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Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes [Paperback]

Robert M. Emerson , Rachel I. Fretz , Linda L. Shaw
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 15 1995 Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing
In this companion volume to John van Maanen's "Tales of the Field", three scholars reveal how the ethnographer turns direct experience and observation into written fieldnotes upon which an ethnography is based. Drawing on years of teaching and field research experience, the authors develop a series of guidelines, suggestions and practical advice about how to write useful fieldnotes in a variety of settings, both cultural and institutional. Using actual, unfinished "working" notes as examples, they illustrate options for composing, reviewing and working fieldnotes into finished texts. They discuss different organizational and descriptive strategies, including evocation of sensory detail, synthesis of complete scenes, the value of partial versus omniscient perspectives and of first-person versus third-person accounts. Of particular interest is the authors' discussion of notetaking as a mindset. They show how transforming direct observations into vivid descriptions results not simply from good memory but more crucially from learning to envision scenes as written. A good ethnographer, they argue, must learn to remember dialogue and movement like an actor, to see colours and shapes like a painter, and to sense moods and rhythms like a poet. The authors also emphasize the ethnographer's core interest in presenting the perceptions and meanings which the people studied attach to their own actions. They demonstrate the subtle ways that writers can make the voices of people heard in the texts they produce. Finally, they analyze the "processing" of fieldnotes - the practice of coding notes to identify themes and methods for selecting and weaving together fieldnote excerpts to write a polished ethnography. This book, however, is more than a "how-to" manual. The authors examine writing fieldnotes as an interactive and interpretive process in which the researcher's own commitments and relationships with those in the field inevitably shape the character and content of those fieldnotes. They explore the conscious and unconscious writing choices that produce fieldnote accounts. And they show how the character and content of these fieldnotes inevitably influence the arguments and analyses the ethnographer can make in the final ethnographic tale. This book shows that note-taking is a craft that can be taught. Along with "Tales of the Field" and George Marcus and Michael Fisher's "Anthropology as Cultural Criticism", "Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes" should provide an essential tool for students and social scientists alike.

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About the Author

Robert M. Emerson is professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Judging Delinquents: Context and Process in Juvenile Court, editor of Contemporary Field Research: Perspectives and Formulations, and coauthor of Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes.


Rachel I. Fretz is a lecturer in the Writing Programs unit at UCLA.


Linda L. Shaw is professor in and chair of the sociology department at California State University, San Marcos.

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
Format:Paperback
Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes was written to fill a gap in ethnographic methods training - students are seldom guided through the process of turning notes jotted down as they do observation into publishable ethnographic documents. Not laden with academic jargon, the easy flowing text makes this book readily accessible to the undergraduate student - but the content is such that even an experienced ethnographer can benefit.
True teachers, Emerson, Shaw and Fretz (UCLA faculty) show just as much of the process as they tell. Step by step, readers are walked through the process of turning initial chicken scratches jotted down on scrap paper to publishable ethnographic documents. Rarely will you find more than a page between excerpts from real fieldnotes.
The authors recognize that every field situation is different and ethnographers rarely, if ever, find themselves in ideal situations for writing. Thus, they explain the tensions that constantly pull at ethnographers and also what things will become much easier as ethnographers gain experience. They discuss how to balance observing with writing, and demonstrate that how you write fieldnotes (what you emphasize, point-of-view used, quality of description, representing community members' voices) is just as important as what you write.
Redundancy might be a weak point, but overall the re-explaining of things in two or three different ways serves only to make the reader experience and assimilate the process of writing fieldnotes. Readers can then naturally employ the procedures rather than constantly referring to the book as a "checklist" when doing fieldwork.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the worldview and customs of another culture, or doing social research within their own culture.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Useful for students of ethnography Dec 26 2000
Format:Paperback
"Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes" is the only title I have seen specifically looking at the process of how one goes about collecting and writing ethnograhpic data. The book begins with theoretical issues, then moves into jotting, full fieldnotes, and finally discusses how to analyze fieldnotes and write a full ethnography. In general it is an excellent treatment of the subject and provides very practical advice which is well-illustrated by samples collected by the authors and their students. The authros show a marked preferrence for interpretive and processual anthropology (there are frequent referrences to Clifford Geertz among others) so researchers and students with strong comittments to other approaches might not find it as useful as I did. If the book suffers from any shortcoming it is that at points the explanations become too wordy bogging the reader down somewhat. While this book would not be of much interest to the non-professional reader, I highly recommend it to anyone who is studying, practicing, or teaching ethnographic method. I found it very useful and practical.
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A "how-to" manual for turning observation into publication Aug. 6 2001
By Amy Schondelmeyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes was written to fill a gap in ethnographic methods training - students are seldom guided through the process of turning notes jotted down as they do observation into publishable ethnographic documents. Not laden with academic jargon, the easy flowing text makes this book readily accessible to the undergraduate student - but the content is such that even an experienced ethnographer can benefit.
True teachers, Emerson, Shaw and Fretz (UCLA faculty) show just as much of the process as they tell. Step by step, readers are walked through the process of turning initial chicken scratches jotted down on scrap paper to publishable ethnographic documents. Rarely will you find more than a page between excerpts from real fieldnotes.
The authors recognize that every field situation is different and ethnographers rarely, if ever, find themselves in ideal situations for writing. Thus, they explain the tensions that constantly pull at ethnographers and also what things will become much easier as ethnographers gain experience. They discuss how to balance observing with writing, and demonstrate that how you write fieldnotes (what you emphasize, point-of-view used, quality of description, representing community members' voices) is just as important as what you write.
Redundancy might be a weak point, but overall the re-explaining of things in two or three different ways serves only to make the reader experience and assimilate the process of writing fieldnotes. Readers can then naturally employ the procedures rather than constantly referring to the book as a "checklist" when doing fieldwork.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the worldview and customs of another culture, or doing social research within their own culture. Even if your goal is not to do anthropology or to publish ethnographic documents, turning your experiences and observations into written text helps you to process things. Writing also helps you gain insights about the community you are working with by increasing your observational skills. You will not regret taking time to read Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Resource July 21 2006
By Grant H. Potts - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw have put together not only an excellent handbook for writing ethnographic fieldnotes, but an insightful study of the practical issues confronting anyone doing interpretative writing about culture.

