From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fieldnotes from History—Introduction

[a] Fieldlanterns  RF
 Fieldnotes. History. (From).

These three words spell out exactly what this series is about, but they are not as transparent as they might seem at first glance. Let's start with taking notes. That is a complex process in its own right, as we shall see. Beyond that, where does the "field" part of it come from? How do "field," which has a number of reasonable meanings, and "notes" come together (and without even a dash or a spacing, of all things)?

On top of it, there is that clumsy word "history." Does it mean "about history—stuff that happened in the past" or "notes that were taken a long time ago?"

[b] Fieldwood   RF

I don't think that enough has been said about how notes of all kinds "change" over time or how people take notes about things that happened a long time ago. Don't get me wrong. It is not as though the library shelves are empty on these topics. It is just that I think much more needs to be said about it and—above all else—we need to see more examples of how people take notes. It is one of those "personal" things that tend not to be shared widely. There are reasons for this, not the least being that, well, it is personal (check the link at 5:45).  It remains just a little too mysterious, if you ask me, and every generation of historians and anthropologists (and other people who take notes) has to rediscover it for itself—one-by-one, alone and with little guidance.

We'll leave the word "from" alone, even though it, too, could be parsed in this context.

Let's get back to that first word—what about "fieldnotes?" What are they? In the narrow, professional sense, they are the notes that anthropologists take while they are "in the field." Of course, "the field" has never been adequately defined. At the very least it means "not at home; somewhere else." Usually. In all seriousness, even that is a little tricky. It was all so much easier when we assumed that anthropologists who were "on the job" got onto boats (or eventually planes) and went far, far away to places where they couldn't understand what people said (at first), and where they were cooled by ocean breezes. There (so the mythistory goes), they "mapped" villages, learned new words, and set out to learn all about kinship...and exchange and, well, everything else—because anthropologists study complete people in their complete environments.

[c] Fieldnotepad RL
And every evening they went back to their huts or their tents or their yurts or their igloos and "wrote it up."

Wrote it up.

That is the phrase that is most often used and, as my students in my theory and methods courses know, I have a special loathing for it. It is not that I have a problem with the writing part of it. It is, rather, the sinister implication that life is "out there" and that all the anthropologist (or journalist) has to do is observe it and then get it down on paper. No problem, right?

No, people. It's all about the writing. Every bit of it, from start to finish. Period (which is also is what I'm doing right now to make my point).

This "writing up" idea is a powerful one, though. The lore surrounding the jotting, typing, and saving of these fragments in the field of anthropology is so great that they have been known to cause tingles down even the most serious anthropologist's spine. Take, for example, one of the most iconic photographs of all. I can't stop looking at it with utter fascination and exotic longing, even though I should "know better." Here (as I envision it) the married fieldwork team of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson "write up" their scattered jottings, making them into "proper" fieldnotes, even as the early evening sun begins to peek through their low windows.

Excuse me. I just had another spine-tingle.

Give me a moment.
[d] Fieldnoting
There are many other photographs much like this one, which is perhaps the most famous in the history of anthropology. In those, we have anthropologists writing while surrounded by curious onlookers or, pencil in hand and a spare behind his ear, the young ethnographer trying to "get it all down." In every case the unspoken assumption is that the ethnographer is "writing up" the world.
***  ***
We'll return to this process in a moment, but notes are more complicated than even this. For one, the manner or process of taking them varies quite markedly between academic disciplines. For example, a field biologist would see things—and write them—a little differently.
[e] Notes in Fields
And even though historians would not use the word "field," they know all about the "notes" part. In fact, the archives rival the "field" for anthropologists and the meadow for field biologists. Just get a(n) historian talking about work in "the archives" and the same kind of spine-tingle will start in the same emotional center of the nervous system. It is almost Pavlovian in these professions. "Field"..."archive"...and a peculiar kind of intellectual sal(i)vation begins.

So, this Round and Square series will contain (field)notes from history. At first, they will be various snippets of my own fieldnotes from various research trips that occurred long enough ago that they have a patina of historical change on them. They do not leap from the past right into the reading process (nothing does, by the way). There are little odds-and-ends in them that have been affected by change. That is because they are fieldnotes from history—in this case, from the past. "Same" person, "same" place—twenty-five years earlier.
[f] Notes
As time goes on, I will begin to post other kinds of notes, including those of a man I call "the accidental ethnographer" (William Egar Geil, 1865-1925). I am doing research on his life and travels, and have had the good fortune to spend a fair amount of time looking at original documents of his at the Doylestown Historical Society. The notes I hope to show (securing full permission from the historical society before proceeding, of course) will highlight the "history" part of my series title fully. There is nothing quite like a jotted observation from a lonely segment of the Great arouse interest in fieldnotes from history.

