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by Peter Moskos

October 31, 2012

How the iPhone Changed the Way We Do Ethnography: A Methodological Note


In my partial blog-writing absence (though in case you're worried, all is well here in Astoria, Queens, post storm -- we're high and dry and with electricity) I wanted to feature a few promising up-and-coming researchers I'm excited about.

The first of the young-upstart rising-star whipper-snappers is Jan Haldipur (his email). Jan, an ethnographer from upstate New York, is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. He's researching how the NYPD's Stop, Question, and Frisk policies affect people in a South Bronx neighborhood.

I had a few beers with Jan the other week, and (when I wasn't trying to impress him with inferior Dutch-language skills) we got to talking about taking field notes. When I was a cop, being required to carry paper and pen makes initial note taking comparatively easy, at least during down-times. But if you're doing research with people who, to put it politely, are more questioning of authority, whipping out a notepad can be rather conspicuous in a head turning and even potentially dangerous kind of way. And yet, memory being what it is, a researcher needs to take notes. Jan discovered a great way around the dilemma. These are Jan Haldipur's words:
Perched on the top of a bench in a small courtyard nestled in the South Bronx’s Jackson Houses, I sat with "Chaz," one of my contacts in the neighborhood. It was my first month in the field. With temperatures nearing the triple digits, we clung to the shady side of the bench, nearest the trees. As I sat, wiping the sweat from my brow, he told me about a recent argument he had with his grandmother. Not wanting to miss some of the key details, I clumsily pulled a notepad out of my back pocket.

Chaz stopped mid-story and asked me what I was doing.

Jan: I have to write some of this stuff down…remember? Like we talked about.

Chaz: I know that much…but you looking like the Feds with that notebook [laughs]. You see everybody looking at us now?

Feeling as if time had just stopped, I looked up to see that we were on the receiving end of a set of glares from a group of teens sitting on an adjacent bench.

In an attempt to stay true to my ethnographic forefathers, I had been jotting down notes in shorthand. Deep in the recesses of countless seminal ethnographies, one can usually find a footnote or appendix detailing the experiences one has collecting data. Everyone from Whyte to Venkatesh [ed note: and Moskos], it seems, has shared personal anecdotes on finding odd moments to jot down notes of what they observed, heard and felt. What these texts seemed to gloss over, however, is just how conspicuous one can look with a pen and pad in 2012.

Not wanting to make the situation any more uncomfortable than it was already becoming, I fumbled around in my pocket and pulled out my iPhone, opened the "notes" section and began typing. In an age when most teens and 20-somethings remain glued to their i-devices, checking mail, or texting, I found that my fiddling with a phone while talking to Chaz was no longer "curious" behavior. In fact, it was seen as quite normal.

Over the next few weeks and months, meeting with Chaz and an assortment of other community members, I made a conscious decision to leave my pen and pad at home. Instead, I relied almost purely on my phone, and, situation permitting, a voice recorder. The core of the “ethnographic process” remains intact. The means to achieve change with the times.
The iPhone! It's the kind of brilliant yet simple observation I love. And hopefully it will help other researchers out there in the field.

[Update: In November, 2012, I was in Chicago for the ASC conference and was riding the Green Line on W. Lake Street toward the loop around 1AM (my, how Chicago has changed since I grew up there). There was one other person in the L car, an African-American man about my age at the other end of the car. I was standing up, in the middle of the car, checking out the fancy new L car. I was scribbling notes in my pad (as I am wont to do). The other guy got upset and told me to, "Stop doing that cop shit!" I told him I was a writer. We ended up on decent terms.]

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