Fieldwork: making and transcribing field notes

This is the second post on fieldwork: this one is specifically about field notes – some thoughts on how to write them and how to transcribe them. I am still working this out, so it’s a thinking process in progress.

For my PhD, I gathered data largely from sitting in on lecturers’ classes and watching them teach, scribbling furiously during each one hour lecture. As you can imagine, over 14 weeks in two courses this ends up being a rather thick pile of notes. In my case it amounted to 5 and a half notebooks full of notes (over 500 A5 pages). These all had to be transcribed and organised so as to make sense of of them, and so that I could put them into NVivo10 to analyse them as part of my larger data set. Also, they needed to be typed up so I could copy and paste relevant pieces into my chapters as needed. I procrastinated a lot about doing the transcription. It’s not my favourite activity as a researcher. But I couldn’t have someone else do it because these notes were something I really needed to read several times, understand and sift through. I think, in hindsight and in agreement with Pat Thomson, that tedious as it is all researchers should try and do as much of their own transcription as possible because of how involved it enables you to become with your data. It makes the analysis process more enjoyable and productive too.

I thought what I would do in this post is list some of the things I did, why and what I learnt along the way in the hopes that you may find it useful if you, too, are gathering some of your data this way.

1. I handwrote my notes for two reasons: the first is that in the one class students were not allowed to use laptops because the lecturers wanted them paying attention as part of their training for the profession they will eventually enter, and the second is because I write faster than I type and writing is quieter. I tend to bash my keyboard a bit, and I did not want to distract other students or stand out too much by using equipment they were not allowed to use. A further plus with handwriting that I learned along the way was that I could easily copy diagrams lecturers put up on slides or drew on the boards, and I could represent what they were saying pictorially or non-linearly as well, which was often quicker and easier and made my notes feel more authentic to me.

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2. Pat Thomson wrote in a blog post a while back that she takes lots of field notes, and that she tries to capture verbatim what is going on as much as she can. I tried to do that too, and often was able to succeed in bits in one of the two courses because both lecturers talked fairly slowly and deliberately and paused for students to ask questions or take notes, so I could keep up. This was harder in the  other course where the lecturers spoke quite fast. I am having this issue now, too, in my post-doc research where one lecturer in particular is a very fast talker. However, I am much more comfortable with my theoretical framework now, so I can note particular kinds of phrases or instructions or comments that he says because I know I will use them in my analysis later on. However, I want to avoid being too selective in my hearing, because I don’t want to pre-empt the data or tell it what to tell me. I want to be surprised by it too, and find things I am not necessarily anticipating. Thus, I try now as I did last year to write as much as I can of what is going on in the moment, and can then sift the notes later and reorganise them during transcription.

3. I developed a shorthand: lecturers’ initials for the lecturers involved, like CA or BM (not their real initials). I also used S for student and tried to keep track of students’ questions or inputs where I could hear them clearly (the classes were large and often noisy). So I would have S1, S2 and so on engaging the lecturer in conversation or debate.

4. I didn’t transcribe everything. By being such a procrastinator about the transcription of the field notes, I ended up transcribing them while I was also beginning to analyse the data, so in a way this worked out well because it meant I had a sense of what I needed and what was just additional information that was unimportant, like comments made about admin issues, or comments I wrote about the lecturer telling the students off for not coming to tutorials the week before. Thus, I did not need to transcribe every word I wrote in my notes, and what I did was to read through my notes first, quickly, to remind myself of what I had written, and noted things I could excise. I learnt that it is okay to cut bits of your notes out and just not transcribe them. You won’t analyse ALL your data.

5. I had to do some reorganising when I transcribed my notes. Field notes are very in the moment – you are just trying to keep up and get it all down as faithfully and fully as possible, and you don’t really have time to think. When you go back to transcribe, though, you do have time and you can see how you can transcribe your sometimes chaotic and messy notes to impose a little more order, often needed in data analysis, and also how you can represent your pictures and scribbles in words so that you know what you mean, and can show readers what you mean if you use those examples in your chapters. I think that you need to be careful with reorganising, though, because you don’t want to rewrite history and make things that were chaotic seem simple, or things that were challenging seem easy. You would be skewing or tampering too much with your data and this would be unethical. It may also rob you of some potentially interesting findings. However, a little reorganisation that makes the notes easier to read and easier to represent to a reader, while staying true to the original scribbles, may sometimes be necessary.

I think the biggest thing I learned, and am still learning, is that it is an ongoing process of learning how to write these notes well, and how to collect rich and interesting data in ways that will be usable and make sense to me later. Stop every few notes and look back – reflect on what is working and what is not, and try to use that reflection to improve your taking of field notes. Capturing them can be tedious but field notes can also give you many-faceted and rich data for later probing and analysis.

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