Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Field Notes: Careful, you might end up in my dissertation.*

*(Disclaimer: Don't worry - if I mention you in my dissertation, you'll know about it. I'm following research-ethics'll have to sign an informed-consent form. :)

Back in Poland after a too-brief (two weeks) trip back home to the States for the holidays. I got back New Year's Day, and have been slightly panicked about the progress of my research thus far ever since.
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit this (although I'm sure I wouldn't be the first fieldworker to do so), but I spent the first few months of my fieldwork not knowing exactly what I was doing, or even being quite sure whether I was collecting any data. (Of course, everything one does in "the field" is somehow relevant, but it doesn't always feel like that as it's happening.) In addition to making research contacts, traveling, setting up interviews, and going about daily life, I've been taking photos of just about everything (at least in public places), collecting museum publications, familiarizing myself with the Polish-language literature on museums, memory/history, and national identity (this kind of "library fieldwork" is an interesting process in itself, to be discussed in some future post) and scribbling down field notes - or something resembling them - when I can.
Methodology, and methodological training, in cultural anthropology are notoriously vague - although perhaps necessarily so. For one thing, field sites and research situations are incredibly diverse, so while it's possible to train students in the basics of fieldwork - how to conduct interviews, a basic understanding of what "participant observation" means, etc. - generalizable methods are difficult to teach. For another, a major part of anthropological research, particularly for those of us doing fieldwork outside the culture we grew up in, involves getting to know systems of knowledge that may not necessarily correspond with our own worldviews and assumptions about what "research" and "knowledge" are, and about what counts as important. For this reason our research plans can only take us so far; part of fieldwork is realizing the limitations of our own cultural constructs, and letting the direction of our projects be shaped by what we encounter in our field sites.
Still, these realizations are only so helpful when one's train of thought begins to run something like, "I've been here three months and I've barely gotten any data yet! What if I get home at the end of this year and realize I don't have anything I can use? Is that even possible? What am I even doing with my life, anyway?!?"
In an effort to keep on track - to give my research some direction outside of the interviews and other research activities that are part of my formal research plan, and to remind myself that, even during the times that I'm not actively engaged in formal research activities, I am indeed learning something - I've started keeping a fieldwork log, as recommended in the excellent research methods book Research Methods in Anthropology, by H. Russell Bernard. I write down what I'm planning to do each day, research-wise, on one side of a notebook page (whether it's looking up a particular thing, contacting a particular person, going to a meeting or event related to my research, or otherwise). On the other side of the page, I write down what I actually did that day, including things I've learned or observed that relate to my project, or anything unusual, confusing, or that I'd like to learn more about. So far, it's been helpful, both as a sort of to-do list and in helping me keep track of what I'm learning
Any anthropologists/other fieldworkers reading this? If so, what are your methods for writing up field notes? How do you understand "fieldwork," and how do you deal with the ambiguity of what it means to do this kind of research?
After this week is our mid-semester break, and I'll be spending the first part of said break conducting research interviews in various cities in Poland. Do następnego razu (until next time)!