Fieldwork Tip #3 – Keep a journal

Life has a way of throwing our best intentions off kilter. And so, after a brief hiatus dominated by preparing for and sitting a 5+hour job interview, the near-constant ruckus of some terribly inconsiderate new neighbours and an extensive postdoc application, I return to our regularly scheduled programming of fieldwork tips.

Which leads me to today’s topic: keeping a journal. In my experience, the sometimes-frantic chaos of ‘ordinary life’ is nothing compared to the extraordinary life of a field researcher. When things start to get a bit crazy – as they almost invariably will – the habit of keeping a journal can help you stay sane in the midst of it all.

Now is probably a good time to point out that I am not normally a journal writer. A volume of blank pages follows the first few haphazard entries in my childhood diary. Similarly, I fully intended to keep a journal during my undergraduate year abroad…and trailed off after a few weeks. In truth, the closest I normally come to keeping a journal is writing to-do lists and appointments in my day planner.

That said, I found keeping a fieldwork journal to be not only therapeutic but also immensely helpful once I returned home and started in on my data analysis and writing-up.

As I have noted before, fieldwork can be overwhelming. Whether you have had an exceptionally good week of productive research or a particularly frustrating and unproductive day, taking 15-20 minutes to jot down your experiences can help relieve pent-up emotions. This is particularly true if you’re doing fieldwork away from home without easy access to the support networks you would normally rely on for encouragement and congratulations. Celebrating your achievements on the pages of your Moleskine isn’t quite the same as chatting over coffee with a friend, but the process of writing about your experiences can be a reliably therapeutic way of acknowledging what you’re going through.

This sort of intermittent reflection is also a good way of taking stock of your progress as the weeks and months go by. What have you achieved? What had you hoped to achieve by this point? Are there any tips and tricks that you have picked up along the away that will make the remaining interviews/surveys/etc. a breeze? On reflection, does some aspect of your research require a new approach? Are you collecting data that will actually help you answer your original research question? Or, have circumstances on the ground effectively shifted the focus of your research? Asking yourself questions like these over the course of your fieldwork will help you catch any problems early on may save you time and heartache in the future.

Finally, the journal that you kept in the field can be an invaluable resource when you’re sifting back through your data months later. When you return to university life, the immediacy of your field experience will begin to fade. If you interacted with lots of people, their names and particularities will start to blur. For me, re-reading the journal that I kept in the field had the almost magic effect of bringing these details back. Perhaps it was the reddish-brown grit that had become trapped between the pages that triggered more acute recollection, I don’t know. In any event, being able to trace the logic of important decisions and the sequence of particular events made the writing-up process enjoyable rather than maddening.

So, when you go out into ‘the field’ be sure to take some sort of journal with you. I found the pocket at the back of my Moleskine handy for keeping business cards, odd notes, receipts, and other odd bits of memorabilia but an ordinary spiral notebook would work just as well for scribbling down your reflections.

If you find that the prospect of writing every day prevents you from writing at all, set different rules. Write only on Sunday afternoons or after breakfast on Tuesday mornings. Or don’t have a schedule at all, and keep your journal somewhere visible so that you’ll think to write in it from time to time as it suits your mood. Remember that your field journal is there to serve you…and it will if you put in just a tiny bit of effort.


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