An Exercise in Writing Descriptive Field Notes for Anthropological Research

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Jelani Mahiri, Anthropology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2006

Research Theory and Methods for Sociocultural Anthropology is an intensive, semester-long, upper division undergraduate course. It takes students through the process of developing a project, carrying out field research, and writing a final report outlining their research questions, discussing their logistical difficulties and methodological choices, presenting and analyzing data, and interpreting their findings in relation to broader anthropological themes. Each stage of the course presents its own set of teaching (and learning) challenges.

One difficulty that arises early on in the course is helping students to understand how field data is constituted. The production of “field notes,” descriptive writings about one’s field research, is an ambiguous enterprise for most students, yet an important part of anthropological methodology. Thus a key issue for professors and GSIs is: How do we build on students’ previous writing experiences, but move them beyond the notion of field notes as a personal journal, for example, to conceptualizing field notes as concrete description of events, interactions, people, and places within their research setting? Besides discussing examples from course readings, I developed a series of practical exercises to get students to reflect on descriptive writing, their own and that of others. The exercises span two separate discussion sections, a week apart, and these were implemented in the first and second section of the semester.

During the second half of the first section, I gave students ten to fifteen minutes to describe their favorite (or best known) publicly accessible place on or near UC Berkeley’s campus. I suggested five minutes for thinking and ten minutes for writing one to two pages. I also gave them note cards on which they wrote the name of the place and the location, with a brief description of where it is so someone else could find it. I redistributed the cards so that each student had someone else’s “favorite place on campus.” They then had five to ten minutes to write how they imagined that place to be. I collected these writings. For the next week the students had to go to the place on the card they received and describe it while they were physically there. They typed up the in-site descriptions and brought three copies to the next section.

In the second section we redistributed the various assignments for in-class review. Each person had a copy of the descriptions they wrote: (1) from memory, (2) imagining the new place and (3) the in-site description. Each student also received a copy of the second student’s (4) imagined and (5) in-site description of their favorite place. I had students read over the in-site descriptions of their favorite place (five to ten minutes) and with any remaining time to scan the initial descriptions (from memory) of the place where they went. We then analyzed differences in the two descriptions, those from memory and those done when physically in a place, and what some of the challenges were in the various exercises (ten to twenty minutes).

Besides engaging students in practical writing exercises related to their research, an underlying component of this assignment was to help create a more open atmosphere for discussion. The exercises allowed students to share somewhat personal information (what their favorite place on campus was and why) while also learning about the favorite places of others. Thus, in many ways, we assessed the exercises and their pedagogical utility as a group.

The group discussion began with the more obvious differences between writing (field notes) from memory (lack of detail, and the potential to collapse events and time, among others) and writing while actually in a place (noting more detail, movement of people throughout spaces, variations at different times of day, and other aspects of in-site descriptions). But we also addressed other key issues: the different possible perspectives on places and events, what anthropologists call positionality; the plethora of detail to be written about; different writing styles; and differences in focus, writing more about people and their interactions versus writing more about the physical space. I tried to emphasize how all of these were important to consider when writing descriptive field notes, as well as the importance of writing during or as soon after participant-observation experiences as possible. Through the group assessment it was clear that many students quickly grasped the differences between memory and in-site description. Still, this type of writing had to be emphasized throughout the semester by requiring concrete descriptions of people, places and events in students’ weekly field note assignments. It was also helpful to re-examine field notes later in the course to assist students in the process of integrating descriptions into their analyses and final reports.

I believe the assignment works well not only for anthropology coursework, but can be used in other classes that require or could benefit from descriptive writing (e.g., qualitative methods, creative writing courses, and even introductory college writing courses).