Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography

I just returned from fieldwork in China. I’m excited to share a new way I’ve been writing ethnographic fieldnotes, called live fieldnoting. I spoke about live fieldnoting in a recent interview with Fast Company that also featured a slideshow of my live fieldnotes. I want to elaborate on the process in this post.

At one point in time, all ethnographers wrote their notes down with a physical pen and paper. But with mobiles, laptops, iPads, and digital pens, not all ethnographers write their fieldnotes. Some type their fieldnotes. Or some do both. With all these options, I have struggled to come up with the perfect fieldnote system.

I have experimented with the Livescribe Pen, regular old notebook, and a laptop. The Livescribe digital pen didn’t work for me because it’s really uncomfortable to use after a half hour of writing and its dependency on digital paper makes it inflexible for fieldwork outside of the US and longterm extended fieldwork (my review of the pen on CulturalByt.es). The notebook seems like the most practical solution. But I can’t seem to find the “perfect” notebook. Do I use a really small one that fits in my pocket? A medium size one that allows me to write more? If it’s too big then it looks like a “notebook.” And what should this notebook look like? Does a black moleskin look too nice for my fieldsite? Does it look too official? Does my notebook allow me to fit in with teens? But the notebook with bears and hearts that I use around teens doesn’t work for my meetings with government officials. And in the end no matter what kind of notebook I use, I still have to type all my notes to Evernote. So using a laptop is inevitable as all notes eventually end up there and are cleaned up there.

But the problem with a digital pen, notebook, and laptop is that they are all extra things that have to be carried with you or they add extra steps to the process. If I forget to charge the Livescribe or if it runs out of batteries, then I would have to remember to pack a backup notebook and pen. If I was in an area where I couldn’t get electricity, then I couldn’t charge my laptop or pen. If I’m in situation where I can’t take out a notebook because it would distract from the situation or it would be too cumbersome, then I would have to memorize everything.

I still haven’t found the perfect fieldnote system, but I wanted to experiment with a new process that I call, “live fieldnoting.”

Trying out live fieldnoting

Just last week I met up with a friend’s mom. I hadn’t seen her for a few years. She asked me,

“So now that you are back in the US, are you going to do something with this research you did in China? What will you produce?”

I replied,

“Actually I have produced something! I sent updates everyday from the field. You can see the compilation on Instagram, flickr, facebook, tumblr, and foursquare. I made my research transparent and accessible with daily fieldnotes. Anyone who wanted to follow along in my adventure could see what i was observing.”

Before I moved to China to do one year and a half of fieldwork. I knew that I was going to have data management issues, become super lonely, and have difficulty keeping colleagues posted about my fieldwork dues to unpredictable internet access in China. So that is when I came up with the idea of live fieldnoting on Instagram, a photo sharing app on Iphone and Android. I had already been using Instagram everyday since its release in October of 2010. I loved the app for its simplicity and  even though I had only used it to share photos from my daily life like moments with my dog (she’s amazing!) or friends, I saw its potential as a research app for fieldwork. But I was worried about Instagram being blocked in China as many other social apps are inaccessible.

So when I arrived in China on March of 2011, the first thing I did when I got my SIM card in China was test out Instagram. It wasn’t blocked! I immediately knew that I had a social media life line out of China because the best thing about Instagram is that it pushes data to tumblr, flickr, Facebook, foursquare, and twitter, all sites that are blocked completely or occasionally in China.

Live fieldnoting takes after the practice of liveblogging.  Where as liveblogging is a continuous text-based coverage of an event, like the Emmies or a sports game, live fieldnoting is a continuous text and visual coverage of fieldwork. Where as live bloggers tend to use twitter, live fieldnoters can use Instagram.

I’ve come up with a working definition of live fieldnoting:

life fieldnoting: A live fieldnote is a blog post that is intended to provide an on-location and synchronous visual and textual coverage of an instance from the ethnographer’s fieldwork. The live fieldnote is created with a image sharing app on a mobile phone that is then shared to other social networking services. Images are accompanied by a description of the image and can also include a brief analysis of what the interaction means to the participatants in the image and/or to the ethnographer. All live fieldnotes are timestamped, publicly accessible on the internet, and include location data. Live fieldnotes demonstrates the combination of two activities that are central to ethnographic research, 1.) the ethnographer’s participation in a social world and 2.) the ethnographer’s written account of the world through her/his participation. Live fieldnotes are typically comprised of a one to five sentences. The accumulation of many live fieldnotes works towards producing a “thick description” along with other long form fieldnotes.  Live fieldnotes are not intended to replace the entire fieldnote writing process, rather it is just one of many ways notes can be jotted down for reflection at a later point in time.

A live fieldnotes can consist of a location, timestamp, description of the interaction, explanation of the meaning of the interaction to the participants, and your interpretation of the interaction, and analysis of how it is related to your research.

Other terms that can be used: social fieldnoting, participatory fieldnoting

Prior forms: Jan Chipchase was the first ethnographer to post pictures of his fieldwork to his blog with text. He  provided design observations while on the move. He was an inspiration to a whole generation of designers and cool hunters. His posts tend to be a mix of raw observations and compelling questions. You see early examples of this work on his blog in 2002 but it wasn’t until 2005 that he really started getting to it. His takes really high quality pictures with a gorgeous camera.

A deeper experience through sharing

In the opening chapter of Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Emerson et. al. describes ethnographic research:

“First, the ethnographer enters into a social setting and gets to know the people involved in it; usually, the setting is not previously known in an intimate way. The ethnographer participates in the daily routines of this setting, develops ongoing relations with the people in it, and observes all the while what is going on. Indeed, the term “participant- observation” is often used to characterize this basic research approach. But, second, the ethnographer writes down in regular, systematic ways what she observes and learns while participating in the daily rounds of life of others. Thus the researcher creates an accumulating written record of these observations and experiences. These two interconnected activities comprise the core of ethnographic research: Firsthand participation in some initially unfamiliar social world and the production of written accounts of that world by drawing upon such participation.”

