Powers of observation

    HOW TO

  • Enrich your interviews with an understanding of non-verbal cues 
  • Type atmospheric fieldnotes to go beyond transcripts

On their own, interview transcripts can only tell us so much. By lifting words and narratives out of their original contexts, they risk missing what makes them most revealing. Fieldnotes can record that other, unspoken side of your research story. A fieldnote is akin to scribbles in a journal, and captures far more than people's words. You draw upon all your senses and powers of observation, to record scenes and smells, moods and body language, symbols and signs—all the things that can help decrypt what is said.

You learn more from non-verbal communication than you perhaps realize. Whether you witness a protest, visit a strange neighbourhood, watch how work is done on a farm, or just visit someone’s home, non-verbal cues enrich your understanding at least as much as what you’re explicitly told. That process tends to happen on an unconscious level in everyday life, but keeping track of your sensory impressions will make it an integral part of your research.

As you enter your field site or move from one interview to another, factor in the street scenes, the kinds of people you see, the shops that you pass by. If you visit a ministry, you may take note of its spatial configuration, the interaction between employees, the objects on the desk of the person you talk to, even. A bookshelf or set of portraits sometimes says more about the interviewee than they have to say for themselves. What phone calls and other interferences interrupt the discussion, and what do they suggest about what happens when you are not around? 

You can incorporate such elements into your transcripts, by writing a short paragraph to contextualize the interview. You can also write a purely descriptive fieldnote in place of a transcript, if a field visit involves only snippets of conversation with a variety of people. For example, if you visit a marketplace, you may speak to lots of individual traders, look at their produce, ask about their prices, and take in all sorts of banners and notices. You may not have much material for a transcript per se, but you will have a wealth of observations intermingled with pithy soundbites.

You learn more from non-verbal cues than you realize

How much should you include in a fieldnote? Consider everything potentially important. What are people doing, how do they behave, how are they dressed? What can you surmise about relations between people of different status? What scenes grab your attention, even if you don’t know exactly why? What work is going on in the neighbourhood, or the surrounding countryside? What effect does the built environment have on you? Do you see any signs or adverts, or leaflets to pick up? What information comes to you without you having to seek it out, from where and when? How do you feel at particular moments? What questions arise for you about what is taking place?

This impressionistic mix will inevitably be hard to put into words. So where do you start? These few hints may help. 

- During the fieldtrip itself, take notes as often as necessary to retain information. Jot things down in a taxi between interviews. It doesn’t have to be in a notebook; it could just as well be your phone’s notes app, or a few key words on the back of a receipt. Photos can also record visual cues, and help to jog your memory later.
- At the end of the day, transfer all of these notes into a dedicated fieldnotes document, using the date and location as a heading. Turn your scrawls and keywords into fuller description, and add anything that helps contextualize your observations. Try to avoid the urge of putting this off, as you will forget more—and faster—than you think.
- Emotions can be as important as hard facts; how people feel at any given time will have social and political repercussions. But emotions are hard to place in context, are often conflicting, and shift easily. Note these fleeting impressions before your own perspective hardens or changes, as you collect new information.
- Fieldnotes will mostly be chronological and descriptive. That said, you will simultaneously be analysing the world around you as you go, and your fieldnotes should record that thought process, too—anchoring it in a time and place.
- Finally, don’t be a perfectionist. Your aim is to get down the information as efficiently as possible, to help you later on. Sometimes bullet points work better than full sentences. Go with what feels right. 

Fieldnotes can be difficult to write in the moment, but they will prove invaluable in the future—when so much will have changed, both on the ground, and in your own understanding of dynamics. They will bring your early experiences in the field back to life, which for your later analysis will form the best reality check. 

27 January 2021

Illustration credit: James Bradbury, licensed by Creative Commons. 

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