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ANALYZING FIELD NOTES

Until about 1980, field notes were all written on cards or sheets of paper and then hand- marked with codes indicating themes. Some people still like to write field notes on paper, but most fieldworkers type up their notes on a computer or PDA and then use a text analysis program to code those notes. Text analysis programs don’t analyze anything, but they do take a lot of the drudgery out of coding and they make it easier to analyze your notes (box 13.3).

BOX 13.3

USING A WORD PROCESSOR TO CODE AND RETRIEVE FIELD NOTES

If all you want to do is find and retrieve notes about particular topics whenever you want, then a word processor is all you need. Just create a symbol that will never be used for anything except codes—perhaps the ampersand followed by a backslash, &Then use that symbol to tag material in your notes. For example, you might tuck the phrase "&marriage" into your notes as an indicator that you're talking about marriage ''about here.'' Then, when you want to look for chunks of text that deal with marriage, you just look for the code &marriage.

Tucking tags like this into your notes lets you mark text that is about marriage, even though the word ''marriage'' might not be mentioned (as might be the case, say, in a description of a wedding ceremony).

You can also use the font features (bold, italics, color) of a word processor to code your notes. You'd be surprised at what you can do with a simple word processor. For more, see Ryan (2004) and La Pelle (2004). Lots more about finding and coding themes in texts in chapter 19.

I think it’s best to start analyzing with the ocular scan method, or eyeballing. In this low-tech method, you go through your notes, reading them, one at a time. You live with them, read them over and over again, and eventually get a feel for what’s in them. This is followed by the interocular percussion test, in which patterns jump out and hit you between the eyes. For some, nothing is more fun or efficient at this early stage of analysis than pawing through a sheaf of printed notes, moving them around on the floor, putting them into piles, and thinking about them. For others, printing notes is a waste of time and trees. They like to read through their notes on a screen and code on the fly. There is no single best way to analyze field notes. Figure out what you like and stay with it.

For me, a text analysis program is the way to go. You can ask questions like: ‘‘Find every note in which I used the word woman but only if I also used the word migration within three lines of the word woman.” If you code your notes with themes, you can look for any combination of those, too. The mechanics are simple. The important thing is to decide what the themes are then to use those themes in coding your notes. We’ll get the problem of finding themes in chapter 19.

 
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