaration of meaning he feels will
bear conceptual fruit. (p10)

Methodological notes are statement (s) that reflect an operational act completed or
planned: an instruction : an instruction to oneself, a reminder, a critique of ones own
tactics. It might be thought as observational notes on the researcher himself and upon
the methodological process itself (p101).

The implication is that although written notes may more or less naturally fall into
these three categories they point out that an overly self conscious or ordered
approach to note making is unhelpfully slow. The degree to which any researcher
would want to adopt such an approach depends on the particular project and his or her
preference.

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Another method for writing field notes was proposed by Emerson et al (1995):
Salience hierarchy and Comprehensive note taking

2.2.2 The Salience hierarchy

Researchers may start by describing whatever observations struck them as the most
noteworthy, the most interesting, the most telling. Ethnographers frequently choose to
record a particular observation because it stands out. Observations often stand out
because they are deviant, either when compared to others or with respect to a
researchers existing knowledge and beliefs. Either way, background knowledge
influences which cases are chosen for annotation. Thus deviant cases often lead to
salient data. This is referred as making an observation salient. It is highly subjective
and depends upon the particular research context.

2.2.3 Comprehensive note taking

Another way is to record notes is to systematically and comprehensively describe


everything that happened during a particular period of time, such as a single trip to the
field. One place to start is with a generalised list of concerns such as that provided by
Lofland and Lofland (1984 p48) :

1. Who is he?
2. What does he do?
3. What do you think she meant by that?
4. What are they supposed to do?
5. Why did she do that?
6. What is being done?

Spradley (1980: 78) provides a similar list

1. Space : the physical place


2. Actor : the person involves
3. Activity : a set of related acts people do
4. Object : the physical things that are present
5. Act : single actions that people do
6. Event : a set of related activities that people carry out
7. Tiem ; sequencing that takes place over time
8. Feelings : the emotions felt and expressed

This way of note taking has the advantage of recreating an event according to the
order they really happened. This can aid in the recall of details that might otherwise
have been forgotten.

2.2.4 van Maanen (1988) fieldwork accounts

Van Maanen (19880 described three field work accounts as : realist fieldwork ,
confessional tales and impressionist tales

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Realist fieldwork account represent the researcher as an impersonal channel through
which information about the field is conveyed to the reader while confessional tales
include the researchers personal experiences and methodological confessions
alongside but separate from the descriptive fieldwork account. The impressionist tales
attempt to provide accounts that the readers is quite simply pulled into the story to
interpret it themselves.

These different ways of approaching field notes raise the question of how far self
should be used within the construction of accounts.

2.2.4 My field notes

Every researcher however will have their own preferred strategies for recording data.

An analysis of my notes show a wide range of styles and types of entry. Categories
included :

summaries of what I did and how I thought about it,


comments on what I felt about issues arising,
possible research questions, plans and methods for new methods and further
action, passing thoughts,
analytical memos drawing together thematic threads, personal blocks,
notes with commentary on articles and books,
records of conversations with my supervisor, and fellow researchers,
diagrams of early theories,
documents I used in the research,
attempts to define concepts, and
my preconceptions of situations.

By using this format I have been able to reflect on the evolution of the research and
my development alongside it. It has enable me to challenge myself on matters which,
for whatever reason, I did not feel brave enough at the time to try out on anyone else.
By having field notes, it had afforded me the freedom to examine problems whenever
I wanted, exposing my prejudices, indecisions and ill defined concepts, forcing me to
clarify my position each time, and what it might mean for my future actions.

So the field notes have been my principle mode of what Hammersley and Atkinson
(1995) call reflexivity, enabling me to examine my cultural and epistemological
stance, and to consider how I, as observer, might be influencing both the field under
observation and the observations themselves. The field notes gave physical substance
to many theoretical and methodological musings which would otherwise have been
lost.

