Thursday, November 4, 2010


Today I have no research appointments, and so I have been trying to process my data.  This can involve a number of different activities: transcribing audio or video, coding transcriptions or field notes or other documents, entering quantitative data into SPSS, etc.  This is the step between data collection and analysis.  And it is torture.  I hate it.  It's boring.  It's tedious.  So I procrastinate.

Then I collect more data, and I have even more to process.  I open my computer, look at the sheer number of unprocessed files facing me, and go play with my cats or look at the latest folk dance competition results.

I love data collection (well except for the scheduling bit) and I like the analysis, the ideas, and even the final writing.  Those are exciting, and interesting, and engage my brain.  But I always get stuck in this middle processing bit.

How can I make this interesting? Or at least less torturous?


  1. I'm dubious about the utility of processing raw fieldwork data while you're still in the field. I stuck my toe in that pool during my last fieldwork stint, and pulled it out pretty quickly. You did not go to the field to process and analyze and write; you went there to accumulate data. As awesome as it would be to multitask like a mofo and get this stuff synthesized into beautiful prose that cleverly analyzes multiple problematics, that's not real life for anyone I know. In my own case, I was only able to focus on analysis just enough to clarify to myself where I should seek for data next, and what kinds of questions to ask. Beyond that, the exigencies of field work (and, let's be honest, some sweet, sweet procrastination sprinkled on top) monopolized my attention.

  2. If only my dissertation committee agreed with you, Dr. Koshary! Alas, they are worried if I don't process, I will suffer from data overload (I think I already am). However, I should clarify that by process, I don't mean analyze or write up so much as get into a form that can be analyzed and written about in the future (ie transcriptions rather than audio, clearly written up field notes rather than scattered words/phrases that I take down while actually observing things).

  3. My honest advice about transcriptions? Screw 'em. I tried to do them for a while, but soon I realized that I was creating make-work for myself. Unless your methodology is highly quantitative and requires lots of precise answers, rather than accumulation of more qualitative ideas, you may be better served by listening to your interviews a few times over, and simply writing out -- or, if you want to catch the exact turns of phrase, transcribing -- the important bits that people tell you. Very, very few of my interviews were so absorbing and noteworthy in their own right that I ended transcribing them at length. (Frankly, I think only four of them were that interesting/stuffed with linguistic goodies that I had to capture them as-is. And I took a lot of interviews.) One can reach a technological point of diminishing returns at which one is just redundantly entering the same information in multiple places in multiple software programs without actually doing anything useful with it.

    Field notes are a different matter. You sound like more of a techie than I am, so perhaps this won't work for you, but my method is to take field notes down in a notebook with a pen. If I'm trying to keep up with an unfolding event or a motor-mouthed interlocutor, I can scribble shorthand, bounce back and forth between English and loghatelba7th, do whatever the hell I need to at that moment. If I'm relaxing over a cup of coffee and want to get my thoughts in order, I can write in more of a longhand. In the evening, or perhaps the next day if I'm really exhausted, I type up everything in expanded longhand form in a word processing document — you want to write it all down while the memories, thoughts and emotions are fresh. It's less streamlined from a technological standpoint, but far more streamlined from my own, slightly old-school perspective. Among other things, my expanded field notes have pointed me years later toward the interviews I took where interesting things occurred or were uttered, since the stuff that really turns your head is always worth commenting on to yourself. I can't imagine letting the field notes sit unexpanded for a long period of time; they were an essential part of my thought process in the field.

    Perhaps you are already familiar with this, but, if you have a Mac, then you can get a word processing program with really robust support for English and loghatelba7th in the same document. I prefer Nisus Writer, but Mellel also has its supporters. (Email me privately and I can give you all the gory details about both programs.) Yeah, I know, PCs can do this too, but not as well; lord knows I've run into my share of PC troubles trying to integrate two languages with completely different scripts in a single document. The larger point, though, is that you want those field notes expanded NOW, not six months or a year from now when you can no longer reliably reconstruct why you scribbled XYZ that day.

  4. Thanks for the advice, I'll have to try that with my audio--some parts will still need to be transcribed, but others could probably be summarized. For the field notes, I've definitely come to realize that I need to expand them right away (after some unfortunate what on earth was I writing moments last year). The reason I don't use a notebook has less to do with technology (although I do like it) and more to do with the fact that it's less obvious that I'm taking notes, since I just look like I'm texting all the time, which is pretty normal in my environment. Also, I have terrible handwriting in all languages :-) Thankfully, I do use a Mac, and I usually use textedit to save my expanded field notes, as I'm worried about compatibility issues in the future, and my notes don't usually require fancy formatting. Luckily Mellel plays well with rtf! You're not the only who's told me they prefer Nisus, but since by the time I heard about it I already had Mellel, I never really looked into it.