19 February 2010
I'm still working my way through Latour's Reassembling the Social. Life's been pretty busy this past week, so I haven't had time to get through it - plus there's all the other reading I have to do for classes that's starting to pile up.
Anyway, going through the section on the "Fifth Source of Uncertainty: Writing Down Risky Accounts" I was intrigued by his idea of keeping four notebooks for research. To a degree it mirrors what many ethnographic methods books teach - you have your jottings notebook, your field notes, and your journal - but Latour has a slightly different idea of what the notebooks should include. His main idea is that "everything is data" and so everything about the research must be documented. Each notebook, therefore, is meant to capture a different aspect of the research process, and I want to describe them briefly here:
The First Notebook - The research log
In this notebook we would keep a detailed account of how we go about doing the research. We would note appointments, discussions with advisers, reactions to research from others, phone calls, internet searches, etc. - anything that describes how we came up with the idea for the research, how we get funding and from where, and how we go about finding the data. He says that "...[E]ven years after, it should remain possible to know how the study was conceived, which person was met, what source was accessed, and so on, at a precise date and time."
This is reminiscent of a lab notebook where you are supposed to describe in detail every step you took in performing an experiment. They serve two main functions: 1) if something goes wrong, you can look back and see where things might have gotten mixed up and 2) others can look at your work and replicate it exactly. In fieldwork, we generally can't replicate our research, but by documenting every step, we can show how we got our results or look back and see where we might have gone wrong.
The Second Notebook - The Data
This notebook is where we keep our data - interview transcripts, field notes, thoughts, observations, etc. Latour says that it should be "possible to simultaneously keep all of the items in a chronological order and to dispatch them into categories which will evolve later into more and more refined files and sub-files." This is really easy to do with computers, and I think Qualitative Data Analysis (QDA) software like Atlas.ti or TAMSanalyzer is the best option. QDA software allows us to tag our text at the paragraph or even single word level (as opposed to tagging the whole text in EverNote or other bookmarking type programs). That way we can either scroll through our data as a whole chronologically, or we can query those sections that we've tagged with particular codes. We can even call up sections that are cross-referenced with two or more tags for more intricate analysis.
The Third Notebook - Writing
Latour says that we should not wait until the data is collected and the research is finished to begin writing up our results. This is what the third notebook is for - writing up the research as we go. If some idea comes to us as we're collecting data, some speculation on what might be going on, we would write it here. Think it through, play with it, experiment with writing, with using different models and metaphors. Not only is this good practice for the sake of the research - to keep your own thoughts from mixing with those of your informants - but it will also improve your writing.
For this notebook, it occurred to me that the best resource might be a blog. I say this for two reasons - it's a good place to write casually about anything we like and keep track of our work, and it makes our research available to a large audience. Other researchers, the general public, or our informants themselves can come by and see exactly what we're thinking. They can even comment, add their own thoughts, critique our thoughts or challenge us to dig deeper. I know the comments on this blog often help me think more about whatever it is I'm writing on, and at times they have changed my whole way of understanding a topic.
The Fourth Notebook - The Effect of the Research
In my previous post, Mediators and Intermediaries, I mentioned that Latour sees every part of the research as having an agency and value of its own. We can no longer think of the research divided into discrete phases - preparation, data collection, analysis and write-up. Instead we must see them all as interwoven with one another. Furthermore, the whole process doesn't stop with the write-up - it continues as the effects of the research and the report (small though they may be) cascade outwards to affect others. The fourth notebook, according to Latour, should document the effects of the research. Even if the report is only read by one or two people, that should be noted and its trace should be followed. This is not an exercise in vanity - it allows us to understand what happened with our research after the project was finished, it allows us to see what people are doing with it, how it has changed behavior (or not), and how we could do a better job of making our research useful and effective.
Last semester, when I was taking my applied anthropology course, we read article after article in which the researchers said that they had created a website for some (noble) reason. Time after time, we would visit the website only to find broken links, dated material and a general sense of waste. Too often these grand projects are completed and then forgotten - allowed to decay - without a second thought. Keeping track of what happens to our research after it's done is essential to keeping it relevant and worthwhile.
Those are Latour's four notebooks, and, like I said, I find it absolutely wonderful. I think if we all followed his advice, it would make us better researchers, better writers and better activists. I think it applies equally well to those of you who aren't social scientists, but perhaps want to write literature or make films. Maybe you don't have to keep all four journals, but keep in mind the axiom "Everything is data" and do what you can to document any and every aspect of your life including interesting stories, mundane details, unique ideas, and observations, . You may not use all of it, or even any of it, but I assure you that it will have a positive effect on your skill as a writer and on your general creativity.
That said, it's quite a tall order. For someone like me who has to take classes, teach classes, run from place to place, cook food, write papers, read articles and books, not to mention find time for some minuscule social life, I think I'd find it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain all of these notebooks for all of the projects I might work on. It's a worthwhile goal, though, and I will certainly do my best.