Michael saved in Pocket: ‘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’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.

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.

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2 Replies to “Michael saved in Pocket: ‘Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography’”

  1. Great find Michael, this is very useful. Seems like they are describing a method for a kind of simultaneous emic (insider) and etic (distance) approach.

    1. Thanks David! Yes, it has been really interesting to see and reflect upon different approaches to carrying out the ethnography and recording/publishing findings.

      For my micro-ethnography, I am an ‘open participant’, following along with students who are taking the ds106 course as part of a their degree, and I’ve been grappling with the various approaches and levels of participation/non-participation I could take. As I can take part in the same assignments if I wish (and/or comment on others’ public work), it makes me wonder at what point do I transform from an ‘outsider’ to an ‘insider’…or is this another problematic dualism (like the ‘open’/’closed’ binary)?

      Certainly for my experience on ds106, the lines appear blurred and it is has been a fascinating journey so far!

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