Writing about Field Experiences in SOCI 215

(updated 8/23/09)

Visits to all of our field sites in Sociology 215 are meant to do three things:

(1) Encourage you to think about readings and class topics and to use those materials in your discussion of the field experience;
(2) Raise issues for you about participation in community life and political activity and to discuss how engagement and social responsibility, or disengagement and social irresponsibility happen;
(3) Give you field experiences and opportunities to write in an "ethnographic", observational way. This prepares you for other courses that will have more intensive field experiences, like Anthropology/Sociology 201.

Your papers are not meant to be long. Three or four pages is enough.

There is an assignment prepared for each of the field experiences suggested on the course website. Students often suggest other field experiences that they would like to observe. If these are rich, social observation opportunities and you discuss your proposed observation experience with this instructor in advance this is usually fine. The instructor generally can produce an assignment for you quickly but often you can look at other writing assignments to see the kinds of questions that you ought to address in your paper.

You may not find it possible to write about all of the themes that are mentioned in an assignment. Doing so might mean that you cannot deal with the most important aspects in the depth necessary if you are to do a good job while still staying within the four-page limit.

In general, field papers have three general objectives and ask you to write about these things:

1. Give a detailed descriptive account of your experience.

Avoid being overly general and abstract as you tell about the scene and instead emphasize specific, concrete details. Tell what the activity was, where it was and what the setting was like, who did what, what you did if that was relevant, and what caught your attention of these activities. Pay attention to the people who were present including how many there were, what subgroups you noticed, whether there were people who talked to you and were interested in you, and what key actions by people occurred.

2. Be mindful of when it is essential to maintain anonymity and confidentiality in your reports and to protect the rights of human subjects.

ALL students in this class must become certified in the protection of human subjects course sponsored by Bucknell's Institutional Review Board (IRB) before observing in any setting that is NOT open to the public. (Thus, the initial auction assignment and attending a high school homecoming game are examples of settings that are open to the public and do not require IRB certification.) All students who will work in settings with people under 18 MUST be certified by the State Police, the Department of Public Welfare, and the FBI for working with young people. If you have been certified within the last year you still are covered. If you have not been certified it will cost you $60. Go to the UPS store opposite Walmart and they can get this done in a couple of days.

It is particularly important for you to be aware of confidentiality rules if you work in the North Central Secure Treatment Unit (the prison for delinquents) or in the hospital emergency room. Students sometimes receive instruction but do not quite believe that these constraints are real. BELIEVE! If you reveal identities you can get in trouble and you can have Bucknell's program thrown out of the facllity so other students cannot receive the benefit of access that you have enjoyed.

3. Be mindful of readings, films, concepts, and class themes that you see played out in the scene as you observe it.

There is a danger that you can become caught up simply in telling about the richness and intrigue of your field experience without asking what meaning that experience has. Remember that this is a class exercise and that the point of observing is to better understand how the abstract themes presented in the readings are played out in real life.

The timing of your field experiences usually is not synchronized with when we will be discussing related material in class that tells about the setting or presents concepts that might help you to observe interesting things in the field. Look for readings or other resource materials that are related to your setting and go through them before you observe or at least before you write. If you bring these materials into your discussion it will improve your grade. If you ignore formal concepts in your paper it will lower your grade.

Having said this, remember that your paper ought to be driven by the field experience. It is a mistake to spend your whole paper discussing an abstract concept and only lightly telling about what you saw and experienced in the field.

4. Tell how the institution is organized and how the particular setting you observe fits into the whole of the institution.

Almost all of our observation opportunities happen in a particular place, involve a particular activity, and have a specific, limited cast of characters. Almost always this scene or setting exists with a larger organization or institution that is made up of interconnected parts. The hospital emergency room is a system within itself but it is also connected. It is connected to the outside through the community emergency response system of police, fire fighters, ambulance, and family members. It feeds to the inside of the hospital and provides referrals either to private doctors' specialty medical practices or to in-hospital wards that have different levels of intensity in their services (the intensive care unit is different from a normal hospital ward).

Pay attention to who is present in your setting and who does what. Also, try to learn how your setting is connected to everything else through the division of labor within the organization. In some institutions you may be able to disentangle the complexities of the immediate organization but you may discover that there also are regulations, grants, and outside organizations that are very important to your setting. Juvenile courts and detention centers are this way and it is important for you to know how the kids you see fit into the overall system as well as how the different components—the school versus the residential unit—fit together.

You are not going to be able to cover all of this complexity in your short, four-page paper. You should show awareness that this complexity exists and there may be specific issues that come up that encourage you to discuss how the larger "institutional field" or system shapes the setting you are working in.

5. Most settings are meant for you to observe on one day but some require multiple visits.

Some settings only work if you can get to know the clients so it is required that you visit on a regular basis throughout the semester. If you have a tight schedule you might want to avoid these settings (the most important one is the North Central Secure Treatment Unit). For these settings there are multiple writing assignments so you will cover different issues and themes with successive papers.