Anthropology Terms Abroad

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Karen Brison, Steve Leavitt

Field notes and field journals have been the anthropologist's main instruments for recording ethnographic information. They record your observations, interactions, and the things you do in the field--recorded on paper so that they will not be lost. As a person, you forget 99.9% of what happens to you in life, but because of your notes you will always have a good record of your term in Fiji. In addition, taking notes helps you to organize your thoughts, make sense of your environment, try out hypotheses, and think of things you need to ask more about. In the end, journals and field notes help you see better; if you're thinking of recording what happens, you'll pay closer attention to what you see. For their term abroad in Barbados, George and Sharon Gmelch have put together an excellent set of pointers for doing field notes. We have adapted some of their points for our use here in Fiji.

Students write notes

Students writing notes at a festival

A Journal vs. Field Notes

Each researcher works differently, and we are not going to dictate just how you should organize your notes, but we will make suggestions about guidelines that we have found useful. In general, there are two kinds of things that you will be wanting to record in detail while you are here: 1) descriptions of events, interviews, beliefs etc. and 2) personal reactions. It is generally a good idea to try to keep these two categories separate from each other, or at least to be very clear about when you are recording a fact and when you are recording a reaction or suspicion or guess. We have found it useful to organize our record-taking into field notes (for information 1) and a journal (for information 2). At the beginning of a field stay, you know very little about what is going on, so the journal often becomes the most important field tool, as you record your reactions and your suppositions. Over the course of a long field stay, though, the field notes tend to become more important and the personal reactions less interesting (or novel), so that as time goes on the field notes become much more important.

Field notes and journals work best if they are organized around TOPICS or EVENTS, so that you make an effort to do as thorough a coverage as possible. You might even think of the notes as early drafts of a paper, so that they are as organized as possible. Including TOPICAL HEADINGS will be helpful for future reference once you gather a lot of notes (see handout samples). When we are grading your notes, we will be looking at how well organized they are and how thorough they are.

Journals and Letters Home

During our first field work in PNG we did not have computers, and we found that many of the things we wanted to put in a "journal" were also the things we thought our relatives would be interested in back home. So instead of keeping a separate journal, we simply made our letters home more thorough and detailed than we otherwise would, and we kept carbon copies for ourselves for later reference. In other words, we thought of our letters as a kind of journal. Now that you have a computer to work with, you can easily do cut & paste jobs to transplant portions of your journal into your letters and vice versa. We will want you to hand in to us some form of journal (and not letters home) so at the very least you can just take out the salutations and personal references, add in topical headings and hand in the material to us in that way.

Combining a journal with letters home is also useful because at least at first you will likely find that you will want to write letters home more than anything else. It also helps to be able to imagine an audience (other than us) that cannot see what you're trying to describe. By thinking of your letters as a journal, making them as thorough and well organized as possible, you can cover both writing tasks at once (and your family and friends will be grateful for all the mail!).

The journal material will also be very useful for the Interactive Project with the intro classes back at Union. When handing in journals, please flag for us the paragraphs that you think might be most interesting for posting on our web site.

Guide to Making Journals and Field Notes Work

It is very hard to develop the discipline to do notes the way they should be done. At times, we still have difficulty forcing ourselves to sit down and write. But over the years we have finally realized the truth of what our own professors advised—that most of what you put off writing down will quickly be forgotten, even when it is put off for only a day. Memory erodes rapidly as new knowledge and experiences overlay that of the previous day, unless a deliberate effort has been made to review and record it. Here are some guidelines for your notes:

  1. Set up a regular time to work on your notes. Use your computer when it is possible to do so, but go ahead and write things longhand if for some reason you can't use the computer (make carbon copies of things written longhand).

  2. Jot down some brief notes during the day and especially while an event is happening or immediately afterwards. This is VERY important. Often, your schedule will not permit you to write a full note entry at the time, but it is still very important to write something down even if it is only rushed cryptic notes, at the time. Then later (again, never more than 24 hours later) write out your full entry. We have found small bound notebooks that are easy to carry and will suggest these for you. Carry one of these everywhere you go.

  3. Your journal in particular should be aimed at capturing your experiences in this new culture. You will gradually arrive at preliminary generalizations, ideas, and conclusions about your experiences, your cultural identity, your friendships in Fiji etc. You may want to put your "conclusions" or "suppositions" in your notes in parentheses (to keep them separate from your concrete descriptions and observations).

