Writing a Journal and Taking Field Notes
Sociology 236, Fall, 2002 Jane Piliavin
There are a lot of different kinds of journals that one can write, for oneself or for a class. The journal I want you to keep for this class is a journal of field notes. Field notes are the record anthropologists or participant observer sociologists keep of their observations of the society, group, or individuals they are studying. For your first comparative paper, you will be briefly visiting two sites (a hearing, demonstration, meeting, etc.) and then, for the final draft, adding observations of your initial experiences in your placement. For your long term volunteer placement, for which you will keep the journal, you will be studying one site intensively over time.
There are a number of purposes behind these assignments:
1) for you to learn how to do this kind of informal writing,
5) for the first paper, to develop a comparative perspective in which you can see how variations in settings may relate to variations in behaviors, norms, rules, feelings, motivations, etc.
When I say you should talk about and analyze a social setting, I mean tell me about the physical setting, the people and more specifically the roles that are being played by the actors in the setting. Who is in charge, who tells whom what to do, what are the ages, genders, races of these players, and do you see any patterns in these structured role relationships? Tell me what things are surprising or unexpected, but (more difficult) tell me "obvious" things that are going on. Include people's non-verbal communication, use of body language, clothing, everything. One of the tasks of doing field research is to discover interesting patterns in the "taken for granted" of everyday life. Finally, tell me how you are feeling about the setting. Are you excited, nervous, bored, irritated? What about the setting do you think is making you feel this way?
There are several ways of taking field notes. For the first paper, since you will probably be an observer rather than a participant, you should be able to take detailed notes as things occur, just as you would in a lecture. For your volunteer placement, since you are a participant in the setting, it would be awkward for you to be taking notes in the actual setting itself. You would feel self-conscious, and others might wonder what you were doing. So you should get in the habit of making 1) mental notes and 2) jotted notes. When you see something you want to make sure not to forget, try to find a moment to jot it down. If you can't, at least figure out some mnemonic device so that you will remember it until you can write it down. You will discover that after a while you will have trained your mind so that you can remember a lot more than you would have thought you could. It is very important that you sit down and write out your notes as soon as possible after you leave your volunteer setting. The curve of forgetting is very steep. Just find a quiet place to sit, and write down absolutely everything, no matter how trivial, that you can remember going on. Later you can write (or preferably type) them out in a more coherent way, with analyses and other reflections. Do not throw away your rough notes, however. When you go back to do your journal summary, you may find them very useful. Keep them in a safe place.
It may help to divide your journal pages (and the pages on which you make your observations of your initial two settings) so that observations are on one side of each page, with reports of feelings, analyses of social structure, and hypotheses about motivations on the other. At first, you will have more observations and reports of feelings. As you get more accustomed to the setting, you may find that you are doing more analyzing and hypothesizing. John Lofland says that you know that your field work is coming to a close when you are no longer seeing new things in the setting, and nearly everything you are writing down is analysis.
You will be amazed, I think, at how much there really is to see in social
settings that you usually do not notice, simply because it is not central
to your own needs and interests at the time.