Live fieldnoting fulfills these two activities: participating in the fieldsite and writing observations.  I ease myself into a fieldsite through the very act of documenting and sharing my documentation.  In my instagram posts, I write about interactions that I participate in and what I learn from my interactions with other people. My followers are able to get some glimpses of what I do and how I understand the processes I am researching. I get to bring them with me to the fieldsite which makes the work of ethnography more visible.

In Tales of the Field on Writing Ethnography (1988), John Van Maanen describes ethnography as the

“practice of representing the social reality of others through the analysis of one’s own experience in the world of these others.”

Van Maanen’s quote emphasizes that a practice of ethnography is the representation of experience. In the same vein, live fieldnotes allows the ethnographer to instantly communicate her/his experience of another world. I treat my live fieldnotes as an accumulation of experiences in the same why an ethnographer treats experiences as an accretion of moments. For me, experiences don’t just refer to the fieldwork or to the fieldnotes, but to the act of sharing the experiences though fieldnotes. Sharing photos is part and parcel to how I experience the world. For me, being able to tell others what I observed is how I make meaning of my fieldwork. We often forget that we are not just witnessing meaning-making, but we are also experiencing meaning-making for ourselves. We are making sense of the world just as much as our participants are making sense of it.

The temporality of Instagram makes fieldwork come alive. The instantaneous nature of live fieldnoting on Instagram turns the fieldwork into a real time experience for followers. In Instagram culture, posted pictures are of moments that have just happened, hence the “Insta” in Instagram. The default assumption is that photos are more or less synchronous, otherwise users add the hashtag #latergram as a way to communicate this event took place earlier. Live fieldnoting on Instagram makes ones fieldwork alive. It’s the complete opposite of most ethnographic work that is only publicly revealed after the ethnographer comes back from the fieldsite, analyzes their fieldnotes, and then presents their fieldwork in a book or journal article – which could take a year to several years.

The traditional definition of participant observation refers to the ethnographer participating in what is being observed. The participant observer is focused on her/his experiences at the time the fieldwork is being conducted. Live fieldnoting makes it easier for people to participate in my participant observation. I can bring them into my fieldsite virtually and have them participate by proxy, thus making them feel like I am bringing them with me instead of showing them an end product. And what I found out is that after trying out live fieldnoting for a few months, I discovered that I was able to experience my fieldsite more deeply.

Open Ethnography

Prior to social media, it was difficult to send live fieldnotes updates because of infrastructural or financial limitations. But with smartphones and social networking apps, one can be continuously connected from the field and broadcast messages as long as there is a 3G or wifi connection. But even though it’s now possible for the ethnographer to be connected to the rest of the world, I find that most ethnographers still do research according to traditional timescales and processes. Not much has changed in the communication of ethnographic work since the days of Margery Wolf and Clifford Geertz. Why are ethnographers not engaging their audiences while they are in the field?

I find that a lot of ethnographers treat their fieldnotes with so much sensitivity that they become heavy or outdated. One of the practices that contributes to this outcome is that many ethnographers do not allow anyone to read their fieldnotes. They fear that people are seeing their notes before they have been cleaned up, analyzed, and rewritten. I used to be this way, but it became paralyzing. I started to treat my notes with such sacredness that they prevented me from being collaborative with other ethnographers.

When I told my colleagues in my department that I was going to live fieldnote my fieldwork, many of them questioned my motivations and criticized my decision. I heard the usual:

  • you may not get a tenured job
  • a journal or publisher may not allow you to share your fieldnotes
  • why would you let people see your fieldnotes if you haven’t analyzed them yet?
  • what if other researchers copy your fieldwork?

I don’t want to downplay these concerns because they are real and they may be important to some people, but the benefits of sharing my fieldnotes outweigh fears that may or may not come true. And I’m not even suggesting that all ethnographers need to live fieldnote, but I am pushing for us to reflect on our cultural values around fieldnotes. Why don’t we make our work more visible? Why don’t we take advantage of social networking tools? Why is the ethnographic monograph or journal valued at the expense of updates from the field? A research blog of fieldnotes is also a valuable product of research. The risk of following the traditional model of ethnography is that the research would no longer be that relevant or useful by the time it is shared. That seems like a big risk.  It’s time to change the  culture of secrecy and preciousness around our fieldnotes.

Can we permit our fieldnotes to be less precious and more collaborative? One of the reasons why the internet works is because of open web protocols and open source software. Open protocols and software support decentralized decision making, which makes the web universally operable. Are we ready for an open ethnography that will lead to more possibilities for collaboration, feedback, and reflection?

There are some ethnographers who are embracing open ethnography. Gabriella Coleman tweets and blogs about her research on Anonymous. Joris Luyendijk runs a banking blog in The Guardian.  Heather Ford, Jenna Burrell, Rachelle Annenchino and I started Ethnography Matters to give ethnographers a platform to share our work.

I find that I am a better ethnographer when I get instantaneous feedback from colleagues. It was so rewarding to see comments on my live fieldnotes in Instagram. Some comments made me see my fieldsite with a different lens and other times the comments challenged me to re-examine my claims. And sometimes it was just comforting to see the “likes.” It made me feel like I wasn’t alone, that my fieldwork was interesting to other people, and that what I shared resonated with others. Are fieldnotes sacred artifacts of the temple or popular everyday artifacts? I would rather my notes be the latter.

The analogy that works for me is to think about the difference between webpages in Web 1.o and Web 2.o. Webpages in Web 2.0 support greater interaction with the end user whereas webpages in Web 1.0 only supported light interaction with the end user.

