Write an Ethnographic Fieldwork Essay

Prerequisite. You have done a brief (1-3 hours) observation visit to a field site, taking notes, photographs, etc. and you have returned home and written up your field notes.


Your task is to write a fragment of a research paper on something derived from your field site. Your writeup should begin with a paragraph that tells us where you were and what you observed - without launching into analysis or interpretation. For the purposes of illustration, let's assume I am doing my observation at a dog run park.

My field site is a dog walking/running park in a city park in Oakland. It is a large, fenced-in site (about 200 feet on a side) but I focused my observations on an area containing several benches at one end of the area. Dog owners enter through one of two gates and can allow their dogs to run off leash inside the dog area. They often sit on the benches while their dogs run and sometimes sit on or near the benches playing with their dogs or socializing with other dog owners.

Questions, big and small

A second paragraph should relate your observation – even if only playfully – to the big and small ideas that you see in the observation. In a dog park I might be interested in looking at the way dog owners interact over their dogs "meeting" – my small t topic – but I see this as an instance of a larger idea – my big T TOPIC – how pairs of individuals can interact via third parties or objects in the sense described by Simmel in his essay "The Triad." The point is to demonstrate that you can focus on the empirical uniqueness of the scene you observed and see it as a "case of" something more generic. You can use quite big ideas for this: structure and agency; norms and “unspoken” rules; social capital.

Thirdly, you connect the big questions to the small questions . The connection can go in either direction. I might be curious about how having a dog with you makes it easier to meet people and then abstract from this to ideas about the of objects ranging from the weather to a drink in one's hand as a way to bridge the interactional barriers between strangers. Or I might be thinking about enforcement of norms that facilitate the private use of public space and zero in on how dog owners gently enforce rules on one another. Or I might be interested in subcultures and look at how dog owners "talk dog" with one another.

Fourthly, I want to practice thinking in terms of concepts, operationalization, and variables. Identify two concepts that might be related - trivial ones in the dog park might be age, race, or gender and the initiation or acceptance of interaction. I would then describe how I would define these and what I would look for in my field notes and what "values" I would give them (maybe age is "older or younger," maybe acceptance of interaction is "failure to acknowledge, acknowledge but refuse, acknowledge and accept).

Submit your four paragraph report along with a page of your written up field notes.