Writing ethnographic fieldnotes

Posted: May 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: research tools | 1 Comment »

Loving to write does not make it any less of an arduous task, and writing good fieldnotes is, I think, a true labor of love.  The best fieldnotes, i.e. the ones that will most help you in your data analysis and write-up, are those that are most thoroughly detailed and descriptive, and it is no easy task to produce these. One of the best guides I’ve found on this process is “Writing ethnographic fieldnotes,” by Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw.

When I first began writing ethnographic fieldnotes I was a student researcher at UCSD’s Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition where I worked on a project about bilingual afterschool education. For that project a group of us tutored local children at an afterschool computer club.  After each session, we spent long hours at our computers, writing up pages and pages of our observations and experiences.  I still remember being amazed at how long it took.

Nowadays I enter the field with better-formed plans and strategies in mind.  One such strategy is “bracketing,” as described by Bruce L. Berg in his excellent book, “Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences.” Bracketing entails selecting “certain subgroups of inhabitants [of a social setting] and observing them during specific times, in certain locations, and during the course of particular events and/or routines.”  (Berg, 2001, p. 153)  In other words, you think strategically about who exactly you need to observe, doing what, where, and when.  It’s also important to carefully consider what your observational procedure will be once you enter the site.

In terms of deciding what to write down, Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw advise that we first take note of and describe our initial impressions of the scene, and then move on to describing “key events or incidents” (1995, p.27). Another key point is that:

“In writing fieldnotes, the field researcher should give special attention to the indigenous meanings and concerns of the people studied.  …fieldnotes should detail the social and interactional processes that make up people’s everyday lives and activities….  Ethnographers should attempt to write fieldnotes in ways that capture and preserve indigenous meanings.”  (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995, p. 12)

In other words, writing fieldnotes is an excellent way understanding your participants’ worlds from their perspectives, including the meanings that they attach to their actions and interactions.

Aside from guides and strategies, the key thing about fieldnotes is to write them up as quickly as possible, since the longer you wait the less you’ll remember.  Ideally, you’re sitting at your computer, typing away, no later than a few hours after each observation session.

Survey use in ethnographic studies

Posted: May 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: research tools | Comments Off on Survey use in ethnographic studies

Are you a qualitative or quantitative researcher?  In academia we are typically expected to adopt one or the other of these two camps, and in so doing we get swept up in the contentious debate as to which approach is best.  The practical researcher should become skilled in qualitative and quantitative approaches, recognizing that both have their strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, combining both qualitative and quantitative methods on a project can yield rich results.

My research project on Berlin Starbucks cafes made use of mixed methods.  For that project my goal was to understand how the Starbucks baristas in Berlin, Germany made sense of, utilized, and modified the U.S. American-style customer service protocols that they were required to use.  I carried out the research in three distinct phases. I began with non-participant observation in two of the Berlin Starbucks cafes.  Next, I did in-depth, one-to-one interviews with a selection of the Berlin baristas and managers.  Finally, I created a survey and distributed it to all of the Starbucks baristas in Berlin.  (At the time of this project, there were only seven Starbucks cafes in Berlin, employing about 80 baristas.  Now I believe there are 25 cafes, and I can only guess that they must have at least a couple hundred baristas.)

While I considered my project to be primarily ethnographic in nature, the survey component of the research helped me to test the nature and distribution of the themes and concepts that I had identified in the first two phases.  Specifically, my surveys measured to what extent baristas felt comfortable with the customer service procedures that had been described to me in the interviews as especially difficult, stressful, or American/non-German.