So let’s apply this analogy to ethnography and I’m going to refer to the ethnographer’s audience as the end-reader. End-readers in the traditional style of writing fieldnotes can only access fieldnote content by waiting for the ethnographer’s big reveal in the form of a book or article. If you want to read any form of fieldnotes from an anthropologist, you had no choice but to wait for their book, the point is that you have to go to them, you have to go to the bookstore and buy the book. And by the time you read the book, the actual fieldnotes are quite diluted or hidden because you’re seeing a highly edited presentation. This parallels how end-users in Web 1.0 could only access content by going to the webpages themselves. There was no content syndication that alerted the end-user to pull new updates. So if you wanted to find out what was happening on a site, you had to go to the site itself.

Like end-users of Web 2.0, end-readers in live fieldnoting can dynamically access the fieldnote content through a variety of social media mobile and computer apps that syndicate content. End-readers can interact with content on apps like Instagram or Facebook. They can like, comment, forward, share, or reblog fieldnotes.

The end-reader experiences increased  participation with live fieldnotes than traditional fieldnotes and in a similar way end-users in Web 2.0 experience greater interactivity with a variety of content and apps. The end-user experiences more interaction with a open web than a closed web. As an end-user, I prefer Web 2.0 over Web 1.0. And as an end-reader, I prefer social fieldnoting over traditional fieldnotes. Social fieldnoting makes one of the central acttivity of ethnography more visible  - writing fieldnotes! And as I’ve pointed out in a previous post, ethnographic work can often be invisible and one of our jobs is to figure out how to create greater engagement with our work. We need make our work more open and less closed. When we open up our fieldnotes, we open up ourselves to collaboration. The same tenets that make Web 2.0 collaborative can be seen in the ideas that underline open ethnography.

Writing live fieldnotes on a mobile 

I have never been comfortable with using a smartphone in any of my fieldsites. I always took two phones into fieldwork, my own smartphone and my beat up Nokia. I’ve always stuck to a Nokia feature phone because that is what my participants were using or it was least distractive. But something changed this year, smartphones became affordable. My beat up Nokia phone that looked like someone had run it over several times became a distraction. My participants were asking me why I didn’t have a iPhone. It became difficult to ask questions about their iPhone when I didn’t have one. It appeared to them that I didn’t understand the iPhone platform.

A few days into fieldwork, I switched to an Apple iPhone. Using an iPhone in fieldwork changed the way I wrote fieldnotes. In most contexts, typing fieldnotes into my iPhone was more discreet and less distractive than writing fieldnotes into a notebook. I always carried my phone with me and made sure it was charged. It was a manageable device.

Using Instagram while in the field also leaves a digital trace. A digital trace allows you to recreate your movement post-fieldwork and to let others know where you are. My policy for fieldwork is that you want to minimize risks for the participant and yourself.  During fieldwork, it’s critical to leave a digital trace of your movement. I try to avoid leaving institutional traces in China, for example I avoid staying at hotels if possible, but I do check into Foursquare and Instagram every time I change my location.

Types of live fieldnotes

TRAVEL/LOCATION: I would say that 1/4 of my live fieldnotes are images of my travel. I purposively do this because I want to create a timeline for myself on where I was going. It gives context to my fieldnotes and the images bring my mind back to the fieldsite. I will often take pictures of myself on the train or of the plane departure timetable.

I am taking a train to shanghai w/ @futuremeng, got stuck on front carriage #2, there is no #1, if we get an accident we'll be the first to fall off the track!

I am taking a train to shanghai w/ @futuremeng, got stuck on front carriage #2, there is no #1, if we get an accident we’ll be the first to fall off the track!

On a train to  to hug the beautiful silvia lindtner @syvale ! So sad to leave village- No more amazing fresh food and stars, but  I can't wait to wash my hair and sit on a toilet. China
On a train to to hug the beautiful silvia lindtner @syvale ! So sad to leave village- No more amazing fresh food and stars, but I can’t wait to wash my hair and sit on a toilet. China

16 hrs into the 18 hr train ride, What luxury to have the bottom bunk! China
16 hrs into the 18 hr train ride, What luxury to have the bottom bunk! China

OBSERVATIONS OF THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

I am starting to consistently see video surveillance cameras in second and third tier cities. China
I am starting to consistently see video surveillance cameras in second and third tier cities. China

OBSERVATIONS: notes on customs, rituals, moments

using mobiles on bus
Farmer is speaking on his shanzai mobile with his shirt unbuttoned all the way. The teenager is texting on a shanzai mobile. I’m on a bus that is heading towards a village and it’s around 100 degrees. The air is burning my eyes. China

Dong Minority Custom
Another Dong Minority custom is that when you toast alcohol 敬酒, if you want to display humbleness you need to position your cup lower than the other person and if the other person tries to put her/his cup lower than yours than you need to push their cup up with your other hand. So if the guest and the host toast each other, both try to show humbleness like in this moment with me and the head of the education dept, so our cups start out high and then move lower and lower to the ground as we both try to push each other’s cup up. I’ve had to quickly learn these customs to establish relationships with local authorities. Learning local drinking customs is a very important part of ethnographic fieldwork. Hunan, China (Taken with instagram)

The best part of fieldwork is the eating part. But usually this involves a lot of drinking and one of the local customs with the Dong minority group is that before the real drinking starts, everyone has to drink 3 shots - first shot is for the heavens, se
The best part of fieldwork is the eating part. But usually this involves a lot of drinking and one of the local customs with the Dong minority group is that before the real drinking starts, everyone has to drink 3 shots – first shot is for the heavens, second cup is for the earth, third cup is for the ancestors. Before you drink the first cup you pour a few drops into the ground for the heavens and ancestors to drink. Then the REAL drinking starts after everyone is buzzed. Drinking and eating lasts usually about 6 hours. But this table set up is incredibly uncomfortable. The 3 inch high stools are made for midgets. I don’t know how i will last all night. I am so screwed. I just want to sit on the table 火铺. Hunan, China (Taken with instagram)

