I'm currently not working in an anthropological capacity, per se, but I am functioning as a recording secretary for the assessment body at the university for which I work.

 

As a result, I have the opportunity to apply my training in speech-in-action observation, at least to a limited degree. Generally, I'll produce anywhere from 4 to 7 pages of typed, single space narrative, given the length of the meeting (anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour).

 

As part of the process, I submit those written narratives to the committee co-chairs for review before I send them out to the committee (ultimately so they can approve the minutes in the next meeting). Sharing those narratives with the co-chairs and with the committee members has been somewhat instructive, highlighting (at least to me) certain advantages and pitfalls of collaborating in such a project. It should be noted that there is a definite hierarchy set into place here, in which I have to defer to those "above" me in the workplace structure; so, the sharing of these "field notes" is not an ethical issue, as it might be when conducting ethnographic fieldwork, but rather a compulsory part of the job description.


The single advantage that I can see is that I will occasionally have clarification for discrepancies (for example, I recently misspelled a program Dean's name).

 

However, the pitfalls seem pretty significant. Chief among them is the tendency for the co-chairs to say one thing in the meeting, then to amend my notes in the revisions. In the process, they do end up clarifying the process or issue under consideration in the dialogue; yet in adding those clarifications, they end up appending comments that weren't actually made, verbatim, during the actual events of the meetings. As a result, the record that I am producing is not clarified, but rather obscured, from a technical standpoint.

 

What I mean to say is that statements are then recorded that are in line with the ideal functioning of the process under consideration, but which can't possibly be a part of anyone's memories of the event (because they were never actually uttered in the course of the meeting's dialogue).

 

Also, I've recorded executive level administrators in certain turns of phrase, only to have them grumble about it later, as conversational, in situ dialogue seldom looks polished on paper.

 

It seems to me that, when in the course of dialogue and interaction, participants solve problems in a contextualized manner. However, given the chance to review what I have recorded of their words and actions (and how I have done so), those I am working with tend to have the impulse to "amend" my observations to be "correct." My thought is that this impulse provides additional insight on the "ethnographic" level, but tends to compromise the validity of my recordings on the "field notes" level.

 

On top of all these considerations, I have to at least admit to the possibility that I had indeed not accurately recorded what was said. This last point, though I think vital to a sober methodology, tends to complicate matters quite a bit, even when I'm certain that one thing was, indeed, said, causing a divergence between what I know to be accurate and what the "informant" is telling me is accurate.

 

I'm reminded of Smadar Lavie's chagrin over working with Haj Khantarishe (sp?!) in The Poetics of Military Occupation.

 

Has anyone else had similar dilemmas in actual fieldwork? What are your attitudes toward such an occurrence? How have you resolved this dilemma, if you have at all?

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Replies to This Discussion

"How have you resolved this dilemma?" The most accurate answer is "Case-by-case." How much the text is edited depends on the purposes of the notes in question.

Consider, at one extreme, the transcript of a psychiatric interview, in which where a speaker stumbles, misspeaks, or makes a Freudian slip may be of vital importance to the psychiatrist's diagnosis.

Then consider at the other extreme what I would consider a classic field note, where the purpose is not to capture the nuances of what particular individuals are saying in particular circumstances but to note possible examples of customary behavior. These sorts of notes should be cross-checked against what multiple speakers have to say, both in similar situations and in making comments about them.

Between these are cases where those in positions of authority want their words edited before being exposed in public. Translators and journalists do this all the time, as a courtesy to their clients or sources. But the choice to edit transcripts as per the client's or source's requests is always an ethical and sometimes political decision.

Arguably, the advent of broadcast and now digital media have made growing numbers of people aware of these decisions. The carefully edited press release or friendly news story now competes with YouTube videos that capture speech in the raw, a fact of which politicians and their handlers, in particular, are increasingly conscious. Has this improved the level of public discourse? A case can be made that the consequences of raw exposure have tended to make too many politicians too bland and careful in what they say, leaving "making news" to those who appear not to care what they say.

Is there one solution that fits all cases? Doesn't seem likely. Thus, case-by-case, with each new case presenting those who edit what is transcribed with the basic questions: Why am I doing this? And whose side am I on?
John, thank you for your thoughts.

How about within fieldnotes that are more squarely ethnographic in scope?

My understanding is that ethnographic fieldnotes are not something commonly presented for anyone but the ethnographer herself to see. In such a case, is there still an issue with sharing your fieldnotes with informants/interlocutors, such that they might insist that you change your fieldnote observations to be more "accurate?"

Has anyone had to deal with that issue? If so, what are your thoughts on benefits and pitfalls?
Again, I'd have to say "case-by-case." Authority, trust, what do you do with potentially embarrassing slips, the need to cross-check with other witnesses: all of the classic issues are on the table.

And the fieldwork situation itself has to be considered. I can imagine situations in which it was possible to share field notes with the people whose lives you are studying, e.g., a native anthropologist working in a literate population of people who speak and read the same language. I know that in my case—I was working in Taiwanese, my ability to write Chinese was limited, and my field notes were typed in English, with direct quotes in Taiwanese reproduced in missionary romanization with which only a minority of Chinese Christians are familiar. Had I shown them to my Daoist master, who while literate in both Chinese and Japanese, knew no English and was not a Chinese Christian, it is hard to imagine what the point would have been. And I, at least, was working in a literate population of people who do take notes themselves.

Later, when doing the research for my book on Japanese consumer behavior, I was translating material (Japanese to English) from an internal newsletter produced by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living (HILL) produced in Japanese into English. I had my translation checked by my wife and our associates and asked the researchers at HILL whom I worked with to review the manuscript as well. The quality of their English capability varied, but since they themselves do research, write and edit, they could see what I was trying to do. Allowing them to preview the work before it went to the publisher was, to me, simply a professional courtesy. And since I genuinely like and respect the people whose work I was writing about, none of the sorts of issues that arise in a more confrontational kind of writing arose.





Joel M. Wright said:
John, thank you for your thoughts.

How about within fieldnotes that are more squarely ethnographic in scope?

My understanding is that ethnographic fieldnotes are not something commonly presented for anyone but the ethnographer herself to see. In such a case, is there still an issue with sharing your fieldnotes with informants/interlocutors, such that they might insist that you change your fieldnote observations to be more "accurate?"

Has anyone had to deal with that issue? If so, what are your thoughts on benefits and pitfalls?

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