Assignment 1: Fieldnotes and ethnographic methods

You do not have time to carry out a fully-fledged (or even partly-fledged!) ethnography. However, you can use this assignment to get some experience with the chief methods employed in the ethnographic tradition.


(Participant) observation

How to approach this assignment
1. Context. Find a setting that you are interested in learning more about. This setting does not have to involve the use of second or foreign languages. Or, you can choose a setting in which you have already begun carrying out research, or which you are involved in socially already. It may be a setting to which you already have access to, or which you experience on a regular basis (e.g., the SLS reading room, Paradise Palms outdoor seating, Hamilton library's computer area, Waikiki beach).
2. Ethics. Consider your impact on the environment. Is the setting a public place which does not require you to inform people that they are being observed? How might you inform people that they are part of a research project? Consider how to maintain anonymity.
3. Assumptions. Try not to prove pre-existing theories you have about the context and activities happening (and then see how hard this is!). Remember that an ethnographer's research questions should arise in the process of observation, as do answers to research questions.
4. Time. While I don't want to make static time requirements for this assigment, the concept of 'intense observation' should connote more than one hour of observation. The time you spend on this project really depends on what you are examining. If you are studying how people position their bodies in elevators, then you'll only have a few minutes of elevator riding time per day, for example. Alternatively, you could study behaviors in a cafe or classroom for an hour at a time. It really depends. Try to dedicate your looking to at least 3 hours of activities in a systematic fashion (e.g., observe one class 3x in one week; observe a cafe for a half an hour at the same time each day)

Guidelines for 'looking':
1. Observers try to uncover and record the unspoken common sense assumptions of the group that they are studying. Look for immediate and local meanings which appear to matter to the people you are observing.
2. Draw. Field notes should be more than writing; drawing maps and sketching activities is often very useful when trying to remember the details of what you have seen. Include notes about body language, environment, and noise. What is going on around this context that may be shaping it?
3. Reflect on your own actions. Ethnographers alter themselves in order to fit into their contexts as unobtrusive observers and as participant observers. How much do you have to adapt yourself in order to learn about the context and culture that you are studying?
4. Try to find emic categories and terms that the participants themselves use. How do these emic concepts organize the activities that you are observing?
5. Systematically look for discrepant cases or anomalies. If most people seem to be doing an activity the same way, notice who does it differently. What seems to be going on here?
6. Try various kinds of observation. Be a silent observer one time, and talk to people the next (if relevant).
7. If you are interested in critical/feminist approaches to research, consider how power is located in the practices you are observing.

Writing it up
As you are observing, you should take notes (handwritten, or on a laptop, though this can be distracting) and keep these to hand in with the assignment. Feel free to write in your L1 or L2, L3 etc. Drawing diagrams is a great idea in taking fieldnotes. If you are observing a classroom, where students sit and how teachers interact with students is something that can often only be recorded through diagrams. After each period of observation, you should spend at least 15 minutes examining your notes, and then writing at least a paragraph of meta-level observations. In other words, what have you noticed about what you noticed? Go through these steps systematically each time you engage in observation. For the due date, include the following in a folder:

1. notes from the field
2. field notes (meta-level observations) - post-field notes
3. 2-3 page (double-spaced) narrative on the experience. How easy/difficult was it to get access to your context? What ethical issues did you consider? What did your observation yield? Have your observations yielded noticings that are similar to or different from any assumptions you had about the context? What might be the next step in a research project that would carry on with the particular context that you observed? What other methods might you turn to next in order to probe the context further?