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 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 2

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide

Part 2: How to Document

How to document:

Participant Observation

One of the best ways to understand the structures and functions of maritime traditions is to take part in the day-to-day activities of the community. The premise underlying participant- observation, as this approach is called, is that the researcher becomes a more effective observer by taking an active role in the performance of regular activities. In other words, knowledge gained through doing--by assisting a local cook with the preparation of seafood gumbo or by working as a deckhand on a shrimp boat--is of a higher quality than what is obtained only through observation. This approach also demonstrates to members of the community the researcher's commitment to the documentation of maritime heritage. In many cases, involvement with such ordinary chores as cleaning fish, culling oysters, or shoveling ice into a hold will not only enhance the researcher's understanding of the processes, techniques, and words associated with these activities, but will also result in better rapport with informants.

How does one arrange to be a participant observer in a maritime community? Usually, it is best not to broach the subject too early in a relationship. Once rapport has been established, many community members, having recognized the researcher's sincere interest in their lives and work, will spontaneously issue an invitation: "Well, if you really want to learn about oystering, the best way would be for you to come out in the boat with me." Others, many of whom assume that "everyone knows about these things," will have to be convinced that inviting the researcher to observe and participate in their work is a good idea. As with all initial contacts, the researcher should provide a clear explanation of why he or she is conducting research, what topics are being investigated, how information is being collected, and what will be done with the collected data.

In some cases, it may not be possible both to observe and to participate. This is especially likely with activities that require a high level of expertise or are conducted at a pace required to meet a production schedule. For example, professional boat builders are seldom interested in taking the time required to teach their multiple skills to a novice because they usually cannot afford to interrupt their work schedules. Consequently, unless the researcher already possesses the skills necessary to be hired by a boat builder, or can place an order for a boat and convince the builder that he or she should be permitted to help build it, probably the best one can hope for is to be allowed to observe boatbuilding activities and, when time permits, to interview the builder. There are, however, a number of activities common to maritime communities that the researcher can try without a great deal of difficulty. These include tasks that are basically simple and repetitive, such as cooking, mending nets, sorting fish, filling bait bags, and poling a boat.

Although it is sometimes necessary to formally request permission to be a participant-observer, as in the case of filleting fish at a fish plant, in most instances opportunities to try one's hand at an activity arise naturally. The researcher who has gone along on a fishing trip mainly to observe activities and take photographs may, for example, see a chance to help the crew sort fish. Researchers should always be on the look-out for such opportunities. However, one should never be pushy about participating: wait for a direct offer or obtain permission first.

Inshore fishing activities are among those best suited for participant-observation. After obtaining permission from an experienced fisherman to go along on a fishing trip, it is important to determine the time of departure, destination, and approximate time of return. The researcher should find out what personal gear and supplies should be obtained, including special clothing such as gloves, rubber boots, and foulweather gear; a life preserver; tools; and food. Since in some areas all persons engaged in commercial fishing must be properly licensed, ask whether a license or permission from an official is required. Before the trip, it is also a good idea to go aboard the boat and check out the arrangement of space and the availability of running water, cooking equipment, and restroom facilities. Since boats, especially small inshore craft, are sometimes not outfitted with "heads" (restrooms), this is a detail that many researchers (especially female researchers) will not want to overlook.

In most cases a notebook, pencils, camera, and film are the best equipment for the documentation of fishing. Because these items may be exposed to the elements, it is advisable to keep them in a plastic bag, rucksack, or other waterproof container. Bring along several pens and pencils, plenty of film in a variety of speeds, lens-cleaning fluid and tissue, and a spare battery for the camera. Also bring along a couple of rubber bands to keep the pages of the field notebook from blowing around if the wind comes up. Tape recording interviews on a boat may be hindered by the noise created by the vessel's engines.1 Furthermore, it may not be possible for the fishermen to take time from their normal activities to participate in an interview. However, some types of fishing trips, especially those which are characterized by long periods of slack time, can be conducive to tape recording. The feasibility of making sound recordings should be determined before the trip. If the decision is made to bring recording equipment, be sure to carry along enough fresh batteries.

Before leaving on the fishing trip, write down a list of topics to be investigated on board the boat. These might include:

  • names and uses of boat spaces and gear
  • sequence of fishing operations
  • information needed to locate fishing areas
  • roles of crewmen
  • ages and working experience of crewmen
  • family ties between crewmen
  • names fishermen use for birds, fish, landmarks, and fishing grounds
  • approximate times of fishing operations, rest periods, and meals
  • jokes, stories, and other narratives
  • beliefs
  • customs
  • communication with fishermen on other boats
  • navigational techniques, including the use of landmarks

While aboard a fishing boat, researchers should be honest about the amount of experience they have had with fishing. There is no point in pretending to be experienced. In fact, if the researcher is recognized as a novice, fishermen will often go out of their way to explain the basic details--the how and the why--of their activities; such details would not be articulated under normal circumstances.

Moreover, because fishing can be hazardous, even for the most experienced fisherman, be sure to ask the crewmen to identify the safest places to stand during fishing operations. Although fishermen will probably be content to let the researcher stand back and observe their work, write notes, and take photographs, it is worthwhile to volunteer to help with some aspect of the work. If the offer is accepted, assistance will lighten fishermen's work load, and also give them cause to view the researcher as a "good sport" and a person "not too proud to get his hands dirty."

In order to understand the meaning of the activities taking place on the boat, "begin very generally and let the patterns of movement, smells, noises and colors suggest their own structure to you."2 Throughout the fishing trip try to determine the flow of work. How are decisions reached about when and where to fish? What is the regular sequence of activities involved with setting and retrieving gear? What are the specific responsibilities of each crewman? How is information communicated between crewmen? When do periods of intense activity occur? When are the slack times? Because most types of fishing involve the repetition of a particular sequence of actions, it is likely that the researcher will have several opportunities to observe the performance of the "core technique" characteristic of the fishery.

If time permits, it is instructive to make more than one trip on the same boat in order to verify observations made on the first trip. Additional trips can also be made to study how changes in gear, weather, time of year, and depth of water influence fishing.


1. Of course, in order to achieve the goals of some projects, it may be desirable to tape record the sounds of engines, deck machinery, marine radios, waves, and other sources of ambient noise.

2. Robert H. Byington, "Strategies for Collecting Occupational Folklife in Contemporary Urban/Industrial Contexts," in Working Americans: Contemporary Approaches to Occupational Folklife, Robert H. Byington, ed. Smithsonian Folklife Studies, no. 3 (Los Angeles: California Folklore Society, 1978), 51.


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   May 15, 2015
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