Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw Processing Fieldnotes

Emerson, R., Fretz, R., & Shaw, L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Chapter 6: Processing Fieldnotes: Coding and Memoing

•    Ultimate goal is to turn notes written to and for the researcher into a document intended for a wider, broader audience.

•    Steps:
    o    Read all fieldnotes, take in the entire experience, examine with a closer perspective, elaborate on insights and hunches, reflect and analyze closely and intensely
    o    Combine the aforementioned magnifying glass reading inspection with analytic coding that was done on an on-going basis during the data gathering process. “The researcher’s stance toward the notes changes: the notes, and the persons and events they recount, become textual objects (page 143).”
    o    Coding:
        •    Open coding: “read fieldnotes line-by-line to identify and formulate any and all ideas, themes, or issues…no matter how varied and disparate (page 143).”
        •    Focused coding: “the fieldworker subjects the fieldnotes to fine-grained, line-by-line analysis on the basis of topics that have been identified as of particular interest (page 143).”
    o    While coding, the researcher should make in-process memos to record and elaborate on any insights that happen during the coding process. Over time, “memos take on a more focused character (page 143).”
    o    Integrative memos “seek to clarify and link analytic themes and categories (page 143).”

•     “Grounded theorists give priority to developing rather than to verifying analytic propositions. They maintain that if the researcher minimizes commitment to received and preconceived theory, he is more likely to “discover” original theories in his data (page 143).”

•    “Analysis pervades all phases of the research enterprise – as the researcher makes observations, records them in fieldnotes, codes these notes in analytic categories, and finally develops explicit theoretical propositions (page 144).”

•    “Analysis is at once inductive and deductive (page 144).”

•    Reading Fieldnotes as a Data Set
    o    “Reading notes as a whole encourages recognizing patterns and making comparisons (page 145).”

•    Asking Questions of Fieldnotes
    o    “Writing down codes – putting an idea or intuition into a concrete, relatively concise word or phrase – helps stimulate, shape, and constrain the fieldworker’s thinking and reflection (page 146).”
    o    Ask:
        •    What are people doing? What are they trying to accomplish?
        •    How, exactly, do they do this? What specific means and/or strategies do they use?
        •    How do members talk about, characterize, and understand what is going on?
        •    What assumptions are they making?
        •    What do I see going on here? What did I learn from these notes?
        •    Why did I include them?
    o    “These questions reflect a sensitivity to the practical concerns, conditions, and constraints that actors confront and eal with in their everyday lives and actions (page 147).”
    o    “Codes, then, take a specific event, incident, or feature and relate it ot other events, incidents, or features, implicitly distinguishing this one from others. By comparing this event with ‘like’ others, one can begin to identify more general analytic dimensions or categories. One can do this by asking what more general category this event belongs to, or by thinking about specific contrasts to the current event (page 149).”

•    Open Coding
    o    “Qualitative research proceeds inductively by writing fieldnotes that reflect the significance of events and experiences to those in the setting. Qualitative coding is a way of opening up avenues of inquiry: the researcher identifies and develops concepts and analytic insights through close examination of and reflection on fieldnote data (page 151).”
    o    “In contrast to quantitative coding, then, in qualitative coding we identify, elaborate, and refine analytic insights from and for the interpretation of data (page 151).”
    o    Selective open coding: “the fieldworker uses these procedures at different times and with discrete sets of fieldnotes (page 155).”

•    Writing Initial Memos
    o    “ Initial coding and memoing require the ethnographer to step back from the field setting to identify, develop, and modify broader analytic themes and arguments (page 157).”

•    Selecting Themes
    o    “Fieldworkers may also give priority to what seems significant to members, whether it is what they think is key, what looks to be practically important, or what engages a lot of their time and energy (page 157).”
    o    Subthemes are created when initial themes are linked together in new ways.
    o    Use themes that are inclusive.
    o    “Sorting requires physical movement of the data in ways that alter the narrative sequence of the fieldnotes (page 160).”

•    Focused coding
    o    “Involves building up and elaborating analytically interesting themes, both by connecting data that initially may not have appeared to go together and by delineating subthemes and subtopics that distinguish differences and variations within the broader topic (page 160).”

•    Integrative Memos
    o    Elaborate on ideas
    o    Link codes and data together
    o    “The ethnographer seeks to explore relationships between coded fieldnotes and to provide a more sustained examination of a theme or issue by linking together a variety of discrete observations (page 162).”
    o    “It is the first attempt to formulate a cohesive idea in ways that would organize a section of the final ethnography (page 162).”
    o    “Central task is to develop theoretical connections between fieldnote excerpts (page 164).”
    o    Difficult analytic choices arise as a result of creating these memos. The choice becomes which themes to bring to the forefront, which to include as subthemes, and which to leave out.
    o    No correct way; it all depends on the data.

•    Reflections: Creating Theory from Fieldnotes
    o    “For the ethnographer, theory does not simply await refinement as anlysts test concepts one by one aginst events in the social world; nor do data stand apart as independent measures of theoretical adequacy. Rather, the ethnographer’s assumptions, interests, and theoretical commitments enter into every phase of writing an ethnography and influence decisions…The process is thus one of reflexive or dialectical interplay between theory and data whereby theory enters in at every point, shaping not only analysis but how social events come to be perceived and written up as data in the first place (page 167).”
    o    “Data are never pure; they are ripe with meanings and always products of prior interpretive and conceptual decisions (page 167).”
    o    “Theory only seems to jump out of the data and hit the researcher in the face; this flash of insight occurs only because of the researcher’s prior analytic commitments she brings to the reading, and the connections made with other “similar events” observed and written about. Thus, it is more accurate to say that the ethnographer creates rather than discovers theory (page 167).”
    o    Finding your “ethnographic voice”
    o    “Analysis is less a matter of something emerging from the data, of simply finding what is there,; it is more fundamentally a process of creating what is there by constantly thinking about the import of previously recorded events and meanings (page 168).”