Doing fieldwork with kids: Part I

Recently I started a new research project looking at the social impacts of three Sistema-inspired orchestral music education programmes operating in low decile schools in the Wellington region, where I live. El Sistema is a Venezuelan music and social development initiative that began in 1975 and is today one of the world’s largest and most famous orchestral music education programmes. Sistema-inspired programmes operate in over 60 countries and there are at least six here in New Zealand, including Auckland-based Sistema Aotearoa. My new project involves working with kids: those involved in the orchestral programmes, and my own. In this post I reflect on what it’s like to do fieldwork with my kids in tow, and in the next I’ll discuss how I plan to work with the children in these programmes.

It took me a good couple of years after finishing my PhD to start a new major research project. There were a few reasons for this. Two weeks after submitting my PhD I started working as a lecturer on a series of short-term contracts which meant constantly developing and teaching new courses. I needed to publish from my dissertation so I could secure a permanent academic position – something that is extraordinarily difficult as an adjunct, as many blogs, news articles and #quitlit posts on social media have pointed out. I had my daughter in 2012. And I needed some space to think about what I wanted to work on for the foreseeable future. In 2013 I was employed on a 3-year, part-time contract, meaning I could access university research funding not available to those on short-term contracts. This, combined with the fact that you need to be research-active with a track record of obtaining funding in order to compete for academic jobs, meant it was a good time to develop a new research project.

When I started my PhD I had not yet met my husband and children were not on my horizon, so everything and anything seemed possible. Now I had two other people to think about in deciding where, how, and what I wanted to research – in that order. I wanted to do ethnographic fieldwork in Wellington and continue my interest in development and social justice. Basing my new project in Wellington was also a practical decision: I could take my daughter with me, I wouldn’t need to be away from home for extended periods of time, and I could get started without the security of funding or a permanent job. Coming up with a feasible project was more difficult, but a serendipitous sequence of events led me to Sistema Aotearoa and eventually the charitable organisations that run Sistema-inspired orchestral music programmes in Hutt Valley and Porirua.

I was pregnant with my second child by the time I established relationships with the organisations, developed a research proposal and obtained funding, and received ethics approval to begin the research. Ethnographic fieldwork was relatively straightforward to begin with as I could take my music-loving daughter and composer/conductor/musician husband along to interviews and performances. Things became a bit tricker after our son was born last year.

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Part of my field-and-carework kit

For a start, my fieldwork kit expanded significantly from a pen, notebook, iPad and camera to include nappy bag, frontpack, and buggy as well as preschooler snacks and activities. I didn’t always have my daughter with me but my son was now a permanent attachment, meaning I relied heavily on family and research assistants for help. He still breastfeeds frequently at night and at the moment my fieldwork doesn’t extend to evening rehearsals as it is just too difficult to get away after the dinner-bath-bed routine. I do go to some evening and weekend performances, usually with one or both kids in tow, and my husband or mother-in-law (also a musician).

Combining fieldwork with carework is not easy. I no longer write notes in the field while my kids are with me, instead relying on my memory, what Simon Ottenberg terms ‘headnotes’ (in the 1990 book Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology edited by Roger Sanjek), and my GoPro camera. I miss things when I’m breastfeeding or changing nappies or leaving the room with a screaming baby or taking a preschooler who’s had enough somewhere else to play. (I have a keen recollection of my then 3-year-old daughter standing up during the middle of a concert and loudly announcing, “That’s enough, everyone wants to go home now.”) My kids miss me when I pay attention to the person I’m interviewing or spend an afternoon at music lessons without them. I often don’t get time to write up my fieldnotes in Evernote at the end of the day, and I definitely don’t have the same amount of time or headspace available to just think.

Despite the difficulties, there are a lot of things I enjoy about combining fieldwork with carework. I like my children being able to see and participate in what I do and love watching their interest in music grow. I get a different perspective when sitting on the floor with my son. My daughter often makes interesting observations about things that I hadn’t noticed, and I value being able to discuss the musical aspects of performances with my husband and mother-in-law. I also appreciate the connections I can make with the children I’m working with, who invariably ask “whose mother are you?” upon meeting me, and also with their parents.

Doing fieldwork with children in tow is not new; a number of anthropologists and geographers have offered useful insights into how one’s children can shape the research process. Kelly Dombroski’s excellent blog post on carework in fieldwork discusses some recent publications on this topic (including her own). However I have not yet come across much work that reflects on fieldwork at home with children. Even this “Family in the Field” survey of anthropologists undertaking fieldwork with their children assumes that ‘the field’ is somewhere away from home.

