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You’ll write four kinds of notes in fieldwork: jottings, a diary, a log, and field notes proper.


Field jottings—what Roger Sanjek calls scratch notes (1990:96)—are what get you through the day. Human memory is a very poor recording device, especially for the kind of details that make the difference between good and so-so ethnographic research. Keep a note pad with you at all times and make field jottings on the spot. This applies to both formal and informal interviews in bars and cafes, in homes and on the street.

It also applies to things that just strike you as you are walking along. Jottings will provide you with the trigger you need to recall a lot of details that you don’t have time to write down while you’re observing events or listening to an informant. Even a few key words will jog your memory later. Remember: If you don’t write it down, it’s gone.

Clearly, there are times when you just can’t take notes. Morris Freilich did research in the 1950s with the Mohawks in Brooklyn, New York, and on the Caughnanaga Reservation, 10 miles south of Montreal. He did a lot of participant observation in a bar and, as Freilich tells it, every time he pulled out a notebook his audience became hostile. So,

Freilich kept a small notebook in his hip pocket and would periodically duck into the men’s room at the bar to scribble a few jottings (Freilich 1977:159).

William Sturtevant used stubby little pencils to take furtive notes; he found the technique so useful, he published a note about it in the American Anthropologist (1959). When Hortense Powdermaker did her research on race relations in Mississippi in 1932, she took surreptitious notes on sermons at African American churches. ‘‘My pocketbook was large,’’ she said, ‘‘and the notebook in it was small’’ (1966:175).

Every fieldworker runs into situations where it’s impossible to take notes. It is always appropriate to be sensitive to people’s feelings, and it is sometimes a good idea to just listen attentively and leave your notebook in your pocket. You’d be surprised, though, how few of these situations there are. Don’t talk yourself into not jotting down a few notes on the incorrect assumption that people won’t like it if you do.

The key is to take up the role of researcher immediately when you arrive at your field site, whether that site is a peasant village in a developing nation or a corporate office in Chicago. Let people know from the first day you arrive that you are there to study their way of life. Don’t try to become an inconspicuous participant rather than what you really are: an observer who wants to participate as much as possible. Participant observation means that you try to experience the life of your informants to the extent possible; it doesn’t mean that you try to melt into the background and become a fully accepted member of a culture other than your own.

It’s usually impossible to do that anyway. After decades of coming and going in Indian villages in Mexico, I still stick out like a sore thumb and never became the slightest bit inconspicuous. Be honest with people and keep your note pad out as much of the time as possible. Ask your informants for their permission to take notes while you are talking with them. If people don’t want you to take notes, they’ll tell you.

Or they may tell you to take notes when you don’t want to. Paul Killworth studied the social organization of the British Army. Because notebooks are, as he says, ‘‘part of Army uniform,’’ he was able to go anywhere with his notebook in hand and take notes freely. But if he put his notebook aside for more than a few minutes, soldiers would ask him if he was getting lazy. ‘‘More than one relaxing moment,’’ he says, ‘‘was stopped by someone demanding that I write something down’’ (1997:5).

Or they may ask to see your notes. A student researcher in one of our field schools worked in a logging camp in Idaho. He would write up his notes at night from the jottings he took all day. Each morning at 6:00 a.m. he nailed the day’s sheaf of notes (along with a pen on a string) to a tree for everyone to look at. Some of the men took the time to scribble helpful (or amusing or rude) comments on the notes. If you use this technique, watch out for the CNN effect. That’s when people tell you things they want to tell everyone because they know you’re going to broadcast whatever they say. This is a disaster if you’re trying to make everybody around you feel confident that you’re not going to blab about them.

Even when people get accustomed to your constant jottings, you can overdo it. Emerson et al. (1995:23) cite the following field note from an ethnographer who was studying divorce negotiations:

On one occasion when finishing up a debriefing ... [the mediator] began to apply some eye make-up while I was finishing writing down some observations. She flashed me a mock disgusted look and said, ‘‘Are you writing this down too!’’ indicating the activity with her eye pencil.

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