    You are expected to write notes at least four days every week. They will be collected periodically during the term.

  4. Please feel free to write things also that you do not want us to read. In the end, the journal and notes are for you yourself. Just hand in an "edited" version for us, or if you are writing by hand tape a paper cover over what you don't want us to read (or you can also just tape pages of your book together).

Checklist for Field Notes and Journals

Taking good field notes is an art; it requires a lot of practice. So don't expect to get it right the first time around. The check list below aims to help you improve your observations and note taking over the second half of the term. When we grade the notes, we will expect you to have made the changes/improvements suggested below. Read this over carefully, and re-read every so often until you are confident that you are taking good notes.

  1. ___I have been writing notes at least four times per week. Have I DATED each entry?

  2. ___Are my observations CONCRETE AND SPECIFIC? There is a tendency for descriptions of behavior to be too general or vague. For example, you might write "The drinking is of kava excessive..." What does that mean? How much are people drinking? Is everyone drinking in the same fashion? What are the contexts? What are they doing when they are drinking? And so on. If kava drinking behavior is important, you could ask some people what they think about it, what they think about in deciding to participate. You can observe, and even count, people's behaviors. The more specific you can be, the better. You may think you know what "excessive" kava drinking is, but when it comes time to analyze your data and begin to write up (if you were doing an ethnography) you are likely to discover that you really can't describe with any accuracy what the actual pattern is.

    Here is another example of vague, unspecific observation from a set of field notes at Union College: "The walls {of the dorm rooms in West} are generally covered with tapestries, posters, pictures and various memorabilia." This tells us that there is a lot of decoration, and perhaps that the rooms have a cluttered look, but little else. What are the posters and pictures of? Sports heroes? Scenery? Musicians?

  3. ___I used SUBJECT HEADINGS regularly. You should have a subject heading or title for each category of information you write about. In addition, you should include topical subjects for different sections of notes on a given topic. (see sample handout).

    An important consideration in keeping field notes is to write them in a form that facilitates the retrieval of information.

  4. ___I sometimes used DIAGRAMS to describe the plan or layout of a building or a seating arrangement or the placement of important features or items in a room or building. If it is easier, have a rough version of your diagram in your book for cryptic notes, and then leave a space on the paper for your diagrams and then draw them in after we print them out.

  5. ___I tried not to used too many abstract terms that don't have clear referents to real behavior (this relates to #2 above). Here are some examples of unspecific language: "The atmosphere was very macho..." "The girls were very happy..." Well, what is a macho atmosphere? And what were the girls doing that indicated to you that they were happy? Did they say they were happy? Did they have big smiles on their faces?

  6. ___I remembered to use QUOTATIONS. Use quotations whenever your informants describe or say something that is particularly revealing. Try your best to capture just what words they used (put these in the book for cryptic notes). When you write up your projects as papers at the end of the term, you will want to include specific quotes from informants as best you can. Obviously, this is also one of the primary values of a tape recorder. Good quotations will give color and life to what you write; and they will give the reader a better feeling for who the subjects of your study are.

  7. ___I wrote about my PERSONAL REACTIONS to the events and happenings I observed and participated in (especially in the journal). Your emotional reactions to people and things are data, and they are often more revealing than the more concrete, objective observations, so include them, but if they are embedded in a concrete description, set them off with brackets [] or parentheses (). Do the same with inferences.

  8. ___I Numbered my pages?

  9. ___I jotted down brief notes during the day and especially while an event is happening or immediately afterwards. We will be wanting to look at your notebooks for cryptic notes as well as the other notes.

  10. ___I understood that an anthropological field journal is NOT a diary in that I have tried to focus on my life here and not just my own personal ruminations about people back home or whatever. I remembered that the goal of the journal is to observe, notice, and try to make sense of the culture that surrounds me. Please feel free to keep a separate diary for yourself if you like to keep a diary—do not hand this in to us.

    If you have fallen down on some of these points, it is not too late to fill things in to make the notes more complete.

    Remember, journals help you to organize your thoughts, make sense of your environment, try out hypotheses, and think things though. In the end, journals and field notes help you see better; if you're thinking of recording what happens, you'll pay closer attention to what you see.

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