FIELDNOTES

Note-taking and record-keeping:


Note-taking is an important part of fieldwork. Every day, after you learn something new or while you are interviewing, you are taking notes. Often, anthropologists spend several hours in the evening typing up their notes, adding to them, and thinking of new questions to ask on particular topics. When I first went to the field, I brought a small Smith-Corona portable typewriter (the kind that use those messy ink ribbons!) and lots of typing and carbon paper (the carbon paper turned out to be a popular trade item with women who wanted to use it to color the string they used in making bilums!). Every so often, I would mail one set of copies to my dissertation advisor, Jane Goodale, back in the United States for safe-keeping. Stories of anthropologists losing their fieldnotes, to fire or some other catastrophe, are common enough that anthropologists are wise to be a little paranoid. I always kept my fieldnotes next to my bilum, which contained my passport, ticket home, and cash so that I could grab everything at once. This turned out to be useful on the day several houses burned to the ground in the compound I lived in. When the shout, "Fire!", came I was out the door, in my nightgown and bare feet, but with my bilum and notes stuffed quickly into my backpack. I also hand-carried all my notes and film with me when I flew home to America. I thereby avoided the plight of one anthropologist who shipped his notes home in boxes along with other fieldgear, to receive them several years later when they were found sitting on a dock in California!

More and more anthropologists are taking lap-top computers to the field along with power sources and generators. I refer you to John Burton at ANU, one of the first anthropologists to take a computer to Papua New Guinea. Other computer-savy anthropologists can be reached through sending a general queries to ASAONET and ANTHRO_L.

Personal diaries and daily journals:


In whatever manner you record your notes, you must do more than simply collect and record survey data and other ethnographic findings. It is a good idea to also reflect upon and note down "your moods, personal reactions, even random thoughts -that may later help you recapture detail not committed to paper but not 'lost', either" (Wolcott 1995:99-100; for more on fieldnotes, see Sanjek 1990). Rather than keep a separate diary in the field, I chose to blend my more personal musings with my ongoing daily log of events and observations. My survey materials were kept in separate notebooks. When I was back in the United States, I retyped and cross-referenced all four volumes of my daily journal so that I could easily find data in it as I worked on my dissertation. Over and over I was amazed at the power of my notes to evoke vivid memories and richer understandings of events in the field, all of which I dutifully added to my account. Two anthropologists often cited for the high quality and descriptive power of their field notes and personal reflections are Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski. While Mead wrote for posterity, Malinowksi never expected his personal diary to be made public, which it was after his death. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (Malinowski 1967) is often embarassing to today's reader but nonetheless insightful in its detail and in the new perspective it puts on Malinowski's field experience.

A picture is worth a thousand words!:


Anthropologists do more than write about their experiences. They also take thousands of photographs and slides, as well as tape recordings, movies and video recordings. These forms of recording data are rich in potential but often underutilized by the anthropologist (for more on the subject, see Rollwagen 1988). The saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words", is truer than most of us realize. Not only does a picture comprise a more or less permanent record, but we can also use it in the field (especially polaroid shots) to jostle our informants' memories of special events long after those events are over. Some pictures, like the two included here, are more evocative of the personal side of fieldwork (the "blood, sweat, and tears" of unaccustomed mountain climbing, and the "clash of cultures" in the picture of the old woman reading my children's copy of Creepy!)


Copyright 1996 by Laura Tamakoshi and Brian Cross