Do you do ethnographic fieldwork with your kids at locations close to your home? Do you know of people who have written about this? I would love to hear of your experiences!

Version 3
At a concert with my 5 month old (note the buggy doubling as a tripod)

 

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Negotiating comparison in ethnographic fieldwork

Anthropology, a discipline dedicated to understanding the full range of human experience from as many perspectives as possible, has always been comparative. This comparative aspect was one of the things that initially captured my imagination as a student. I became interested in understanding how issues that affect humans everywhere – such as poverty, inequality and development – appear in different contexts. I believe that to better debate such issues, we need to understand people’s practices as well as context-specific structures of history, environment, society, and culture. Careful comparative analysis can add to knowledge about development and social change by informing debates and contributing to more effective policies and strategies.

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Using Evernote for ethnographic fieldnotes

A while ago I wrote about the fieldnote template I used in MS Word for my PhD research. Now that I’m starting some new projects it’s the perfect time to try Evernote for ethnographic fieldnotes.

I have used Evernote for a while (mainly for storing annotations and web clippings) but I have to admit it wasn’t the first thing that sprang to my mind when I thought of switching away from MS Word for fieldnotes. I asked ethnographic researchers on Twitter to share what they used to take electronic fieldnotes, and Kelly Dombroski was the first to suggest I take a look at the possibilities Evernote provides for writing and organising fieldnotes. A quick Google search led me to a couple of useful blog posts by reseachers who use Evernote this way, including one by David Keyes on Evernote as Field Notebook where he talks about how he came to use Evernote for fieldwork and data analysis. Over on the Wenner-Gren Blog, Danielle Carr discusses how she became a “reluctant convert” to Evernote and outlines some advantages and disadvantages of using it. Taking a slightly different approach, Tim Sensing uses Evernote for a student ethnography assignment, something also suggested on a web page I found for the course Web 2.0 Foundations: A Networked Research Course describing how to take fieldnotes and write them up in Evernote.

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Doing anthropological fieldwork ‘at home’

A month or so ago I posted some thoughts about what it’s really like to be an anthropologist. Not long after that I was asked to talk to a group of Y12 students (high school students in their penultimate year who had come to Victoria University to learn about future study options) about doing anthropological fieldwork. That talk did a much better job of capturing what for me is one of the most rewarding (and challenging) parts of being an anthropologist: doing fieldwork.

I studied Hip-Hop Culture in Aotearoa for my Masters degree in social anthropology, which involved doing fieldwork ‘at home.’ I had long been a fan of Aotearoa Hip-Hop (I used to co-host the Hip-Hop show on Massey University’s student radio station Radio Control) and became interested in understanding how and why Hip-Hop in New Zealand was different to Hip-Hop overseas, particularly the United States. My thesis was based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork (2000-2002) where I explored what Hip-Hop meant to those actively involved in producing and performing Hip-Hop in Aotearoa.

My fieldwork involved a lot of listening and observation. I went to events (b-boy and MC battles, graffiti showcases, gigs, Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summits), used a technique called participant-observation (sometimes known as ‘deep hanging out’ with a purpose) where I would participate in as well as observe what was going on, took fieldnotes and photos, interviewed members of the Hip-Hop community, and tried to immerse myself in all things Hip-Hop.

Lorena doing fieldwork at the 2001 Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summit
Lorena doing fieldwork at the 2001 Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summit in Auckland

People often smile when I tell them my fieldwork involved going to gigs or watching spraycans while people created graffiti art (making jokes like “I bet that was hard work”). However, this kind of fieldwork is not as easy as it sounds. Daniel Simons’ video The Monkey Business Illusion is a great example of how we often miss a lot of what happens around us:
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Suddenly non-vegetarian: Dilemmas in anthropological fieldwork

I thought I had prepared for my PhD fieldwork in India and Papua New Guinea. I’d taken language lessons, made initial contacts, researched cultural traditions, read the Lonely Planet guides to each place, tried to anticipate what culture shock might be like, and decided to ‘expect the unexpected’. What I hadn’t fully considered, however, was what I would eat in the field.

Being vegetarian was no problem on my trips to Kolkata (India) where vegetarianism is normal for many. It was easy to find suitable street food and restaurants when I was out and my (Muslim) research participants usually included a vegetarian dish in their meals. I even found vegetarian options at weddings I attended (which was a relief, as it is considered rude not to eat at a wedding and I wanted to be a good guest).

