See You Later, Thick Data – Part 2

See You Later, Thick Data – Part 2

This blogpost is part of the methodological series “See You Later, Thick Data – How we experimented with doing collaborative fieldwork as part of an interdisciplinary research project”. In this series, we, a group of anthropologically trained junior scholars, discuss some of the opportunities and challenges we faced when collecting ethnographic data in a week-long, interdisciplinary case study of the Danish democratic festival “The People’s Meeting”. We took on a somewhat different approach to the classic anthropological fieldwork, and in this series, we share our experiences with a highly preplanned, systematic, and collaborative way of collecting ethnographic data that is integrable with other data types.

Compiling Ethnographic Data in an Ethno-platform 

The sun disappears behind the colorful town houses as you enter a pub in the narrow, cobbled road to test the pilot version of the Ethno-platform, an online fieldnote tool. It’s Wednesday, and tomorrow the town will buzz with people debating, networking, and navigating between each other around the festival area. You enter the pub and look for a table where you can sit discreetly, but still have a good overview of everyone in the pub. A group of friends immediately catches your attention. You begin to scribble: “20:58. They turn their chairs and move closer to a big TV screen beside their table. A UEFA match is about to start.” Just before, they were chatting eagerly with each other and now their common attention is oriented towards the TV. An analytical thought pops into your head, but you are unsure how to note it down in the platform. You wonder if it would be best to type it into the Ethno-platform next to the descriptive observation, or in a separate text field. Soon you return to the research team and discuss your experiences. How do we compile fieldnotes in a common format between researchers?

In our training as traditional (social) anthropologists, we’ve been told once and again that ethnographic work is a lonesome discipline conducted by a single ethnographer in the field. In the context of studying a comprehensive event like The People’s Meeting, however, the lonesome ethnographer might fall short. Since the festival only lasts for four days once every year, there was a great asset in mobilizing more ethnographers to cover more ground. We are sure that one trained ethnographer could collect rich data during the four days, but what if we could register what happens at every corner of the festival area at the same time?

The question remained, how we should go about this? Before us, sociologists and anthropologists at UCPH have experimented with what they call “short, big-scale fieldwork”. In the Utopia project, they asked themselves what kind of knowledge can be obtained if – instead of having one person conducting fieldwork in 100 days – 100 people conducted fieldwork in one day. Inspired by this idea, we asked ourselves how much data our team of ten scholars, of which seven were anthropologically trained, could collect in four days. In other words, we wanted to collect as many observations of micro-interactions at The People’s Meeting as possible. But clearly, this sort of collaborative data collection would require some coordination.

A Common Tool

A core task for the ethnographer is writing fieldnotes. This is often a messy and time-consuming process that entails jotting down in-situ notes in a notebook and elaborating on them later. The result is often unstructured and not easily comprehensible for anyone besides the author. We needed a way of streamlining our data collection to avoid a messy pool of observations without the time and resources to make sense of them. And after numerous considerations, this was how the first contours of the Ethno-platform emerged. So, what exactly is the Ethno-platform? The basic idea was to create a semi-fixed template for writing fieldnotes which would ease this sort of collaborative data collection[1]. Here, the ethnographers should be able to fill in their observations in pre-defined text fields on their device at hand such as a mobile phone or a tablet.

Picture 1. Ethno-platform interface on a mobile phone

Let us quickly guide you through the platform interface: When accessing the Ethno-platform on your phone, you meet the interface in Picture 1. The first thing you do is to select yourself as the authoring ethnographer from a list of team members on the project. Then you type in metadata such as date, location, and situation which is stored with the content of the fieldnote. In the “situation” field, you type in the necessary contextual information for other researchers to understand the observations described in the fieldnote such as “Panel debate on sustainable food industries”. Lastly, there are two open text fields. One, where you write your observations, and another, where you add analytical or methodological reflections to the set of observations or the project in general. In this way, all fieldnotes will have a similar structure while also allowing you to write descriptive notes and reflections from the field. When you click “done”, the notes are stored on a GDPR-compliant[2] server where they can be accessed and edited at any given point by all members of your team.

One of the main goals for the Ethno-platform was to make a common data archive where anyone from our project could access any fieldnote created during the week and in principle be able to utilize the data instantly. Here, the metadata from each fieldnote came in handy. Having consistently typed in the information for every fieldnote in the project during the case study, we ensured a simple contextual introduction to each note which helped everyone easily navigate in the fieldnotes through the platform.

A Common Format

Aside from the Ethno-platform aligning our fieldnotes in structure, we also needed to establish some ground rules for how the tool should be used in the field. This was key if we wanted to successfully collect numerous observations of the same type of micro-interactions. To do so, we agreed on three formalities when writing in the platform: Analytical or methodological comments pertaining to an observation would be written in asterisks (* analytical comment *), citations would be written in quotation marks (“citation”), and each observation would be accompanied by a time stamp to indicate exactly when a given action or observation happened allowing us to follow the temporal progression of the fieldnotes (see Picture 2). While the time stamps might seem to only constrain the observer further in the field, they indeed turned out to be valuable to the collaborative element of our project. They allowed us to pin-point tendencies temporally in the fieldnotes and compare them across ethnographers to see if the tendencies were in fact patterns. With the Ethno-platform and these common formalities, we now had a framework for our ethnographic work which would ensure an alignment of our notes.

Picture 2. Example of observation in the Ethno-platform

Having these three formalities ensured consistency in our ethnographic data giving us the opportunity to compile fieldnotes i.e., patch together all observations collectively. Of course, the content of each fieldnote is still characterized to some extent by the authoring ethnographer as we have different views and take notice of different things in the field. However, with a firm infrastructural framework in our hands, we establish a common ground for how to note down our observations, and thereby, we have a general format for compiling and storing fieldnotes across a big team of ethnographers. Now that we have established the common structure, in the next installment we will move on to how we ensured that our fieldnotes not only align in format but also in content.

Notes

[1] At SODAS, we are currently in the process of developing our own web-based application with similar, but more user-friendly features. However, for the pilot version in 2021, the software was provided by Survey Exact and ran through an internet browser.

[2] General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a regulation to privacy law in the European Union (EU) that protects personal data of EU citizens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.