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Ruminating the Field and the Pedagogy of Writing Notes

By Suchismita Chattopadhyay

What is a field note? As a PhD candidate in Anthropology, who is in the middle of her ethnography, field notes have become an intrinsic part of my identity on field. It is always a point of inquiry for my supervisors when we conclude a conversation; they always check to make sure that I am taking notes and not simply relying on committing everything to memory.  This essay is a nascent attempt at understanding what makes up a field note and the importance of making such notes and reading through them. Normally, field notes or any conversation around them does not feature in formal academic conventions. I also would not have spared it a thought had I not been trained as a writing pedagogy teacher for two semesters at the Shiv Nadar University in 2015-2016. Recently, I was invited to conduct two workshops in JNU and IIT Delhi on methodology and field notes and on working with and through transcripts. The thought process of beginning to conceptualise the field, field notes and subsequently, a pedagogy of the same for the workshops inform the core of this essay. It has helped me to think of how I viewed my notes and myself as an ethnographer, and also, more intimidatingly, what it would mean to conduct a workshop for my peers who were grappling with similar questions and problems.

Noting the Field

Anytime somebody has to embark on a research that involves field work, the first piece of advice is that one must take extensive field notes. One must maintain a journal for recording their days on field. The advice is mainly limited to that. It is specific and vague at the same time. It is specific to the point of the researcher must make field notes every day and vague because nobody tells you what exactly constitutes a good field note. This is possibly the reason why anything and everything can become a field note. They can include atmospheric detailing, snatches of conversations, things that are collected as a part of the process, to a reflection of how the day went.

Because field notes are so subjective and so disperse, it is one of the reasons why every researcher has a mortal fear of sharing their notes. It is like maintaining a diary. A personal act, where most often you can see your vulnerabilities glaring back at you because most often fieldwork is extremely slow, frustrating and painful, which includes a lot of waiting. Waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone to show up, waiting for someone to talk to you, and waiting for an insight that would make you simply comprehend. Often, field notes also bear witness to the kind of researcher you actually are. How detailed are your notes? Are they organized date-wise? Do you collate them later theme-wise? Do you separate your descriptions from your analyses? Are your field notes messy to the point that only you can read them later, or sometimes not? Do your field notes also betray the perennial guilt of not working hard enough? Do they stand testimony to your hours of waiting? Do they also bear witness to you trying to validate your existence as a researcher? Often on field work, the researcher’s identity amongst her respondents may boil down to be that person who possesses multiple pens or can be often found sitting in corner writing. The act of writing, making notes or even doodling often serves to legitimize one’s position in the field and many days of seeming non-work can be salvaged by the fact that the researcher still managed to make notes.

Conversations around the topic of one’s research can be found in abundance in many an academic conference but rarely if ever, do we hear about the humble field notes, the site where the ideas took shape or were left to stew. Field notes are the space where thoughts and data collected are raw. The act of making field notes is what comes closest to the idea of reflective writing and reading. We enter and inhabit the field with our explicit knowledge of secondary reading. However, for ethnographers, the devil lies in the details. Thus, the notes that are produced as a result of our continued interaction with the field help bring out nuance, by going back and understanding the daily practice of living in a culture or how an idea or a thing came to be normalized in the first place.

The form of writing that one sees as a finished product either in the form of a paper presented at a conference, a PhD thesis, an article or a book manuscript is a process that begins with the field notes. The writing of it is a period of rumination and struggle. Rumination in the form of going through the same thing over and over again, much after the researcher thinks she has digested the field somewhat. The writing, often seems repetitive but in repetition lies cognition. While in a finished form of writing there are clear demarcations of an introduction, body and a conclusion, the notes in the form of ruminations are jumbled, appearing repetitive, with incomplete sentences and phrases. It is always a lonely process of sorting out one’s own field writing. What is relevant or useful? What seems obvious? There is always the perennial fear of everything seeming way too obvious and predictable the more you get immersed in the field. Most researchers think it is a personal process, often evading the topic of how field notes are produced. This is because methods are different and more often than not, there is no pedagogy of field notes or how to process it produce the finished texts expected by academia. Perhaps this is so because fields are different and multiple methodologies are deployed, but what remains constant is the act of writing.  The kinds of writing might differ but it always involves thinking through with writing.

Field Notes as Pedagogy

What then becomes interesting to think about is if there is a pedagogy to writing and talking about field notes. Is there a process for actually doing the spade work? Can one teach the process of writing and reading field notes? Unlike teaching certain kinds of writing that demand agreed upon form and structure, can the writing and reading of field notes become a pedagogical exercise? These were some of the questions I had to think through as I began formulating a workshop for MA students of the School of Social Sciences in JNU and for the early PhD scholars in the Humanities and Social Sciences programme at IIT Delhi. Given how personal this whole process looked, I initially thought that a workshop on generating field notes and analyzing them would be redundant. What would be the material that one could use for such a workshop? There is enough hawing and hemming about field notes and the pain of transcribing interviews but that is only in the tenor of a general discourse of doing field work. For a pedagogical exercise, what would be the tools to work with in a workshop? Raw data in the form of personal notes, datasets, and transcriptions of conversations are not something that one can find on a public platform. Researchers, would rather be dead than share their notes, and the snapshots of notes that do find their way in books that discuss fieldwork usually contain scribbles of anthropologists who are established and long gone.

Moreover, when one is doing a workshop, it is best to be as specific as possible. For a pedagogical workshop on writing and a session on field notes in IIT and JNU, then required a concrete text that could be the material we could work with. What would one want to learn from a session on writing field notes and working with transcripts?  For me it was complicated further by the fact that these were workshops for participants who were basically my peers in similar stages of research. Why would I come across as more convincing in suggesting a practice of note taking or reading when I was struggling just as much as them? My challenge was to articulate a pedagogy on reading and thinking through what publicly gets dismissed as rough notes but is the backbone of the final form of writing, and do it in a way that invited the participation of peers.