Besides the results of the study, which were very interesting (if I do say so myself), I gleaned some practical knowledge and tips from this experience:

  • Because the surveys were filled out by the baristas during their breaks, they had to be short enough to complete in 15 minutes.  (How much time will your respondents realistically have to complete your survey?)
  • My original survey draft was written in English, translated into German, and then back-translated by a second party into English.  This was done to check the accuracy of the first translation and to fix any incorrect or ambiguous concepts, grammatical constructions and/or vocabulary. (Do the concepts that you are testing translate into the target language and/or culture?  Do your questions make sense and/or mean what you intend them to mean in the target language and/or culture? )
  • I did trial runs of the German survey with 10 baristas, who kindly gave both written and oral feedback on the questions, critiquing clarity, vocabulary, jargon, etc. More modifications to the survey were made based on this feedback. (Do the concepts that you are testing make sense to the target community?  Are you using the correct terms and/or jargon for experts in that community?)
  • The Starbucks store managers distributed the surveys to the baristas.  The baristas were asked to fill the surveys out on the premises, as I thought this would increase the likelihood of their being completed.  However, this could undoubtedly have influenced the baristas’ answers, since their privacy at work was limited.  (Ideally, what sort of environment should respondents be in when they are answering the questions?  Will respondents experience greater anonymity and/or privacy with a paper copy of the survey, or an electronic one?)

For more articles on mixed methods work done in the social sciences and other fields see the Journal of Mixed Methods Research.

Qualitative data analysis software

Posted: May 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: research tools | Comments Off on Qualitative data analysis software

Having finished the data collection for my current project, I’m ready to begin the next phase of focused analysis.  This puts me squarely in the market for qualitative data analysis (QDA) software.  In past projects I used SuperHyperQual, which was a good starter tool, easy to learn and effective for straightforward coding & tagging in a small data set.  Now I’m looking for something a bit more powerful.  I need a tool that accommodates a wide variety of data formats, since my data set includes audio recordings, field notes, interview transcripts, news articles, opinion posts, manuals, and screenshots of online interactions.  The main functionality I need is organizational; the tool should be able to help me archive, code, and link my materials.  It should allow for multiple tags and codes attached to the same piece of data, and if it could generate summaries/reports in multiple formats that would be a big plus.

And if it’s not asking too much, it should be relatively easy to learn, and (here’s the deal-clincher) Mac-compatible.

Given this, what qualitative data analysis software package should I invest in?

This site has a nice overview of  a number of popular QDA programs, some of which can be used on a Mac.  See this site, too.  Once I’ve tested some of them out, I’ll report back here.

In the meantime, what QDA software do you recommend, and why?

Recording Skype interviews on a Mac

Posted: May 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: research tools | 1 Comment »

For my current research project I used Skype to conduct a series of distal interviews with participants spread all across the United States.  I found Skype to be an excellent platform for this purpose:  it was easy for participants to procure, free for my interviewees to download, inexpensive for me, and user-friendly for everybody.  Happily, with the use of Audio Hijack Pro it was also a simple matter to record the interviews (with participants’ permission, natch).

There are three key reasons why I make it a practice to record interviews whenever possible.  These may be obvious, but (at risk of preaching to the choir) I’ll list them here.  First, although I take copious notes during interviews*, I cannot jot down, verbatim, 100% of what my interviewees say.  Even on my best days I estimate that I lose a good 10% or more of the exact words my interviewees utter.  Having a recording ensures that every valuable word shared by interviewees is saved.  Second, handwritten notes typically do not capture paralinguistic cues such as interviewees’ volume, pitch, inflection, intensity, speed, or silence.  Because such nonverbal cues convey as much meaning as actual words, it’s vital to have an accurate recording of them.  Finally, recordings allow for the possibility of having transcription support.  You can’t very well give someone a sheaf of barely legible scribbled notes and ask them to transcribe them.  You could, however, give a transcriptionist a recording and ask them to prepare a typewritten copy of what has been said.

There are numerous software choices for recording Skype calls, but because I have a Mac, I opted to buy Audio Hijack Pro.  Once AHP is installed, you simply open it up and select the application that you want to record from (in this case, Skype). When you are ready, you click “record.”  That was about as technical as I got with my recordings, but there are plenty more options with AHP for scheduling, tagging, organizing, and modifying your files.

All of my recordings were saved onto my hard drive as mp3 files, and I used VLC to play them back while I was transcribing them.

*Always in a Moleskine, one of the nicest (paper) notebooks out there.