Ömür Harmanşah, University of Illinois at Chicago

A notebook transforms the everyday into an underwater world in which things on the surface become transformed, rich, and strange. The notes in a notebook are what has been picked at and plundered from an underworld. They are of another order of reality altogether…

Michael Taussig, Fieldwork Notebooks

Keeping a field notebook is a shared method of documentation and medium of representation among all areas of research for which fieldwork and field observation plays a vital role: biology, archaeology, geology, anthropology, earth sciences, art, and historical conservation, you name it. Greek thinker Aristotle spent weeks and weeks on the island of Lesbos at the Pyrrha Lagoon, staring at fish and documenting their reproductive cycles. His field observations that filled notebooks led him to produce several treatises on marine biology, including History of Animals, accompanied by his drawings in The Anatomies. His influential concept of phûsis was built on this work. If field observation is key to many disciplines whose data collection is dependent on meticulous record keeping, the fieldwork notebook performs not only as a vital apparatus of doing fieldwork and recording observations, but also as an archive, a direct record of the field experience, which is by definition emotional and often requires improvisation (Davies and Spencer 2011; Cerwonka and Malkki 2007). Field notebooks are direct witnesses to and indexes of what goes on in the field (Canfield 2011).

Archaeological projects have massive archives of field notebooks, carrying the legacy and memory of multiple fieldworkers, who excavate, survey, and study material remains, but often are not able to take part in the final publication of the results. For archaeologists, it is an ethical responsibility (a weighty and difficult one) to keep meticulously detailed notes and drawings of what takes place in the field, since archaeological excavation itself is an irreversible act of destruction, and the notes kept in the field are often the only witnesses to the event of fieldwork. If every fieldwork activity is a unique experience of an encounter between the researcher and their subjects, then the field notebook is the uniquely comprehensive record, an index of that encounter. The minutely specific, vibrant, powerfully real and mundane details recorded in the notebook are so radically distant from the generalized and programmatic way that the final results of a research project ends up being published.

Pages from Ayanis_FieldNotebook_crop

The current age of big data, speedy data collection, and advanced digital technologies have been threatening the meticulous nature of fieldwork, although it has also introduced new opportunities. Following the work of science and technology studies scholars such as Karen Barad and Bruno Latour, it is important to underline the fact that any scientific apparatus through which we observe the world (a microscope, a field notebook, a satellite image, a camera) is never an objective medium free from problems of representation of reality and the politics of the production of scientific (or otherwise) knowledge. There is currently a common illusion that digital technologies (e.g. the use of IPADs in archaeological excavations in place of fieldwork notebooks or paper forms) have improved, accelerated, and systematized documentation in the field.  It would be more accurate to say that this has led to more ‘check-box’ing and less narrative descriptions in the field, and more reliance on digital photography in place of sketching or drawing. These changes run the risk of transforming fieldworkers into data gathering robots rather than thinking, sensible individuals. Many experienced fieldworkers however would testify that sketching and drawing in the field are not simply acts of documentation, but they are analytical ways of thinking deeply and carefully about the object of observation. Despite the shortcomings of the introduction of digital media to fieldwork, digital humanities opened new opportunities for sharing and publishing raw fieldwork data. While one could have never imagined in the past including field notebooks in the final publication of a research project, today it is becoming more and more common for scientists and researchers to incorporate this material to their presentation through creative web interfaces that provide open access to research project databases. Hand-held video cameras have opened the possibility of video diaries and other new media for documentation.

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Contemporary debates on the ecological and heritage crisis, global warming and the new proposal for the onset of the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene, urges academics and scholars in the social sciences, humanities and the arts to develop a new ethics of collaboration, and alternative methods of engaging with the field (and the world). The field of engaged (or public) humanities requires scientists to collaborate with local communities around the world, rather than treat them as objects of research. Fieldwork notebooks have the capacity to negate technologies of surveillance (e.g. remote sensing) and the objectification that the local communities continue to face. In this sense, it is timely to re-think and evaluate the apparatuses, methods, and strategies of fieldwork and explore the potentials for an increasingly responsible, ethical, and politically engaged work on the ground. Is it possible to re-imagine the fieldwork notebook as a new, experimental, and critical apparatus of engaging with the field? If one keeps an open mind to an understanding of fieldwork in the Anthropocene to be affective and emotional, wouldn’t meticulously kept field notebooks be fitting to the deeply engaged, creative, improvised, and ethically responsible work that is expected of us? In a posthuman era, how do we democratize our attention and interests in the field to recognize non-human actors and agents in the field, study more-than-human histories, and give those space to express themselves in our archives? Can the fieldwork notebook be a platform to re-imagine an alternative ontology of the field, a site of radically democratic thinking?



Canfield, Michael R. (ed.); 2011. Field Notes on Science and Nature. Harvard University Press.

Cerwonka, Allaine and Liisa H. Malkki; 2007. Imporvising theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork. University of Chicago Press.

Davies, James and Dimitrina Spencer; 2010. Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience. Stanford University Press.  

Taussig, Michael; 2011. Fieldwork notebooks = Feldforschungsnotizbücher. Ostfildern, Germany : Hatje Cantz.