Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Field Recording or Field Observation?: Audio Meets Method in Qualitative Research

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Field Recording or Field Observation?: Audio Meets Method in Qualitative Research

Article excerpt

Field Observations and Field Recordings

shhhhhh (leaves and wind?)

mmmmmm (?)

MMMM (?)



something turns on. hummmmm. (generator for water?)

ssssss (hose) splatter (water droplets on leaves)

(bird wings flapping)

tinny high far off radio music can't hear what it is exactly.


sssSHHHHHshhhh (wind comes and goes)

MMMMMMM (????????)

The above sound poem1 is compiled from field notes written directly after a short audio based field observation in Provincetown, Massachusetts, early June 2014, approximately 5pm. I was preparing to engage in an arts based inquiry and research project at the B Street Gardens, where I had just received a community garden plot. I listened, and hand wrote my notes in my notebook after the exercise. My intention was to create a soundscape that engaged with ethnographic methods in this garden.

As I wrote down the notes, I expressed the sounds phonetically. Next, I qualified what I thought the sounds were. I was not sure how closely my note taking correlated to Clifford Geertz's 2 "thick description" but I wanted to do my best. The most mysterious sound was the MMMMM. mmmmm. Sometimes it was louder. Sometimes it was quieter. What was that sound? and what did it signify? How might that sound change my conceptions of the community garden in which I was doing my arts based research?

For purposes of this paper, I would like to compare two methods of collecting data that are employed by two different disciplines. One is the field observation, in which the anthropologist writes field notes, often utilizing thick description while working to accurately capture the essence of the environment and people and interactions within it. The other method I am comparing is the idea of the field recording, in which the musician or sound artist puts the ambient sound of the environment on recorded media while in the field. Or in a field as the case might be. Both methods require different modes of attention, and both converge in the field of qualitative research as well as sound studies.

The shared components of field observations and field recordings have parallels. In both cases, the researcher or artist goes to the site, and gathers information about a given site, and then works with that information later, and shapes it to her or his purposes. In both cases, this process could be considered "editing." However, since these two processes are from significantly different disciplines with different histories, it serves my purposes to differentiate them in some small part.

Field Observations originate in the discipline of anthropology. The products of field observations are typically jottings or field notes. According to Emerson, Fretz and Shaw, "Fieldnotes are accounts describing experiences and observations the researcher has made while participating in an intense and involved manner." (1995). With field observations, the data collected are generally focused on human beings and their interactions within a specific socio-cultural context. Initially, field notes often take the form of "jottings" or quick markings and words notated WHILE someone is in the field. The jottings are filled out later with full sentences, and then interpreted.

Ambient audio field recordings typically have a non-focused purpose that is more akin to awareness than attention. I draw here on the work of Pauline Oliveros, a musician, sound artist, and faculty member at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Oliveros wrote about the difference between human attention and awareness in her book Software for People: Collected Writings 1963-80. I use as my point of departure her essay "On Sonic Meditation." This seemed to relate most specifically to the disciplines of music and ethnography. She writes "Attention is narrow, pointed and selective. Awareness is broad, diffuse, and inclusive. Both have a tunable range: Attention can be honed to a finer and finer point. …

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