Observing a female equality conference for college students - making a SWOT chart about females overcoming discrimination, China
Observing a female equality conference for college students – making a SWOT chart about females overcoming discrimination, China

Student organzed Global warming act - penguins & Juan. Wuhan, China
Performance art activity on global warning, organized by college students. 2 large human size penguins and 3 females w/ body paint like penguins. No police were present. Students said that their teachers supported their activity. I talked to one of the organizers and he gave me his QQ number. Wuhan, China

wine 2
An important part of any official Chinese gathering is to constantly empty your glass of alcohol with your guests. “empty” means that you must finish the entire glass in one gulp. 3 years ago, I only saw people doing this with 白酒killer alcohol or beer. Now I see people doing this red wine. It’s hard for me participate because I don’t associate red wine with peer pressure “chugging.” Only can the Chinese turn a drink of leisure into a social pressure sport. If you don’t finish your entire glass, you are defying group norms. After 2 hours of watching 150 plus people (male female ratio 10:1) chug red wine, I never heard or saw one person decline. Yiyang, Hunan, China. 益阳湖南 (Taken with instagram)

wine
So notice that the man with the tie is pouring wine with a small glass. The primary hosts or toaster carries this small glass around & says some formality like “thank you for coming, let’s toast” and then pours only about 1 to 2 inches of red wine (equivalent to 4-6 sips). Then everyone waits for the toaster to give the signal to drink the entire glass. The guests sometimes wants to prove to the toaster how much he respects him, so he holds his wine glass upside down to show there are no more drops left. I was toasted at least 4 times, and I was just a observer. I ended drinking one glass within 20 minutes. My estimate is that the toaster drinks at least 4 glasses in half hour and most guest drink an average of 2 glasses in half hour. This activity lasts for 3 hours. Yiyang, Hunan, china. 益阳湖南 (Taken with instagram)

FLASHBACKS

Oh what memories this military hospital brings back. Just 3 years ago i did participant observation with women getting abortions, & on the day we came here in May, there was a big red banner: "Mother's Day Special - discounts on abortions." We found out t
Oh what memories this military hospital brings back. Just 3 years ago i did participant observation with women getting abortions, & on the day we came here in May, there was a big red banner: “Mother’s Day Special – discounts on abortions.” We found out that the abortions were being discounted.

RESEARCH PROCESS

Writing fieldnotes at KFC at 2:38am on a Friday night with some egg soup. I feel Hopeful. China
Writing fieldnotes at KFC at 2:38am on a Friday night with some egg soup. I feel Hopeful. China

Sticky bomb train! Post-fieldwork analysis on train for 10 min before lights out. China
Sticky bomb train! Post-fieldwork analysis on train for 10 min before lights out. China

My sticky note wall of research
It’s hard to believe that in 1 week I’m taking this entire sticky note universe down & moving it to its new home in Brooklyn, NYC. Just thinking about it makes me cry. I’ll be moving my brain & I’m afraid I’ll never be able to put it together again.

I am doing the most scariest moving thing last: taking down my sticky note wall. Goodbye organized thoughts...for now. See you back in Brooklyn, your new home. China
I am doing the most scariest moving thing last: taking down my sticky note wall. Goodbye organized thoughts…for now. See you back in Brooklyn, your new home. China

MY PARTICIPATION: ethnographers experience through participation, I document my own activities with participants

Today I am a pregnant migrant accompanying my little cousin on job interviews. My husband drives trucks. I am jobless in preparation for the baby. China

Fieldwork; my feet after 3 dAys no shower and working with food cart vendors near construction site , china (although nail polish on my toes is kind of a give-away that I'm not really a migrant worker)

Fieldwork; my feet after 3 days no shower and working with food cart vendors near construction site , china (although nail polish on my toes is kind of a give-away that I’m not really a migrant worker)

Pruning cotton in village with farmers  , china

I’m pruning cotton in village with farmers. These are the parents of one of my participants. They want him to marry as soon as possible. The father is the village accountant. Hebei Province , china

Woman with shovel says we need to pay her to cross road that cuts through village, we gave 1 botte of water , china
We are trying to get to the next town to buy a pipe for the irrigation system and to bring back some chicken. The woman with the shovel says we need to pay her to cross road that cuts through village. We gave her 1 botte of water. She took it and allowed us to pass through. What did she do to earn the money? Did she make the dirt road flatter? Who knows. Out here, the locals rule. Hebei, Provence, China

PARTICIPANTS After a long interview, I often ask my participant if I can take a picture of them. Then I explain in one sentence who they are and why I interviewed them. If I know they aren’t’ comfortable with their face being in the photo, I will take a picture of their hands on their phone or some part of their body that will remind me later of the interview context.

Mobile vendor using iPad to sell android phones
I spent a day doing ethnography with a cellphone vendor. His main clients are students. He tell me that he uses an iPad to seduce them into buying android phones. He showed me several website where consumers can download free android apps. Selling a mobile in China requires that you display the expertise of finding “free download.” The culture of “free download” is incredibly pervasive that moving consumers to paid content will not only require massive value change to paying for apps, but economic changes in consumer’s household spending income. China

UPDATES
I just bought a second hand shanzai Snoy Eriosson (Sony Ericsson) mobile for 80¥ ($13) at second hand market, China.

I just bought a second hand shanzai Snoy Eriosson (Sony Ericsson) mobile for 80¥ ($13) at second hand market, China.

