“Maybe my data are mushrooms, not salad leaves”: a cultural geographer’s fieldwork reflections

We came across this brief but interesting post by chance (or, rather, by hyperlink). The author, Anjeline de Dios, is a PhD student in cultural geography in Singapore.  You can read about Anjeline’s research on her website.  Recently, she mentioned our post on  Borges’ short story, “The Ethnographer”, and kindly agreed that we repost her reflections about fieldwork, notetaking, data collection and the creation of analysis out of your data. We at SI like the idea of mushroom data. We also like metaphors (with measure)(and parenthetical statements).


Sometime in the near future I will try to (I must!) write coherently about what I have seen and heard on the field. I should be more punctual and diligent with the task of writing fieldnotes, I know. Lest you recoil in horror (70+ interviews and no fieldnotes?!), let me reassure you that yes, I did take the trouble of creating data… somewhat. I have reporter-style rants on my recorder, marginalia, bullet points, text messages to myself, even a fake PowerPoint presentation. The richest pieces of data are the scripts I have created in my head, without ever having put pen to paper (or finger…tip? to keyboard). These are the anecdotes I have told and retold others. These are the scraps of memory I have been turning over and over in my mind’s hands. They almost resist being handled by my real hands, refuse to be written and pinned down. They keep shifting in the telling. They are rather to be apprehended by being felt through, hands moving underwater.

What of precision and exactitude? Crispness and freshness? Another metaphor, then: Maybe the data I wish to cultivate are mushrooms, not salad leaves. There has to be a period of waiting in the dark. Nurtured but left undisturbed, they grow fat with substance. They grow gills and learn to breathe. (One telltale sign I am a fake academic: I like metaphors too much.) (And parenthetical statements.)

These are not new thoughts and feelings, of course. I came across this excellent blogpost today by way of a tweet from Pierre Bourdieu (yes, that Bourdieu).  I’m pleased to discover that Jorge Luis Borges has created a myth for my time. Like all good myths, it mystifies. This is the kind of explaining I want to do: I want to gesture, not to spell out. I wonder if academia is the right place for this kind of work? But I will hold that thought for another time.

Categories: Sociological Craft

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