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Tough Notebooks (for Fieldwork).


The german computer magazine c't did a review on special notebooks that can handle rain, dust and crushes. You can find it in c't 9/2004, page 106-117 (Available in our library). But be aware, that you have to pay between 2300.- and 5600.- Euros for those. And there are also some ergonomic disadvantages: Who want's to write on a better rubber keyboard?


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'Notebooks in the wilderness'

In my opinion this is a good starting point for a general discussion on the use of Notebooks and other ICTs in 'traditional' ethnographic/logic fieldwork. I'd like to hear opinions of those who already have experience in carrying notebooks 'through the wild'.

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I could not imagine that fieldwork conditions are really that though, that your're not able to write on a table without dust. While travelling you can protect your laptop against crushes and dust. Only useful in humid regions, I would think.

And, as the example of Corinne shows, the danger that it gets stolen is far higher -> so try to buy a cheap one or two ;-)

But where are the real fieldworkers?

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Well, to start, I think it really depends on where you are doing your field work. Obviously it would be quite wrong to believe that research is being done only where dust, wind, rain and ice is coming about.

As an example, doing field research in Santiago de Chile, I would have been glad to have had a notebook with me. What I did was going to internet cafés to do my daily upgrade on field notes... Took a lot of time and wasn't always comfortable.

On the other hand I will be going to quite more isolated areas this summer and I already thought about taking my notebook or not. I believe though that it's less a question of your laptop getting stolen or damaged than how the object is seen by the informants. I believe it's more how the people in these regions are reacting.

You usually cannot use it during interviews ... the situation would be quite awkward and you would have to concentrate on writing more than on interviewing ... to write up the notes at night or back at home is no big difference, if you have taken the note conventionally during your research. Besides you won't be distressed all the time by having the feeling to use your notebook. And after all, for example where I am going to, there won't even be energy for parts... and if you are staying for a long time, you never will be able to take sufficient batteries.

In the end I believe that notebooks are rather unuseful in the field, especially because you want to appear as "one of them" and not as the western rich investigator who has to retrieve to his place to write down "secret" notes in the computer. Though, as I mentioned earlier, it really depends on where you are, what you are researching, who your informants are, how the environment is, etc. Lots of questions that are at odds unanswerable. I think that every one of us finds his/her way...

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I agree with warauduati, it depends entirely on the situation. But in most cases it is really not necessary to have your laptop with you. Could be quite disruptive. Just as using ordinary notebooks in the presence of the people amongst whom you are doing research, which changes the situation and the answers you'll get.
Besides, the prolonged use of laptops changes a lot of your way of memorising, writing etc. I am right now experiencing just that, after my laptop was stolen two weeks ago. The good point about it is that I can now much better understand your fascination with computers and their anthropology, the internet included. Your relation to texts and notes is profoundly different when you can trust in and rely on the data you have on your hard disk, I suppose. The advantage of working without computers however is really that you learn again how vital it is to be able to memorise and present an extended coherent argument (without being able to google, to copy and paste etc).

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If I may also add my mustard to it... In my view, notebooks can be paramount working tools during fieldwork. But, as you all stated before, showing up with it is not always adequate or even necessary for successful fieldwork. Yes, a sensitive use of such instruments is certainly advisable (and, please, who would ever make use of a notebook while interviewing someone?!). I wouldn’t make it a fast rule, though, that the appearance of a notebook in the ‘field’ widens the disparities between the researcher and the ‘locals’. In most cases the former is stigmatised as the ‘rich guy’ anyway, and for good reasons. On this level, the ‘being one of them’ notion is a mere illusion. And if it came to suspecting the fieldworker of storing ‘secret’ notes in his PC, then one would have to question some very central issues of his presence. The use of an ordinary notebook would give rise to similar doubts – the latter being about the fieldworker’s integrity, his personality and his being accepted in his ‘field’, and less about his technological equipment. Engaging in this further, I would like to play down the assumed problem of (any kind of) note-taking ‘at work’, meaning that it destroys the ‘authentic’ fieldwork setting and the people’s genuine discourses (ok, none of you were going that far). - One thing’s for sure: your memory is highly needed in the field, no matter how well/oddly equipped you are.

In Ghana I spent quite some time working in the archives of a chief’s palace. On my first day there, the old archivist (82 years of age) impatiently asked me why I hadn’t brought any computer with me: Professor XY had also come with one, and that’s how serious fieldwork was to be done. The next day I brought my notebook (a stone age model) to the palace. Admittedly this gave the archivist the feeling of being very important (which he was, definitely). I think that using ‘academic technology’ as part of some kind of working routine also made people accept (or assume…) that I was a serious fieldwork student.

Should these African kids be prohibited from being tempted by the sight of this neo-imperialistic prestige object…?

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