The Jottings in the Margins of Fieldwork Diary—What Do They Tell Us?

Jotting 1: “Waiting! Waiting…still waiting. Am waiting…patience, fieldwork means patience with a capital ‘P’!

Comic illustration by artist Madhushree Basu

Sitting on a red plastic chair on the verandah of Periamma’s house facing the street in Sriperumbadur town, Kancheepuram District, Tamil Nadu, India. Field dairy, 7/30/2013. (Comic illustration of author’s notes by artist Madhushree Basu for author’s forthcoming book)

Jotting 2: “In bus route no. 549, going home after an interview. It’s so hot and sweaty. The driver is still drinking his tea.  A young man is sitting across me. A smartly dressed young woman joins him in a few minutes. I think they are from Nagaland, lot of people from northeastern states in this town. Five school boys get into the bus, maybe 13-14 years of age. They start teasing the young Naga couple. They are laughing at them, saying something in Tamil, asking for their tickets. How annoying!  I want to scream at those kids. I can’t stop myself. “Leave them alone” I finally tell them in Tamil. They laugh at me. They know from my accent that I am not a ‘native’ Tamil speaker. Suddenly I become subject of their derision, they start laughing at me.  The bus is starting, the boys are getting off. The Naga couple look different, a bit vulnerable in this crowd, easy targets for the bigots. It starts so young.”

Sriperumbadur bus stand, Field diary, 10/8/2013


These are jottings from the margins of my field diary that did not make it to the pages of my PhD dissertation manuscript. We often do not pay much attention to these and cast them as asides in the corners of our diaries. Reading through the margins of my field diary, I came across many such short hurriedly scribbled notes that I wondered why I had written those in the first place? Were they in any way reflecting the process or phase of my field research at that moment? What is the link, if any, between those jottings and my research? As Cindi Katz had noted, these bits in the margins keeps a researcher “afloat” in the field – “I secreted my crankiness, recorded my amusements and amazements, and kept myself afloat…it was private, reflective, and therapeutic” (2013:1). Katz used to keep a comic book journal while doing her fieldwork in rural Sudan.

I have chosen the above two ‘jottings’ randomly to illustrate the nature of these observations. Reflecting upon them, I think there is a methodological link. The writings on the margins often tend to capture situations at a very gut level. Take for instance, the first jotting, where I have written about waiting. This was a phase of my fieldwork when I was meeting young migrant women who worked in factories outside the city of Chennai in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. My anxiety levels were high, I was searching for co-researchers. The women worked in three shifts, traveled long distances, had only one day off per week – their daily rhythms were very different from mine. I was trying to negotiate many practicalities of doing the fieldwork, including time, interests, gate-keepers, places to meet and my own childcare responsibilities. The only thing I could do at that moment was to wait – often by the phone, at a tea stall or a bus stop or a market place or someone’s house – keeping my chin up was not always easy. It was all part of the research process.

Thinking back on the second jotting, it reflects the general politics of  othering in urban places in India – towards migrant workers or people who look or dress differently (Reena, 2020). Sriperumbadur town, where I witnessed this incident, is burgeoning with migrant workers from eastern, north-eastern Indian states, and different districts of Tamil Nadu. Young women and men stay in rented rooms in the small towns or surrounding villages and work in the factories, beauty parlors and local restaurants.  The ‘encounter’ that I witnessed in the bus that day is part of the everyday othering process experienced by workers, especially young women who come for work in the urban centers or industrial towns. Their very visible presence in public places – streets, buses, market places, creates a sense of moral anxiety in the public psyche of a socially hierarchical patriarchal society like India.

Therefore ‘notes from the margins’ are not insignificant, they reflect the researcher’s sub-conscious observations and ‘feelings’ of a place or how she/he sees a place or people, which can help in situating the research.

One of the things that I also did during waiting or travelling (often over 100 kilometers a day, changing buses, trains and walking) was to take photographs, some of them randomly, some purposefully, capturing the mundane everyday human activities in different places. Since my research revolved around work and working lives, the field seemed vast to me, “geography [of work] was everywhere” (Cook, 2005:169). It didn’t begin or end at the factory gate, but extended to the tea stalls, verandas or roadsides where I observed people doing all sorts of work for livelihood. In a blog post later, I wrote a photo-essay based on these images connecting lives and places.[1]  As Karin Becker Ohrn had noted photo essays “illustrate relationships among diverse people, places, or events”. These images, jottings, random conversations helped me in situating the larger contexts in which the lives and labor of women are located—a key inquiry of my research.

Madhumita Dutta

Assistant Professor

Department of Geography, The Ohio State University



[1]  ‘The everyday’: A photo-essay from the ‘field’ (accessed 6/23/2020)