On my first trip to Lae (Papua New Guinea) however, I suddenly became non-vegetarian. I’d met with a village women’s literacy group and, after touring their facilities and meeting the women involved, we shared a meal. Pride of place at the meal was a pig the women had slaughtered and cooked. As a guest, I was offered my plate of food first. All eyes were on me as I accepted it and sat down to eat. I had seconds to decide whether to decline the pork and risk offending my hosts, or whether to eat what was on the plate in front of me. I ate it. I was quite unwell afterwards (not having eaten meat in some years) but preferred this to the discomfort I thought I would have caused by refusing the meal cooked for me.

Everyone has different reasons for becoming vegetarian. Mine involved the treatment of animals in the commercial meat industry in New Zealand, and the fact that I don’t like the taste of red meat. I remember quickly thinking ‘it’s okay, they’ve raised and killed this pig themselves’ and ‘this doesn’t look too bad’ before I ate it. For the rest of my fieldwork in PNG I ate meat when it was offered to me and, over time, became non-vegetarian at home as well (for a whole host of different reasons, and I still dislike red meat).

Recently, conversations I’ve had with colleagues suggest that suddenly becoming non-vegetarian is actually quite common. David Sutton (1997) has written about being a vegetarian anthropologist but I haven’t found much written by anthropologists who faced food-related dilemmas during fieldwork and changed their dietary practices (by either becoming non-vegetarian or vegetarian), temporarily or permanently. Is this because it is considered ‘normal’ or expected for anthropologists to follow the cultural practices of those we work with?

I am curious to find out whether others have crossed the vegetarian/non-vegetarian divide while doing fieldwork. Did you become non-vegetarian, vegetarian, vegan? Why? Have you maintained it? I would love to hear about your experiences!

A template for writing fieldnotes

For my PhD I carried out ethnographic fieldwork in different locations: bastis (slums) in the twin cities of Howrah and Kolkata (India), and urban and peri-urban settlements in the city of Lae (Papua New Guinea). I knew from earlier visits that these different settings would mean that I was in for very different fieldwork experiences. I also knew I was unlikely to have much control over events. However, I could take steps to standardise my data collection and notetaking processes as much as possible. In the early stages of my research I decided to create a fieldwork template with that goal in mind.

After reading what others had to say about ethnographic fieldnotes (including A Thrice-Told Tale by Margery Wolf [1992], Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology edited by Roger Sanjek, [1990], and Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes edited by Robert Merson, Rachel Fretz and Linda Shaw [1995]), I created a fieldnote template (originally in MS Word; now I use Pages) with the following sections:

[filename]
[TITLE]
[DATE]
In these sections I insert the filename of each document as a header, give each fieldnote a short title, and record the date.

[DESCRIPTION OF ACTIVITY]
This is for describing what happened during the day as accurately as I can. I take a ‘who, what, when, where, why, how’ approach and try to stick to ‘facts’ to create a verbal snapshot of what happened. This includes noting direct quotes and snippets of conversations, text messages, filenames of voice recordings, and what photos I took.

I am aware that all fieldnotes are constructed, and what we choose to take notes about are influenced by a range of factors, so in this section I try to minimise that. My aim is to keep description separate from analytical work for as long as possible while recognising that these snapshots are just that; a glimpse of a point in time from a particular perspective, through a particular lens.

[REFLECTIONS]
I reflect on the day’s experiences, writing about how I might have influenced events, what went wrong (and what I could do differently next time), and how I feel about the process.

[EMERGING QUESTIONS/ANALYSES]
Here I note questions I might ask, potential lines of inquiry, and theories that might be useful. This is where I start to do some analytical work.

[FUTURE ACTION]
This is a ‘to-do’ list of actions. I usually include a timeframe alongside each point.

How it works for me
I usually type my fieldnotes at the end of each day and use this template alongside handwritten notebooks, which I carry when I am out and about. I find that people often want to look at (and correct!) what I’m writing in notebooks so I use them to record people’s names, questions I want to ask, specific times of events, and for participants to write notes about what they think I should pay attention to.

I draw on all of the above sources, as well as photographs, emails, voice recordings (and their transcriptions), and my memories, when I write. I find the description section of my template is extremely useful for providing the context for photographs, recordings and transcriptions, and as a point of comparison for my memories, which change over time .

I have not (yet) started using digital media in my fieldnotes, although I am interested in how this works. I have been following EthnographyMatters since Tricia Wang’s post Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography about ‘live fieldnoting’ on Instagram. A recent issue of Popular Anthropology Magazine (Vol 4, No 1, 2013) has a section dedicated to blogging fieldnotes.

I am always keen to hear about how others take fieldnotes. What is your process? What are your thoughts on ‘live fieldnoting’ or blogging from the field?