Field notes represent the reality that researchers experience when they are immersed in the field. Organizational research is no exception, especially when incorporating the clinical model. Field notes are a route to developing hypotheses, generating theory, and making claims.
Here I take up a recent article, Giminez and Pinel (2013), in order to explore a psychoanalytic approach to note-taking. While this article focuses on clinical work in groups, it has something to offer the organizational field researcher in terms of technique. The authors highlight the importance of the method of observation, the process whereby we notice and note information, and how notes are used to communicate with others. Their article attempts to develop a “reliable” method of note taking that represents sensory, cognitive, and emotional experiences of the researcher, and identifies the “group associative chain” (p. 5).
Giminez and Pinel describe note taking as an internal process that begins with “defining the mental states need to recognize the relevant facts” (5). Here the authors cite Freud’s “free-floating attention.” In other words, when note-taking, researchers must be prepared to notice what might otherwise not be noticed. A key aspect of this preparedness is the ability to notice “our defensive construction of potentially anxiety-arousing, painful or stimulating links alongside the associative chain” (p. 6). This argument is consistent with our view of self-awareness as crucial for developing the ability to observe and analyze transference dynamics in the organizational setting.
The authors suggest that note-taking be done “after the event.” Applied to organizational research this could mean that note-taking would be done after leaving the organization for the day, or after the interview, or after attending a meeting. They go on to say that note-taking should be done in two stages: immediate recording of the content and re-reading notes to add in (in italics) additional memories. Taking notes “after the event” raises some specific challenges around recall and implies a need to develop recall skills, or “mental note-taking abilities,” as part of preparation for the field. It could also point to the usefulness of electronically recording field experiences.
The method of note-taking proposed by the authors is broken into four columns:
1. Verbal communication and the group associative chain – this column contains everything we see, hear, smell, or otherwise experience as a sensation. We should describe these sensations in as much detail as possible, aiming to provide an accurate picture of events that carries with it the affective tone, rhythm, and spatial dimensions of the experience. (In my own note-taking I consider the recording of sensory experience to be a “stream of consciousness” process that records the lived experience of the research context such that a reader can grasp what it’s like to be there.) Another dimension of this column (perhaps it should be another column) is recording the chain of mental linking and unlinking in the group, requiring the ability to “attend to the polyphony of intersubjectivity and interdiscursivity” (p. 9, citing Kaes, 1994). For organizational researchers this means that there needs to be attention to the linking between organizational members and the researcher, organizational members with each other inside and outside of groups, and the linking of groups and individuals across the organization.
2. Identifying the basic scenarios – in this column the analyst notes the scenarios described by or happening within the group. Scenarios are formatted in sentences that describe “someone [who] does something to someone else, possibly in front of a third person” (9). This column allows the researcher to be present in the stories of the subjects as an observer. I think that for researchers this is a place to attend to the narrative patterns that occur in interviews with individuals and groups, and observations of storytelling amongst organizational members.
3. Thoughts, emotions, countertransference and intertransference – this column is where the analyst notes “inner movements” (p. 10) in relation to the sensory experiences and group associations recorded in the first column. This column should accurately record the researcher’s feelings in response to the group and reflects the researcher’s “affective attunement” (p. 11) to the group. Analysis of intertransference is important in the case where there are two or more researchers in the field and attends to the affective content that “reverberates between them” (p. 11). We have noted elsewhere that transference dynamics are important data in psychoanalytic fieldwork and organizational studies. What is of particular interest here is the attention paid to the intertransference between analysts which we can apply to the team approach to organizational research.
4. Role of the third person and the auto/meta position – this column notes our hypotheses based on the material in the first three columns. This involves transforming the observational data with the assistance of theory, creating a “triangular space” (p. 12). According to the authors hypotheses must represent a convergence of clinical clues, offer an explanation for the facts observed, and include a “predictive dimension” (p. 11). This column in some ways is a container for the content of the first three columns and creates a potential space where thought and theorizing can occur outside of defensive responses to the group.
The authors conclude by emphasizing the important of rigor in observation and note-taking. They view note-taking as “a tool for working together, comparing points of view (or vertices) and looking for ways to link them together” (p. 15). Thus note-taking becomes the foundation for research, and communication between researchers.