After several weeks of phone calls, emails, visits and trawling through seemingly endless lists of possible contacts it is only now, sitting quietly in front of the computer with a cup of tea and my notebook open at my field notes that I have really begun to feel like a proper researcher.
In October of this year I was lucky enough to get a phone call inviting me to be the research assistant on this valuable project, looking to find out about older peoples’ food provisioning – where they get food from, how and why. With so many more people in this society being over 60, we need to understand how we can support this group better by finding the strengths and weaknesses in the food system that impact on them and this study aims to do just that. This will be my first professional role as a researcher and I am as excited as I am nervous – not only do I need to learn how the photocopier works and where the toilets are, but the things I labelled as annoying paperwork at university, issues around ethics, what the outputs and outcomes of the research will be, have become real and important considerations.
Today I was reminded that the field notes I used to find so boring to write up are a vital part of ensuring that the study is accurate and robust and help to provide the rich data that this study is relying on. Moreover, deciding how and what to record in my notes can have an impact on how the data might be interpreted.
My ethnography brain started to grind into action as I mulled over the events of the morning – a visit to a lunch club to meet potential study participants. We were welcomed in out of the cold, furnished with steaming hot tea in proper tea cups (with a saucer!) and stood about smiling at people in the busy pre-lunch hubbub. My brain had taken in a surprising amount of detail that frosty morning and as my fingers hovered over the keyboard this afternoon I wondered whether I should include description of the scuffed wooden floor, the little flowery plates with biscuits that were passed round the table, the boxes of Ludo and Scrabble that spilled their contents eagerly into unsuspecting laps. What was this information telling me and was it useful? Was is my place to be making this decision, should I just note down everything I could recall so that anyone who read my notes would be able to make their own interpretation of the event? But what vital points might I have missed?
In the end, I have decided to note down as much as I remember in an almost stream of consciousness narrative. I note the kitchen tucked in the corner, the plastic place mats in readiness for the lunch, the cheery banter across the hall – I remember from my previous research for my masters that you never know until later which pieces of information are most valuable. Perhaps the colour of the linoleum is secretly significant or the unlikely story about the man in the hat really a window into that man’s experience - even in the brief conversations I’d had, my expectations had shifted and I’d been made aware of my own assumptions.
Food provisioning in later life is already reminding me to keep my eyes open and my presumptions in check. Even with the few short conversations I’ve had with a few potential participants my interest has been piqued and I am very much looking forward to fieldwork starting in January. Stay tuned for all the updates!
Amy is the research assistant on the OFFSET project.