As a researcher who is in the middle of her ethnography, with some training as a writing teacher, I set myself up on a slightly modified task of making my own field notes into a tool for teaching. Most ethnographers do not ever have to worry about making sense of their notes as a teaching material for those who are going to be doing fieldwork soon. This necessarily meant looking for notes that were not simply bullet points or angsty letters to myself but transcripts that seemed like a semi-complete document in themselves which could yield to narratives without an explicit introduction of its context.

To this end, I decided to work with the transcript of a conversation/interview that I thought was a crucial part of my field notes or what would be called raw data. The choice of a transcript allowed me to make the following two points in the workshop. Firstly, as an anthropologist, the act of transcribing speech into text, not only makes one intimately familiar with the material she is dealing with but also that the written form takes a life of its own, where sentences and phrases coupled with pauses in the form of ellipses go into formulating arguments. Secondly, for a writing teacher, a transcript on its own can stand as a bare text in a workshop on working with notes and transcripts. One of the constant dilemmas researchers face in the field while making notes and in analyzing them are how much are we reading the field via our previously read theoretical categories and lenses. And subsequently, while making notes and then, in further reading of our transcripts, are we manipulating the field/text to match what we already know or are we letting the field/text speak for itself and thereby, generate new insights? In other words, are our broad interests that were articulated while planning the PhD synopsis answerable within the scope of the concerned field/text? If yes, how? And if not, in what ways does the field/text deviate from our concerns and presumptions?

The rationale behind working with transcripts was to get the participants thinking about their writing and reading of field notes along these lines. The idea was to divide the participants into groups of four or five and have them go through the transcript. The transcript was essentially the record of a conversation between the researcher and the respondent. I gave no other context to the participants except for when the interview was conducted and the profession of the respondent. The participants, in thirty minutes, were expected to read the transcript and extrapolate themes that could help make sense of the transcript. The discussion that followed the reading was rich and stimulating. For one, both the workshops had a multidisciplinary group and the themes extrapolated from the transcript, justifiably reflected the participants’ disciplinary backgrounds. However, what made the discussion more fruitful was when the participants were urged to use phrases from the transcript itself to construct potential arguments. It also led everyone, including me, the interviewer in the transcript to re-read the conversation and unearth new meanings that were insightful to my research. It might seem pretty commonsensical but in the reality of reading documents, writing field notes, analyzing transcripts, it is a constant struggle of being aware of the tendency to conveniently fall back on one’s own familiar disciplinary theories and tools. However, at the same time and more importantly, one also must keep attempting to de-familiarize oneself from the field, so as to not repeat the obvious platitudes of one’s discipline.

The workshop did reflect these tendencies where participants were in a hurry to pick key phrases and attribute it to specific formulations of the most commonly hashed theoretical ideas that can be pulled out of any doctoral student’s bag of tricks. While these can be a valid framework of analysis these are also the easy associations that make writing a mere illustration of a previously acknowledged theory as opposed to an analyses of the text for what new ideas it might offer. What is significant to remember in this context is to not merely become native informants to high theorists but to look for deviations that then become original arguments. This also demonstrates that there is nothing inherently natural about note taking and writing, but that it is a process that one learns as one expands the scope of the critical eye where the researcher not only trains to look but also starts seeing.

Field notes also present a body of writing that is deeply entrenched in the personal pronoun. The body of the researcher becomes very central while she is describing her surroundings and interactions. It becomes important to be aware of how entrenched one is with one’s ethnography because there is a journey that must be covered where you extricate yourself out of the field and re-write it with a critical distance. The personal is important but it is not an autobiography. The ethnographer’s voice emerges in combination with her respondents’ voices and secondary sources in the finished form of writing.

Conclusion

This essay set out to think about writing through field notes. Field notes are most often an exercise in reflective writing, portraying sometimes, the vulnerabilities and most often, validating the identity of the researcher. There are no ground rules as to what makes a perfect field note but the practice of writing and thinking through writing remains a constant exercise. Most importantly, what comes out is that the process of noting the field is a skill that one learns on the job. Field notes help address dilemmas of an extremely slow process in a tangible manner. Field notes in themselves represent a genealogy of a thought, open to many strains of analyses. However, what becomes interesting is that in formal conversations in academia, there is no defined place for this process. We do not acknowledge the spade work that are field notes and what a workshop on working with transcripts precisely brought out is not but possibly needs to be considered pedagogy of the same.

The workshops in the form of specific exercises achieved two things. Firstly, as a researcher, currently pursuing ethnography and having to conduct a workshop with my peers, I gained an implicit criticality with respect to my notes. The perennial question that gnaws on researchers doing field work is why bother. The workshops primarily made me read and assess all my notes from the point of view of an audience. What are the notes that reflect my frustrations or analyses or present a story that is not thoroughly detailed but detailed enough for others to feel slightly bothered as well? Can a narrative be formed from these notes? Secondly, the workshop in the form of close reading and paying attention to the writing also helped extrapolate potential arguments that could be generated from the field, enabled by the process of re-reading one’s notes. It also became an exercise in de-familiarization that is necessary to keep one from regurgitating familiar theories and concepts. Most importantly, the behind the scenes work of writing field notes and paying close attention to one’s notes presented the beginning of a good story waiting to be told. Who, after all, does not like a good story? 

Bio:
Suchismita Chattopadhyay
is a doctoral scholar in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at The Graduate institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. Previously, she did her MA and MPhil from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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