To illustrate this, let’s return to the Kugel Ball.
The video data referred to in the previous section allowed
us to understand that:
1) Two girls were turning the ball around, one distractedly,
the other with obvious enjoyment. The second girl said she
thought it was like ‘a big planet’;
2) On later elicitation in a focus group, we found out that
what they remember about the Ball is not its planet-like
quality, but their use of it as a ‘wishing ball’.
Both of these understandings give us an insight into how
children are interacting with the exhibits. They don’t,
however, tell us much about the exhibit itself. In particular,
what is the point of this exhibit? Is it intended to demonstrate
the principles of curvature? Revolvability? How water adheres
to surfaces? The visual and aural information alone is not
enough. This is because the important signifying element in
the exhibit is weight; the ball cannot be understood unless
one has actually noted its wetness, felt its extreme weight
and contrasted this with its ability to move even when barely
touched. Only then can one appreciate the didactic point of
the exhibit as outlined in the accompanying label –
to demonstrate the extreme forces generated by the bed of
pressurised water upon which it is sitting.
Now look at an extract from the fieldnote that describes
the Kugel ball:
Researcher: "By the side of each exhibit are written
instructions, showing you how to activate the machine. When
you do, things happen. For example, at the back of the hall
is a huge granite ball, glistening with water, sitting on
a plinth. It is obviously massively heavy. But, amazingly,
when you touch it, it revolves around. You read the instructions,
and find out that it is not sitting directly on the plinth
at all, but on a thin bed of water under intense pressure.
All around you are the sounds of children shouting, adults
talking and there is movement everywhere."
The fieldnote does not mention many of the elements that
a photograph or the video footage would effortlessly capture:
the colour of the ball, for example, or its position in relation
to other exhibits around it. Writing employs primarily one
mode, verbal language (in fact, writing employs other modes
too in its graphical dimensions – such as print colour,
directionality, size, etc.), but this mode is a particularly
communicatively rich one in that it allows other modes to
be described in their absence. So, in using language:
1) the modes of weight, sound, shapes, textures as well
as actions and movement can easily be conveyed through linguistic
2) subjects can be contextualised
more fully – so the written fieldnotes describe the
Kugel ball in relation to the field of action in which it
is located. Visual images provide context, too (through
representing the space within which subjects are located),
but this context is restricted to one perspective –
that provided by the camera’s position. Though the
camera gaze appears to be neutral, it is obviously providing
only one view: the one at which it is pointing. By contrast,
the writing jumps back and forth between 'views', affording
an impression of both movement and engaged interaction.
3) The subjective experience of the observer can arguably
be conveyed less ambiguously: the fieldnote affords a particular
perspective - the perspective of a narrator who is 'in'
the scene being described selecting out particular elements
for our attention (Of course, much depends on the camera
style used: handheld cameras that get close to the action
can also convey a sense of subjective positioning). It can
also present the writer’s evaluation of the scene
and description of emotional responses ('amazingly', 'excitedly').
For all these reasons, we suggest that image-based data cannot
stand alone. They have to be carefully logged and supplemented
with written records, which can capture meaningful elements
not easily represented through audio-visual means.
Equally, however, there is no doubt that the provision of
sound and image-based records enhances the available modes
and allows all kinds of spatially and temporally organised
data to be effortlessly depicted rather than having to be
described in writing (or, more often, simply excluded from
the records). The later re-user who has access to datasets
that contain both written, sound and image-based records has
a much more extensive and detailed informational resource
than datasets comprising purely transcripts/fieldnotes provide.