Over the coming months, I will push and tease the phrase fieldnotes from history almost to the breaking point, trying to play with as many intellectual angles as possible. That is the purpose of Round and Square, in any case. It is "all ideas, all (of) the time"...for better or worse.
***  ***
[g] Fieldwall  RF
One last word on method, since this applies directly to my own posted notes. My ethnographic methods course at Beloit College has been called "Theory and Technique in Cultural Anthropology." There, I make a clear distinction between several parts of the writing process. The term "fieldnote" is, indeed, quite ambiguous for anthropologists. Is a fieldnote the thing we jot down in our little pocket notebooks or scraps of paper, or is it the stuff that Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were typing in the picture above?

I make the following distinctions in my own work, and they will help to explain how some of the rough edges of my fieldnote postings will have been worked away. There are many ways to conceive of the note-taking process, and ethnographers have used them all. What follows is merely my own approach. I inflict it on students in class, but after that they are on their own.

I distinguish between five key phases of the ethnographic writing process (yes, I realize that adding "writing" to ethnographic is redundant, but I have found there to be too much confusion if I do not).
                              1. Jottings
                              2. Fieldnotes
                              3. Letters
                              4. Presentation
                              5. Ethnographic essay (or book)

[h] FieldTaipei  RF
Don't go looking for the source for this strange amalgam (although almost all of it is pretty straightforward). I worked it out in the field during my first attempts at fieldwork in Taiwan from 1985-1987. The only things that are even remotely "different" about it is the extent to which I emphasize "jotting" and "fieldnotes" as fairly distinctly different undertakings, as well as the very great emphasis that I put on the letter writing process, which I find to be the most important part of all. Writing a certain kind of letter helps the ethnographer (while still "in the field") start to articulate whole arguments—but without serious pressure—for an actual audience of readers. Finally, there is a little more focus in my scheme (this is not rare by any means) on the importance of presentation as the ethnographer settles into the difficult task of writing serious ethnography.

This scheme has worked well for me for twenty-five years, now, and I have even found a way to apply it well to the process of doing work in the archives (something that I still believe historians have not discussed enough among themselves). The key to it all (in history, anthropology, or journalism) is to "jot" well—to create little "prompts" for further writing in the form of jottings. Next (this is standard Ethnography 201) it is necessary to put them into "fieldnote" form. This varies considerably between anthropologists, but I like to think of a fieldnote as one fairly nicely developed idea, with emphasis on as much detail as possible and only hints of broader arguments to come further along in the writing process.

Letters are where it all comes together for the first time, and the reason I mention them here is because they have affected the "fieldnotes" that I am presenting in this series of posts. In my letters from Taiwan, I sat with my jottings and my fieldnotes and wrote to a close friend in graduate school (studying anthropology) as well as to my father, whose training is in sociology and anthropology. They were letters, to be sure, but I worked my ideas into narrative form with those "audiences" in mind. Now here's the point. Even in the first month of my work, the "audiences" for my letters and the entire jotting/fieldnote process became entwined. Before I knew it, my fieldnotes started to take the form of paragraphs (not exactly, but closer than I might have guessed) in letters.

[h] Notes RF
For that reason, I would call the "fieldnotes" from Taiwan in this series a kind of written form lying between a "fieldnote" and a part of a "fieldletter." That is just the way it worked out, and it has continued to follow that pattern during the rest of my career, since I have found the "letters from the field" part of the writing process absolutely invaluable, whether I have been in Tokyo bookstores or Chinese pilgrimage mountains.

I will give short, contextual explanations occasionally in the posts, but I am determined to let them stand for themselves as much as I can tolerate. In other words, the text is not altered (no, not even split infinitives or grammatical infractions that are actually more "serious"). I reserve the right occasionally to give a little context for my thinking, though. You see, these things are personal, and "we" are not who "we" were twenty-five years ago. The temptation just to keep it to ourselves is great, but I think "we" old folks in the profession need to show more examples of the way we work (for better or worse). Since I work in history and anthropology, maybe one or two little successes (or big mistakes) might help a few people do a better job with their own thinking about how these disciplines connect.

Pardon the long introduction, but welcome to fieldnotes from history.
[i] Notework RF


  1. Taking notes. I spent two days in the Museum of Musical Instruments in Scottsdale witb a small music manuscript book, noting the scales of the various instruments, and of course, their cultures. Musical anthropology, i suppose, although i didn't think of it that way. I was simply getting ideas for tunes. Still, if you hear a triple meter and a Phrygian scale, you're going to think "Spain!" Scales and meters are the bones of music, and those bones have an anthropological story.