The physical format was adapted from advice from Ely et al (1991) who suggest
leaving generous margins for later comments on what has been written, numbering
lines and sequential pagination. I produced a template, the top right hand corner
including the title: Field notes for quick identification of extra prints outs floating
around my desk. Files were named according to the date the field notes are done,
which as set out to read chronologically down the computer screen menu : 020404

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meant the year 2002 month 04 day 04. The header also include this coded date, along
with page numbers. The lines were numbered 1-50 down the left hand side. Entries
and individual passages can then be referred to be a coded number sequence: thus,
020404/02/12-16 refers to an idea in lines 12-16 on page 4 of the log entry dated 4
April 2002

2.3 THE WHEN AND WHERE

When notes are made tends to govern where they are constructed. Sometimes it is
possible to move around the field with a notebook and record information as it occurs.
However participants may object being recorded and may develop expectations about
recordings. They may become upset when an event they consider important is
omitted. These problems however could be resolved by the relationship the researcher
has with those in the field. A nurse taking field notes while undertaking observation in
their own place of work is at an advantage here. They will intuitively recognise
situations that are sensitive, embarrassing or generally off limits and thus best
avoided. They are also more likely to be trusted.

Most researchers would agree that it is important to record field notes as coon as
possible. This may mean writing an account at the end of the each day or immediately
after the observations or recording the events as they occur in situ. Recording events
as they happen or shortly afterwards ensures that details, and indeed the entire event,
are not lost to memory. However short or long term reflection on observations may
provide a different gloss on the events (Munhall 2003).

However researchers must be strategic about taking field notes, timing their writing
and recording in such a way that they are able to get their work done without unduly
affecting either their participants or their observations.

Both Sanjek (1990) and Emerson et al (1995) comment on the practice of making
notes as and when possible during periods of observation. As Emerson et al (1995)
point out there are often very practical reasons why writing extended notes at the time
of observation is not possible ; a female ethnographer studying women in Africa, for
example, may find herself helping to prepare greens and care for children, leaving no
time to produce many written notes (p17). It is recommended that rough notes may
be made as soon as possible and preferably on the same day. These rough notes are
refers as jottings by Emerson which can then be expanded into field notes proper
later.

2.5 PRACTICAL ISSUES

It is important to give early consideration to how you might want to use the field notes
later in the research. How will you retrieve information from the field notes?
Schatzman and Strausss (1973) ideas of packaged notes is one possible way of
managing the material. Large volumes of field notes often require some kind of

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keyword or subject index if they are to be easily searched, alternatively some form of
weekly or monthly summary may be useful.

There is also a number of technical terms that need thinking about, is the field notes to
be kept on loose sheets of paper ( this is preferably if you are likely to photocopy
notes) in bound notebooks or electronically used word processing software. It is also
worth considering the use of abbreviations. However it will need to be sufficiently
clear that the researcher can return to it after a long period of time and still
understand what has been recorded.

Finally one should consider the ethical issue involved in keeping field notes.
Although field notes can be considered a private document, and in fact part of its
value is that it allows a license for the researcher to record and test out on paper
thoughts and reflections that may never reach a wider audience, it is also used in
relation to data analysis. Clearly there is need to consider issue of confidentiality fro
both the researchers and the character that appear in the research story.

2.7 FOOD FOR THOUGHT

I had pointed out at the start that keeping notes was a basic requirement for any
research. Any research gains credibility to the extend that the whole process by which
one arrives at conclusions is laid open to scrutiny. While the research design, mode of
data collection and analysis may often be made explicit, not all of the thinking which
is evident in one field notes reaches the light of day. Of course, the presentation of
any piece of research must be selective and it would be tiresome to read irrelevant
material. I suspect that we all keep something back, and always will. But at what cost?
We sense how we might gain by cutting out so much of what we reveal in our field
notes, but perhaps more attention needs to be given to what we lose. Perhaps we
abridge too far? I do wonder what I am missing by not letting other see what I have
called my field notes. What could others tell me by reading it in its raw form?

2.6 CONCLUSION

Field notes are an often neglected yet fundamental part of ethnography. It plays a
crucial role in connecting researchers and their participants in the writing of an
ethnographic report. An enormous time are spent writing the notes. Writing field
notes is rigorous and demanding work (Patton 2002) and it may take on a unique
sacredness (Sanjek 1990). Therefore it is important to understand the processes
underlying their creation. In this paper I have described the how, when and where .
Practical issues are also addressed in the hope that it will help further to provide
clarification. The paper concluded with an invitation for others to share their own
thoughts on revealing more (or less) of the unabridged contents of our notes.

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