This is what the dirt wiped off my face after a day of fieldwork in Wuhan, China. 112 degrees, 80% humidity
This is what the dirt wiped off my face after a day of fieldwork in Wuhan, China. 112 degrees, 80% humidity

ORGANIZATIONS I MEET WITH

I am visiting Baidu today to have Kaiser Kuo introduce to me some of their newest search features. About to drink some Baidu holy water! (Taken with instagram)

I’m giving a talk at Nokia research center in Beijing. But today is the day they announced some massive layoffs so it feels uncomfortable here, especially since my talk at Nokia is always the same – my message is always: My fieldwork data shows that you’re going to lose your emerging markets if you continue selling them feature phones, people want smartphones that are affordable. What’s sad but necessary is that they are going to have to another massive round in a few months. And then there will be another one. It’s an old institution going through growing pains – too many tumors and not enough surgeons. Though they do have lovely cups.  Beijing, china

I spent the day with colleagues from CNNIC (china internet network information center) - this is exactly where Internet traffic enters into China & where policies about Internet information are set.

I spent the day with colleagues from CNNIC (china internet network information center) – this is exactly where Internet traffic enters into China & where policies about Internet information are set.

FASHION

Male wearing blue paisley pants with white Adidas sneakers, girlfriend has blue toenail polish. Fashion, consumer. Wuhan, China
Male wearing blue paisley pants with white Adidas sneakers, girlfriend has blue toenail polish. Fashion, consumer. Wuhan, China

Tommy Hilfiger's step brother in China started Tommy Welai.
Tommy Hilfiger’s step brother in China started Tommy Welai.

TECHNOLOGY: I take pictures of how people are using their phones. The context can be someone texting, talking, showing me an app, or using an app. Then I will write a sentence about the context of the use.

retrofitting sim cards for iPhone 4
Cellphone vendors retrofit sim cards to fit iPhone 4 with a sim card cutter. What’s fascinating is that someone invented this tool and now every cellphone vendor uses it in China. This is a bottom up innovation that wouldn’t usually be seen as “innovative” but it is. China

fieldwork: migrant construction workers looking at 2nd hand feature & smartphones, China

I have been working for several days at a construction site selling dumplings as a street vendor. Across from our carts are second-hand mobile vendors. I’ve been watching and listening to migrants talk about which cellphone they want to buy. The most important change? They don’t want shanzai phones, they want smartphones. Even if they can’t afford it, they touch it, hold it, and stare at it. The desiring of smartphones has begun. Nokia will lose the battle if they don’t radically change their hardware and business model. China

CONVERSATIONS: live fieldnoting important dialogue forces me to write down exactly what I heard. In the past I would jot down notes, but if I know that I can live fieldnote then I feel more obligated to myself to capture the dialogue as accurately as possible

Learning heterosexuality: the woman asks the boy, "who do you like at school?" the boy gives the names of several girls. she asks if he's talked to them, he says the play together. The woman then asks her son who he likes. He gives the names of several bo
Learning heterosexuality: the woman asks the boy, “who do you like at school?” the boy gives the names of several girls. she asks if he’s talked to them, he says the play together. The woman then asks her son who he likes. He gives the names of several boys. The mom says, “tell me which girls you like.” the son says, “I don’t like girls” and repeats the names of the boys. She says, “when someone asks who you like at school, you are supposed to tell them which girls you like. Your friend here like girls, so do you.” I overheard this while eating breakfast. Wuhan, China (Taken with instagram)

VC and Farmer
When I was in Beijing, I met with a well known VC. She retired from her work in the US and now lives in China managing a small fund. During our conversation about investing in start ups, she said something that really stood out to me. She said “I live in luxury now. I don’t have to spend time with people i don’t like. I have complete freedom to chose who I spend my time with.” Then I went to rural western Hunan. I was chatting with a farmer in a super rural and economically poor village in the mountains. We were in the middle of a conversation about how much money her kids (who are migrants in shenzhen) send to her every month and how she spends the money. I asked her if she had plans to move to the city when she’s older. She replied, “I have complete freedom here to spend my time as I wish. If i want to farm, I farm, If i want to see my neighbors, i see them. I dont have to be around people i don’t like. I’m so free here, I will never move.” (Side note – just earlier during the convo the farmer— a 50 yr old female—has to cook 2 meals a day for husband & others. She was complaining how the males won’t even stand up to get chopsticks – she has to deliver it to them!). I thought it was incredible how both the VC and farmer defined luxury. What’s your definition of luxury? China (Taken with instagram)

Everytime I step in cow shit the villagers tell me that there is a saying, "stepping in cow shit brings good fortune." 踩到牛屎就是有福气!I must have a lot of fortune coming. Hunan, China
Everytime I step in cow shit the villagers tell me that there is a saying, “stepping in cow shit brings good fortune.” 踩到牛屎就是有福气!I must have a lot of fortune coming. Hunan, China

A man walks by on the train offering 1 hour of DVD player rentals for 10rmb. The man sitting said, "what if I run off with the DVD player?" The vendor replies, "where will you run to? We're on a train. Plus now you train tickers require real name registra
A man walks by on the train offering 1 hour of DVD player rentals for 10rmb. The man sitting said, “what if I run off with the DVD player?” The vendor replies, “where will you run to? We’re on a train. Plus now you train tickers require real name registration.” the vendor leaves and all the men discuss how it’s possible that people don’t steal the DVD players. China (Taken with instagram)

REFLECTIONS: I write down how I feel about a situation or about my fieldwork overall

Tools of ethnography
Tools of ethnography: I am very aware of my appearance when doing fieldwork. In situations where I need to quickly establish authority & trust, I take Fieldnotes on a clipboard. I usually only do this when I’m working with government officials. It reminds me of the story that @kenyatta tells where in Russia – during some school bombing or kidnapping, the authorities tried to calm hysterical parents but nothing worked until they brought in people with white doctor coats on. The parents immediately associated the coats with doctors – a figure of authority.

dirt
These are the hands of the person in charge of supervising the sanitary conditions of the grassroots Free Lunch program in China. These are the hands of a farmer. Farmers grow up in dirt – they breathe dirt and their cells are made of dirt. Their bodies hold the earth’s soil. Most of us grow up thinking dirt is dirty, but for them, dirt is life. Dirt is wonderful.

When they showed me the basin of warm water they had prepared for me to wash my face, I automatically blurted out, "it's ok, i don't need to wash my face tonight," despite the fact that I had been walking around in a village all day & knew that my face ha
When they showed me the basin of warm water they had prepared for me to wash my face, I automatically blurted out, “it’s ok, i don’t need to wash my face tonight,” despite the fact that I had been walking around in a village all day & knew that my face had a layer of dirt on it. I’ve been in almost every kind of bathroom situation possible, but this was the first time that in such a newly modeled toilet in a village w/ a face washing basin next to the toilet. I have never washed my face squatting next to pee & poop. But then I said just suck it up tricia, it’s clean water which is rare & just don’t breathe. Plus I felt bad that they had prepared warm water, so it would’ve been rude of me to decline. For a moment i contemplated faking my face wash by dumping the water into the toilet. If I declined, I would make them feel bad for their bathroom not being clean enough for me. I have to remind myself in these moments it’s important to let go.

SIGNS: I take pictures of images or advertisements from my fieldsite. This is a great way to track norms and culture.

anti-pornography in China
I finally found an awesome anti-porn, gambling, drugs poster at an internet cafe! The poster’s Chinglish is: Caring for Life: Refusing “Pornography” “Gambling” “Drugs”. I think it’s ironic that they have all no-no’s in quotation marks though I am sure they don’t mean it that way. But seriously quotation marks perfectly describe China – what counts as “legal” is very vague and the distance between policy and practice is wide. “Pornography” is illegal, but that’s a large part of the activity in internet cafes and just outside there are brothels, KTVs, and sex workers with plenty of business. China

Shanzai condoms: 90% of durex condoms are fake. Local brands are known to be too thick. China
Shanzai condoms: 90% of durex condoms are fake. Local brands are known to be too thick. China

This must be the most provocative ad in china I have yet to see. pLastic surgery ad.  Shenzhen, china 深圳,中国
This must be the most provocative ad in china I have yet to see. pLastic surgery ad. Shenzhen, china 深圳,中国

I don't like GAP, but I am happy that this advertisement feature a black and Chinese model together. The more Chinese people see  images of black people in non-violent roles, the less racist they will be towards them. Beijing, China
I am not a GAP shopper, but I am happy that this advertisement feature a black and Chinese model together. The more Chinese people see images of black people in non-violent roles, the less racist they will be towards them. Beijing, China

Advertisement in Hankou on  江汉路, female in bra & underwear.. China
Advertisement in Hankou on 江汉路, female in bra & underwear. China

COSTS AND NUMBERS

Electric scooter charging station , 1rmb=10min = 3 miles , china
Electric scooter charging station , 1rmb=10min = 3 miles. Wuhan, China

20% off first time trial of strawberry Brazilian wax , shanghai , china
20% off first time trial of strawberry Brazilian wax. Shanghai, China

—————————————————————————————————-

Some tips for live fieldnoting

  • It’s not possible to live fieldnote everything you observe and experience in the field. I estimate that I only live fieldnote 5% of fieldwork. Most of my data is in the form of private fieldnotes, interviews, and pictures.
  • I always tell people that I’m writing down fieldnotes in my phone – I purposefully show them my cellphone screen while I’m typing so that they can see that I have nothing to hide
  • If you are doing commercial work, it’s important to talk to your client or boss about what content can be live fieldnoted, and there may be opportunities to build in strategic releases of fieldnotes.
  • I can’t always instagram the fieldnotes in the moment, but I will take pictures and jot notes down in the iPhone Notes app and then copy and paste the notes over later.
  • The Notes app on the Iphone app can be synced to your gmail accounts. Syncing is important because if I lose my phone then all my notes are already on the cloud.
  • Add in location data that you are comfortable with. Sometimes I only write the province or the city. Rarely do I write the specific address I am at.
  • When you write your live fieldnotes, think about how you will search for these notes later, so do you want to add specific tags or keywords? At first I added the hashtag #fieldwork but then I became lazy and stopped doing that. I just made sure to add the word “China” to all my pictures so that when I perform a search I can pull up all my China related Instagrams.
  • Think about how you will use the images when you go into analysis phase.
  • You may want to create a separate instagram account just for your live fieldnotes. My fieldwork and my personal life are all intertwined, so I didn’t feel the need to create a separate account. Though where I do separate posts is the blogging phase. I push all Instagram photos to my personal blog, and then I rebloggthe fieldwork photos from China to my China fieldwork blog. I plan to create a blog for each project I do in the future, so the next time I go to Mexico, I will reblog all photos from my personal blog to the Mexico blog. Be aware that you can only push instagram photos to your primary tumblr account. I have several tumblr accounts, but I can only blog to my personal tumblr as that is the account I used to sign up for tumblr.
  • be careful of over doing it on the live fieldnoting on Instagram. If you uploard let’s say 10 -20 photos at one day, you’ll photo bomb your followers. It’s better to space out the observations over a period of hours and days.
  • Do not let live fieldnoting take you away from your fieldwork. You don’t want to be that person who misses out on the entire party because s/he was busy texting.
  • It’s more about communication and less about perfection. My goal is more to show my raw notes than perfect notes.  I do not aim for grammatically correct fieldnotes.  I am often writing my fieldnotes while I’m walking or in the middle of eating or on a train. Often times I’m rushing to write my notes while I can grab a 3G connection or while I have 2 minutes alone before I have to be fully engaged again. So you may not always be in the most ideal or controlled environment when writing live fieldnotes, and that’s ok! Just roll with it and get the notes out.
  • Live fieldnoting is done on a mobile phone, so the pictures aren’t going to look beautiful like Jan Chipchase’s photo posts. Just use whatever mobile camera you have and get the picture online as soon as possible.  I used a second hand Apple Iphone 3gs so I didn’t even have  a good mobile camera! The camera on the iphone 4 is way better than 3gs.
  • Live fieldnoting isn’t just for ethnographers. Scientists, historians, and and technologists can all use live fieldnotes. For example, evironmental scientist Angel Hsu has been live fieldnoting about her research on enviro-data transparency in China.

Live fieldnotes are NOT:

  • in-depth fieldnotes: There is no way to capture an entire interview in a live fieldnote. You cannot solely depend on your instagram images to recreate your fieldsite. I still use a high quality camera, a notebook, audio recorder, notes on iPhone, and laptop. The picture at the top of this post shows all the tools I use to write fieldnotes.
  • where you stop: Live fieldnotes are only the beginning of the long process of sharing your fieldwork. Depending on the nature of your research, the next step could be turning it into a presentation, a slideshow, a report, a book, or an article. I turn my live fieldnotes into posts on BytesofChina.com and I add extra commentary to a lot of the pictures. I also have turned my live fieldnotes into articles, such as this one on my time working as a dumpling seller with migrants in That’s Shanghai, a talk about one of my participants, or my research into the grassroots movement of Free Lunch in Wired UK.
  • in-depth analysis: You still have to go through the entire process of doing in-depth analysis post-fieldwork. Live fieldnotes can be used as a reference point to trigger your memory and to bring you back to your fieldsite.
  • a consent form: Just because you have your participant in your image does not mean that they understand the full risks or the conditions. So it’s your responsibility to get a full consent that is in accordance with your firm’s or IRB protocol. A live fieldnote cannot contain information that will put participants at risk. If you are talking to subjects that are sensitive or doing client work that has to remain under NDA, then do not live fieldnote it.

—————————————————————————————————-

There’s no write way to right fieldnotes

How an ethnographer presents her/his fieldnotes is just as important as the fieldnotes. Live fieldnoting is a new form that brings ethnographers closer to the public, making the craft of what we do instantaneously accessible. In Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Emerson et. al. describe ethnographic research:

“This process of inscribing, of writing fieldnotes, helps the field researcher to understand what he has been observing in the first place and, thus, enables him to participate in new ways, to hear with greater acuteness, and to observe with a new lens.”

Putting on the constraints of live field-noting forces me to be attentive to details and to capture interaction in new ways. Since live fieldnoting on Instagram is at heart a very visual process, it helps me see my fieldwork more visually. I approach my fieldsite with the eyes of a journalism or crime scene photographer who is trying to capture as much visual detail as possible to tell the story. After training myself to live fieldnote on Instagram, I find myself being able to hone in on an interaction with greater acuity and capture it with greater ease.

—————————————————————————————————-

 When I said goodbye to my friend’s mom after I told her about my live fieldnoting process, I told her that even though I already produced a research blog in the form of live fieldnotes, I still have piles of data to shift through. The next step is to turn this data into applied knowledge, meaning it’s time for people to hire me for my analysis and time for me to produce more long form analysis.

—————————————————————————————————-

I’m curious to hear about other ethnographer’s experiences with live fieldnoting. What are the limits and affordances of writing short fieldnotes on Instagram?

Every ethnographer has to figure out a process that works for them, so what’s your process? What are your tips?

As Emerson et. al. in Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes reminds us, “there is no one ‘natural’ or ‘correct’ way to write about what one observes.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Methods

Author:tricia wang

I research how technology makes us human. As a cultural sociologist, I use a range of ethnographic methods to create socially relevant insights about how people use digital tools in their day to day lives. I write about digital culture at Culturalbyt.es, China tech at BytesofChina.com, and cities at DigitalUrbanis.ms. Follow me on twitter @triciawang.

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46 Comments on “Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography”

  1. August 2, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

    Brilliant article. I would say that Evernote is a good multi platform sharing tool that’s cloud based. There’s a audio recording app called Highlight. That brilliant too as you can easily add markers and the mac software syncs with the iPhone app.

    • August 31, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

      hey Simon! I didn’t know about highlight- can you tell me more about how you integrate it during fieldwork? Perhaps you can do a guest post on your fieldnote process OR just a specific review of highlight!

  2. Jessica Seeger
    August 3, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    When working on topics that couldnt be shared publicly, I’ve used private Facebook groups to share a stream of field-work updates and insights with teams back home.

    • August 31, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

      Jessica – huh I never thought of using facebook before. Do you bring your clients in on the stream?

  3. Sam Ladner
    August 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    Tricia, thanks for sharing this experience from your fieldwork. I completely agree with you that there is a stubborn resistance to innovation in the academy. Those objections like “you’ll never get a tenure-track job” are the same tired objections you hear for anyone who challenges normative practice.

    I do have one comment, though, that you touch on briefly and that is ethics. Considering that live fieldnotes are posted on various social media, and these media are owned typically by private companies, and that these data are not persistently available but not editable by participants, what are the implications of that?

    Imagine, for a minute, live fieldnoting, say, club culture. You are ethical. You get consent and do not post illegal behaviour or other harmful information. But your participants are young. They may consent in that phase of life.

    Flash forward several years. Their data is now on some kind of privately owned social network. They cannot edit it. They have changed their lives. They feel its presence. They consider that a past life. What are they to do? Perhaps at this point, even you cannot edit these data.

    What do you think of this?

    • August 31, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

      sam everything you say is a legitimate concern – but the same concerns are there for any ethnographer who publishes journal articles or books – many of which contain photographs. One could almost argue that the digital is more “changable” than the printed because the digital is more trackable. And for me, my policy is that whateverI put online, I give the original link to my participants – I want them to have the knowledge of where photos of them sit. I also am very transparanet about how to get in touch with me – I give them my business card and encourage them to reach out. This is something I am always thinking about – so let me know if you have any other ideas?

      • September 26, 2012 at 8:54 am #

        This is a fascinating post – just got shown it by someone here in Surabaya where I am briefly. I might try this kind of thing myself, but I do think Sam’s concerns about ethics are significant. Many published ethnographies do not contain any pictures with identifying information like faces (none of mine do), and I’m not sure that just giving people the original link is sufficient. But this is such a great idea, I certainly think it worth thinking through further. Bravo!

      • November 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

        Like Tom, I was forwarded this post from colleagues. To what he and Sam have mentioned, I’d add another characteristic that makes this practice distinct from traditional fieldnoting, which problematizes the ethical question further: the instantaneous character of uploading.

        Without time for reflection on whether or not there’s potential harm in the posting, there’s increased risk for participants. Even given loads of time, assessing the extent to which the information we gather in the field may cause immediate or future harm is challenging. Add instant ethical judgment to this is something to be very cautious about…. regardless of whether or not informed consent was obtained (which is another sticky concern altogether).

        I appreciate the value of what you’re doing. It really emphasizes for me the ongoing challenge (for me) to balance a desire to protect the data (not because i’m unwilling to share it, but because all of us are still relatively new to the impact of our information flow in our future lives) with a somewhat competing desire to share raw materials with others to get conversation and sensemaking going in a collaborative fashion.

  4. August 5, 2012 at 11:34 am #

    Reblogged this on txwikinger's blog.

  5. August 6, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    Great work.

    Understand the sharing/posting abilities of Instagram as an asset, but why apply filters over photos? There’s a lot of ways to look at it and would be curious to hear your thoughts?

    • August 31, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

      hey drew! well I don’t always apply filters – that’s why some are tagged #nofilter.
      There are a lot of ways to look at it – but most of the time the camera on my iphone 3gs just sucked and I wasn’t happy with the bad lighting. Instead of fixing it in photoshoo or some other photo editing app, the filters just make it easY! it’s all about EASY EASY for me. I find that I use filters less now that I am upgraded to a iphone 4. LOVE the camera on this phone- it’s so much better!

  6. August 9, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    This is a fascinating post. I am also an avid tech user and an ethnographer, but I would not be able to combine the two like you do here because I work with schools and minors. I take a lot of pictures related to my work while I’m out and about (I’ve even started a new blog just to archive this stuff: http://migrantography.wordpress.com/) but I make sure not to upload any pictures of my sites or respondents just in case.

    • August 31, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

      hey calvin – yes you are def dealing with another kind of population. I suggest you look at my colleague Jakey Toor’s work. She works inside schools (age 6-12) as a arts/dance instructor. And she has found a way to be able to fieldnote her way around the schools. She has multiple tumblrs and youtube observation/tips websites.

      Here’s her website – do reach out to her! she’ll be happy to hear from you! http://jakeytoor.com

  7. August 11, 2012 at 12:12 am #

    Nice photo-essay! Your emphasis on ethnographic methods is engaging. But what really enchanted me were your descriptions of China. Nicely illustrated, and captioned with “field notes!”

    Tony Waters

    • August 31, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

      thanks so much Tony! you kinda have to be a bit obsessed about ethnography to write about it as much as I do! I def think my pictures/writings about China have a wider reach :)

  8. August 14, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Great, inspiring, will re-read the whole article :). Will definitely get into live fieldnoting in my future ethno work! Thanks – Christina

    • August 31, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

      hi Christina, please do send me your live fieldnotes! and tell us about the process- maybe even guest contirbute!?

  9. Hanne H. Eriksen
    January 25, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    Dear Tricia,

    This is an amazing post! I LOVE your work!
    One question: have you considered using the iPad Mini?

    Sincerely,
    Hanne

    • February 8, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

      no, cuz it wans’t availble then! and I also dont’ like carrying big distracting devices
      thanks for reading this!

  10. February 1, 2013 at 1:36 am #

    I’m so glad someone has a name for this! Really solid examination of a new method. In my MA program I’ve said from the start I wanted to incorporate new media as a form of field notes and I feel like I keep getting a strong push against that from professors and others in the field. I think there is always fear around incorporating a new form of communication in anthropology, but instead of letting that paralyze us we should embrace moving forward WITH technology. Can’t say enough how much I appreciate this!

    • February 8, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

      hi Beethe bookhoarder – well you’re ‘not crazy – some older folks who aren’t use to exploring just don’t get it! do let us know about your experiences! go livefieldnotes!

  11. July 24, 2013 at 12:28 am #

    I love this post. I am a recent PhD student in Anthropology and I am about to head overseas for my first experience of Fieldwork. I’m not much of one for pen and paper so I have been looking for ideas of how to make my fieldnotes fit with my love of technology. I haven’t thought of using Instagram, but like you I am conducting research in countries where many internet sites are blocked, this could be the answer to my problems and allow me to post just small notes as they occur to me! I have been trying to set up a wordpress blog for my notes, but sometimes the pressures of sitting down and actually typing up a post are just not possible. Instagram gives me a whole new host of ideas for record keeping.

    Thank you so much for posting this!

  12. Andreas Urstadt + Julien Lewis
    September 21, 2013 at 10:03 am #

    Sophisticated!

    You won t get the meta-level with (as so well is wanted by academia). You don t prolong the field with either. Your notes get constellated, there s no opposition between in/outside. It s transforming western view of scientific work to an interim, immanence.

    Live field notes have an impact to the “subject” transforming it in real time, putting it on a generated flow. It s a kind of externalized “self”/reflection. Journalism won t have the impact, the criminogical eye won t have either. The application works immanent. I guess it s not a tool for freaks claiming purity.

    It s important to distinct between to share and to exhibite. To exhibite builds up authority and hierarchy. The “exhibiter” is the curator connected to force. Otherwise the reader shall not take the live notes as an exhibition. That s a big distinction. Ethics go immanent with spreading another application.

    Anyway it s always also applied ethics.

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