Why my field notes are shrinking (or “Таксист, прощай!”)

I’ve only just arrived in Armenia, but I’ve already been busy creating problems for myself. The major dilemma I’ve wrestled with so far was whether or not to include in my field diary the conversation I had with my taxi driver as we drove from Zvartnots airport to Yerevan city centre three days ago. This taxi driver was a friendly man of middle age, with distinguished grey hair and a broad smile, who imparted absolutely nothing new to my understanding of gender and conflict, but did exchange a string of pleasantries with me about the spring weather, the ripening of apricots, his daughter’s education at the American University of Armenia and her subsequent whirlwind marriage, and how much his grandsons (aged five and seven) enjoyed the freak snow storm that took place one day last week.

Objectively speaking, I know that if I put that conversation in my field diary, I will only take it out again when I return to do the analysis. So why do I still feel the urge to describe it in detail? It’s partly because I am itching to do something tangible. I forgot how frustrating fieldwork can be, just hanging around the house and waiting for people to reply to your calls/texts/emails, or at least for it to stop raining outside. By now I know how this works – I spend a few days on tenterhooks, squirming with the fear that everyone has forgotten me, or worse, is wondering how they can politely ignore my superfluous research queries – and then suddenly, my inbox is over-flowing with kind responses, and I’m scheduling back-to-back meetings for a couple of days…before it all returns to zero point, and the agonising wait begins again.

During the early stages of fieldwork, I devised a strategy for coping with this anxiety, which basically consisted of writing really detailed notes about absolutely everything – chats with taxi drivers, tea with friends, conversations I overheard on the bus, people and things I saw in the street. Since then, I’ve done some more reading about ethnographic methods, and I have learned that this is fairly common practice for novice researchers, especially anthropologists. Often, the reason we do it is not to be methodologically rigorous (no one needs to know about four boys playing with a cat), but to escape the fear that we are failing as researchers by not producing a large quantity of data on a daily basis. My urge to write about the taxi driver is natural, because I know it will take the edge off as I wait for something more interesting to happen.

For the first few months of fieldwork, I loved taking notes like this, and found solace in my humdrum observations when research was otherwise going slowly. Last July though, I began to approach my nightly note-taking sessions with an uncharacteristically loathsome feeling. Initially, I thought that this was down to research fatigue after months of intensive data collection – as well as the mounting heat in Baku. Then I started to think that perhaps it was due to the sensitive, if not disturbing, nature of some of the things I was writing about. When I switched research contexts at the end of the summer (from Azerbaijan to Armenia), I experienced a brief respite, but after a few weeks found that my antipathy towards field notes was stronger than ever. I still relished absorbing the details of everyday life, but I had become almost allergic to writing about them.

It’s only recently that I came across an alternative explanation for what I was feeling, which is data saturation (one of the downsides of not having majored in sociology or anthropology is that I usually only learn about these things in retrospect). This is a stage in qualitative research projects where interviews and/or observations begin to repeat themselves, instead of yielding new information. At this point, you’re supposed to stop and write up your analysis. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached saturation point in terms of my core research questions, but I would say that I have probably come to my threshold for understanding  the research context, i.e. the Caucasus. I’ve established a broad framework of analysis which allows me to relate almost everything I experience back to something else that has already happened and been described in detail in previous field diary entries. I’m not culturally assimilated (and never will be), but at least my obsessive note-taking has come full circle.

On top of this comes the realisation that when it comes to analysing the data, a huge percentage of my earlier field notes will have to be cut altogether, leaving me with only that which is relevant to my research questions. The rest won’t have gone to waste: close, consistent observation was needed to contextualise the case study and to understand the society I’m living in (as much as possible). It also helped me to gain access to the people I needed. And it provided a good opportunity for reflecting on my own position. Strictly speaking though, these minor observations, which probably make up the bulk of my field notes, are just a kind of memory bank I use for storing the rest of the information – the really valuable stuff – that I’ve received through interviews and participant observation.

The logical conclusion to this is: be more judicious about note-taking. So why the lingering unease about the taxi-driver? Perhaps it’s sentimental: I’ve developed a spot soft for men like this in the Caucasus, who have lived through so many changes and shouldered the burden of post-Soviet masculinity and still remain good-humoured and open in their interactions. Yes, I know I am romanticising them, but they also serve a practical function: since my research focuses on women’s rights activists, taxi drivers – an almost exclusively male profession – are one of the few sources of contrasting perspectives, helping to bring me back down to earth (and safely home) on a regular basis. My favourite was one called Namiq, who used to greet me in the street whenever he saw me and invite me to join him and the other Baku taxi drivers for tea on the Boulevard when they finished the night shift.

Tomorrow I have a busy day lined up, and I’ll stop feeling so concerned about taxi drivers. And over the next few days, I’ll divert my attention into other necessary tasks. It’s a relief to know that I don’t have to take notes on everything that happens to me from dawn until dusk, and can work on developing the actual thesis instead. But it makes me a little bit sad, too. Sad to think of all the people who have been so kind and honest with me, and who are no longer going to make the cut. Sad that there is, after all, a hierarchy of research subjects, and I have to focus on the ‘experts’ from now on. And sad, too, that I must start to wean myself off all the little things, the tiny but glorious details that give me a deeper awareness of my surroundings and contribute to the perpetual ‘high’ of fieldwork.

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4 thoughts on “Why my field notes are shrinking (or “Таксист, прощай!”)

  1. I love your writing & your observations about what field research is like. I teach Sociology at LIT & Im going to forward your fantastic blog to my MA & 4th yr dissertation students. But I’m interested for myself as well as ethnography has always been my area of research – all local & nothing obviously on the scale of your amazing work – so I’m enjoying reading your experiences and observations very much!! And ill look forward to the next blog update

    • Hi Karen, thanks for your comment. I’m delighted the blog could be of interest to others, and I know I have a lot to learn from those with more experience in sociology. I never tackled ethnography at BA or masters level so it’s all still very new to me, in spite of distances travelled!

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