It’s hard to explain to others how we do something. Anything. But it’s especially difficult to do it when much of what happens takes place in our own minds, hearts and guts, and with our own hands and backs and feet–whether we’re ethnographers or welders or veterinarians or priests.
As a student I wasn’t taught how to do fieldwork; I continue to figure that out as I go. But I was taught how to take fieldnotes and I completely understand how someone can say “I am a fieldnote” (pdf). Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes remains the classic text, but Gregory Price Grieve‘s student guide to “How to Write Field Notes” (pdf) is a good practical overview of the process.
I’ve never shared my fieldnotes–the ones I write by hand, with favourite pens and in specific notebooks–with anyone. But I’ve published a form of fieldnotes online since 2002. Both more and less than what Tricia Wang calls “live fieldnoting“, what I share online is somewhere between my ‘raw’ fieldnotes and something that I would consider publishable in an academic journal or a popular magazine. It’s me thinking out loud instead of just to myself; it’s half-baked thoughts in the best, chewy, sense of the phrase.
I’m at my kitchen table, After the Goldrush playing on the stereo a bit too loud to be background music. I idly consider that I didn’t exist when the music was recorded, and yet I have no problem feeling it. I think about the two books I was reading earlier today for my research: Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead and Rhoda Wilkie’s Livestock/Deadstock. I vaguely remember a Marvel comic… Oh yeah. Great covers.
I remind myself to write an essay about listening to animals in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy. One day. One day! Then I idly wonder for the billion billionth time if I’ll ever write all the essays I think I should write and conclude: probably not, no. (I feel bad but ‘should’ is such a relentless word! I admire and hate it all at once.) I remember that an online friend–she’d laugh at that description, I think–and I joke about me stealing her and her husband’s favourite jersey cows. I’d love to do fieldwork with farmers and their favourite animals, and immediately start trying to squeeze this idea into my current project. But it escapes, and I find myself hoping that it ends up sticking to matters of dying somehow anyway please.
I don’t know (anymore?) how to do fieldwork without considering the Internet as part of the field. It’s part where I look things up and keep track of things, part where I interact with other people, and part where I sometimes can’t help but to do some mutant form of participant observation. (Really, that’s not as creepy as it sounds. Please don’t unfollow me on social media.)
Things I looked up today: