In the field, an anthropologists notebook is a friend. Yes, you may have a recorder and a camera. But there is still something about notes written in a quiet corner that cements your observations. Unfortunately, I’ve had tapes and videos meet with accidents or get misplaced. But I still have all the notes.
The notes are a path of crumbs through the forest of your memory.
A few months ago, I was sorting out junk for the dumpster when I came across one of my notebooks from a summer research visit in Maine. Reading one entry, I got transported back to the tiny post office in coastal Maine, where I learned that people in that community were as curious about me as I was about them. It was the moment of turnabout in which the observer became observed.
It was a bountiful summer for learning all sorts of things that I thought would help form a solid foundation for my doctoral research. Instead, they are a kind of cadre of experience that I draw upon for my stories. As author Carl Hiassen said – you can’t make up stuff like this.
Not that everything I write is true, by the way.
One of the principal research methods, while you are in the field, is called participant observation. Simply put, you observe, but you also participate. Years later, reading my notebooks and reflecting on some of the stories I write, I see how I was shaped – not just as the practitioner but also as the person I became.