The book's primary focus is on how to effectively take and maintain fieldnotes. They appropriately begin at the ground by discussing how to take jottings and other quick notes, providing memory cues for the later write up of complete fieldnotes. Always keeping the focus on the task of writing, while balancing that with the task of honest and rigorous reporting, they give excellent advice for how to create a clear record of your field experience. While their focus is primarily on an ethnographic style of careful observation of interactions, their ideas remain useful to those with other theoretical concerns. Because they are always keeping an eye toward the end product of a finished, written document, this book also provides and excellent resource for how to use your fieldnotes in order to write a finished ethnography.

But this is not just an excellent book for ethnographic fieldworkers. Reading the book not only gave me solid ideas for my fieldwork, but also for the task of reading and note-taking around text-based and image-based culture. Additionally, I see this as an invaluable tool for someone engaged in more journalistic research, and for those of us who teach and tutor writing.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Little in size, Great the message Sept. 15 2005
By Jimmy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I had checked out several research methodology books to find out 'how' to keep fieldnotes. I had been looking for very 'practical' and 'down to earth' reference which can offer me the real examples and approaches of fieldsnotes. Although there were good research methodology books, I could hardly find the reference for 'fieldnotes'.

The content of this practical and theoretical guide to fieldnotes is quite satisfactory and now I think I know how to keep my own fieldnotes. The text size, however, is so small that I got tired of reading it. On the whole, I am satisfied with this little booklet (small in size but big in quality) and I would love to recommend this book to those who are interested in writing qualitative research articles.

Jimmy Lee, PhD Student, mmed, Florida State University
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful for students of ethnography Dec 26 2000
By Stephen Boyanton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes" is the only title I have seen specifically looking at the process of how one goes about collecting and writing ethnograhpic data. The book begins with theoretical issues, then moves into jotting, full fieldnotes, and finally discusses how to analyze fieldnotes and write a full ethnography. In general it is an excellent treatment of the subject and provides very practical advice which is well-illustrated by samples collected by the authors and their students. The authros show a marked preferrence for interpretive and processual anthropology (there are frequent referrences to Clifford Geertz among others) so researchers and students with strong comittments to other approaches might not find it as useful as I did. If the book suffers from any shortcoming it is that at points the explanations become too wordy bogging the reader down somewhat. While this book would not be of much interest to the non-professional reader, I highly recommend it to anyone who is studying, practicing, or teaching ethnographic method. I found it very useful and practical.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Noteworthy Resource March 4 2008
By grasshopper4 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
It's interesting that books on fieldwork tend to exclude extended discussions of note-taking as a part of fieldwork. The focus of many guides on fieldwork methods usually is on completing audio or video interviews and on the use of photography in fieldwork. This book fills this gap in research methodology. The writers show good, practical techniques for taking notes during ethnographic and oral history field research. More importantly, they convincingly demonstrate how creating good fieldnotes is essential to completing good ethnographic studies. Each section of the book blends practical ideas with theoretical generalizations in ways that not only show readers how to complete field research, but the discussion also reveals why these techniques are useful. The chapter that provides ways to turn fieldnotes into written ethnographies is an especially helpful discussion of a challenging task. In this particular chapter, and in the book in general, readers can find ideas that can also be applied to the use of other field-generated resources such as structured audio/video interviews and photo sessions. This book is also valuable as a resource for understanding and examining various written ethnographic studies. In this respect, the insights offered by Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw give readers good ideas for evaluating written ethnographies and useful perspectives for understanding the process of completing ethnographically-grounded research and how ethnographic study contributes to the representation of culture.
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