Participant Observation and Field Notes

In Writing Autobiography

In writing an autobiography, participant observation is much different than what researchers usually do when they are the participant observers.  Participant observation is where the researcher immerses him/herself, into the culture or the surroundings where the research is being done.

There is much research that goes into an autobiography, even though the person writing one is writing about his/her own life events.  Events, which took place in the past and over long periods of time, must be brought back through memory.  One must be a very critical observer of those past events.

Everything that happened in the life of the writer, which can be remembered, must be transferred into data. Events become data only after they have been recorded one way or another, whether by photograph, writing, or audio recordings.  Data is not data until it is recorded.

Some events that seem etched into the writer’s mind, which he/she thinks will never be forgotten, become something more than a memory once those memories are recorded.  And once the writing starts, those memories often flow out in much more detail than even the writer was aware of.  When observing a past event from a different viewpoint, now that time has passed, autobiographers can analyze the event in a more objective way.  However, the autobiographer will always have his/her own slant on the event.  It is easier to be more reflexive when writing about someone other than oneself.

Memory is often fleeting, too, and not very trustworthy, so the autobiographer must examine the event how he/she remembers it, and then if others were involved, seek input from those outside sources when possible.  Remember, the autobiographer is the researcher into his/her own life.  The autobiographer must search for real meaning and understanding of the life he/she is trying to portray.  Memory is often incomplete, with gaps that need to be filled in.  Sometimes insight fills in the gaps; other times we need others to help fill in those gaps.  Only the autobiographer can make the decision as to how much detail needs to be told to make the story unfold in a fluent and coherent way.

An important thing to think about when writing one’s own story is that the story you are writing is not fiction – it is real.  Yet, it can still be embellished to make it more appealing for the reader – just not fictionalized.  As a writer of real events, one must search and re-search the “field notes,” that have been jotted down in the journal of the past notebook.  Think deeply about any conversations, which may have accompanied events.  What was said?  Who said it?  Are the conversations worthy parts of the event?  Of course, the autobiographer is both the observer of the past, and the interpreter of the events, so all decisions are made by the writer.

Another point to consider as a participant observer of one’s own life, is to think about interviews (conversations) that took place with Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, and Parents.  What were in those conversations of wisdom that can be plucked out?  What things were said that caused a memory to be made?  Some conversations that were overheard are also remnants of the past that make situations and circumstances culturally come to life.  Were those conversations funny, sad, ridiculous, or amazing?  Will those conversations speak to the reader?

For instance, when I was in the fourth grade I lived with my aunt and uncle and at the dinner table my cousin and I were not allowed to talk because, “. . . children should be seen and not heard.”  We also had to, “. . . sit there until you have cleaned up your plate!”  The first statement says a lot about the culture of relationships between adults and children in that era.  The second statement reveals that food was never wasted, suggesting that the household paid close attention to the food bill.  Such statements are worth remembering because of the culture that is revealed in them at the time.

In writing one’s own autobiography and looking back on the past to observe it in the context in which you were a participant will not be easy.  It will be almost impossible to be unbiased.  Still, this is a research project, so it must be viewed in that light.  It is very contradictory to realize that you are producing both the data and the analysis of that data.  Is it even possible to be unbiased?  For instance, when I interviewed my husband’s grandmother to write her personal history, I recorded the interviews so that I did not depend on just field notes and my own memory.  I wanted to write exactly what she said, expressing what she felt.

Grandma’s personal history was tape-recorded; then it was arranged in chronological order as much as possible.  We had a family reunion on her 83rd birthday to give her the finished copy.  We made copies for everyone in the family.  After several hours, when some of the family members had sneaked a peak at the inside and read some of the content, I had all kinds of feedback.  “That is not what happened at all!,” said one of grandma’s children.  “I can’t believe you wrote that!”

Several of the adults, whose names were in the book, obviously resented what grandma said about them.  A few were actually mad.  This does not change the story, however, because the recorded events were grandma’s own perspective.  They were how she saw them, and remembered them, and lived them.  Were they wrong?  Were they biased?  Wrong is a strong word, so probably the events were not wrong.  Were they misconstrued due to memory?  Maybe.  Were they biased?  Probably.  These are things to think about, but not to stress about.  The autobiographer is writing from his/her own perspective – not anyone else’s.

In conclusion, we see that participant observation is a scientific method of revealing events as they happened.  What makes writing the autobiography different is that the writing of field notes is after the fact, unless one has a personal diary or journal to refer back to.  Still, jotting down notes as your memory relays them to you is an all important part of inserting the scientific method into the production of an autobiography.  With this as a central activity to the project, we can learn to effectively interject these field notes into the narration of the story as it progresses.

The last thing to mention is that the autobiography is the storyteller’s own tale.  It is one’s own life, and one’s own story, and it is unique.  No one has lived it as the storyteller has, and no one can write it the way the storyteller can.







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