Doing Nightlife Fieldwork II: Going Out

Mutek, Montréal, 2008

Luckily, I managed to find a bit of time today to write this second part to this series, so I won’t be saddled with guilt about making promises to write more on my blog and then not fulfilling them. Yay productivity! So, to review: yesterday I wrote “Doing Nightlife Fieldwork,” which claimed that there wasn’t enough helpful writing out there on how to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in nightlife scenes. It’s a problem, I think, that we don’t at least have a shared idea of what “best practices” would look like; this is an important ethical and institutional issue for EDM studies, for sure. I listed a few ways that nightlife settings throw a wrench in conventional ethnographic methods and invited other folks to write in the comments and/or write response-posts on their own blogs. The comments have already been great, and there’s talk of a few of my EDM-scholars-with-blogs buddies preparing their own posts. Today, I’m going to focus on one of the main elements of music ethnography: attending music events and engaging in participant-observation. I’ll describe how I do this in my own research, and then I’ll follow it with a short list of tips and notes that are more general and hopefully useful to other ethnographers reading this. I’m admittedly far from the most experienced ethnographer out there, but I’m hoping this will be of some use to younger scholars and also encourage more experienced ones to share their knowledge, too.

Going Out (a.k.a., Doing Participant-Observation)

Participant-observation is exactly what it sounds like: you take part in a cultural activity, and—over time—you learn things about that activity that you wouldn’t have discovered just by watching from a distance. There’s a lot more to it, of course: you also build social connections into the community, prompt pedagogical interactions where experts explain a lot of the “unwritten rules,” and develop an expertise in that activity that makes you more credible when you talk about it to other people outside the community (e.g., other scholars). Even more importantly, ongoing participant-observation creates a sort of “archive of experience,” from which you will draw to gain a more intuitive understanding of how things work, what’s appropriate, what things mean, etc. For decades now, participant-observation has been preferred over pure observation as a means of studying musical practices—or any practice, really; this is especially true in anthropology, but also in certain branches of sociology (one of the earliest being the Chicago School of Sociology).

The thing that most influences my approach to doing participant-observation at EDM events is this golden rule: don’t mess with the vibe. I know, I know, “vibe” is woefully vague and it sounds like I’m just advising everyone to “act cool,” but hear me out. A lot of the social interactions and gestures and performances in nightlife scenes are actually pretty fragile. I really noticed this when I was doing my dissertation fieldwork, which was focused on stranger-intimacy (in retrospect: WHY did I pick such a hard topic?).  A whole lot of factors need to be in the right place in order for someone to reach out or open up to a stranger…and me whipping out a notepad or videocamera isn’t going going to help. If people don’t feel comfortable, they’re not going to act as they usually do; and if you’re violating norms of etiquette/privacy/personal space, people won’t feel comfortable. There’s a flow to every social gathering—and music definitely plays an important role in how it flows—and a good ethnographer knows how to follow that flow without interrupting it. Mostly, this involves learning what’s socially appropriate in a particular scene or community and respecting those customs and habits. In some scenes, this might mean being talkative and tactile and physically expressive in your dancing; in other scenes, this might mean being reserved, avoiding physical contact, and showing quiet respect for the performer. Part of your job is to figure out what’s going to work.

Oh, and don’t forget that people are here to have fun (see #4 from yesterday’s post), and—as far as I’m concerned—getting in the way of others’ fun is a genuine ethical problem when you’re working in their places of leisure.

In any case, here’s how I do things. In short, I do a lot of “memory work”—that is, when I am at an EDM event of some sort, I focus on being there and interacting with the music and the people and everything around me. Then, when I get home (or immediately when I wake up the next morning), I perform a sort of “brain dump” of everything I’ve seen and experienced. In the day or two after the event, I come back and turn these point-form notes into a smoother narrative, filling in as many details as I can. During my dissertation research, I actually made use of a public blog, LuisInParis (click on the “Partying” label for some examples), as a way to store short-hand fieldnotes while also communicating some of my work to a wider public. I “sanitized” the fieldnotes first and removed any personal names or identifying details, and then I posted them in short narrative form. Then, when it came time to write my thesis, I was able to go back to these notes and already have an archive of ethnographic narratives ready to use.

My approach partially has to do with the particular focus of my dissertation on stranger-intimacy: I needed to remain open to interactions between strangers (including me), and activities like note-taking and video-recording only served to pull me out of the flow of things and alienate me from those sharing the dancefloor. In any case, you’re not allowed to take photographs or audio/video recordings at most nightclubs and bars where EDM events take place—and even where it’s not explicitly banned, there’s often a collective distaste for it. As far as I’m concerned, this is a blessing in disguise, since this allows me to put down the camera and actually go meet people, interact with them, pay attention to the music, and so on. As a discipline, ethnomusicology is still very attached to the idea of the archival recording as “evidence,” but that shouldn’t let you impoverish your archive of experience.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that I totally avoid any form of note-taking, but I do my best to ensure that that it’s 1) as discreet as possible, and 2) as brief as possible. A musical event is something that happens in real time, and any time spent scribbling or recording is time lost from noticing what’s happening around you. Smart-phones have been a real help in this regard, actually. Most of them have some sort of note-taking function, and typing notes into that application looks very similar to sending an SMS message or checking your e-mail. Before the time of easily-available smart phones, I would type out short SMS messages to myself and then save them to the “drafts” folder to write out later. Also, if I see a lot of other people taking pictures of the event, I will sometimes take out my own camera and get a shot of the place; if I do, I make sure to avoid framing anybody’s face in the picture. Instead, I usually try to get a “wide” shot of the whole crowd or the space. Same thing with short clips of video, especially when something musically amazing is happening.

In summary, most of my methodology for “going out” is built around a concern for not letting the observation of the event get in the way of the event itself. I’ll admit that this is my own particular way of doing things, and I know that it’s rather different from how other nightlife-ethnographers do it, but this is why I’m trying to get other scholars to talk about it and exchange ideas.

Tips & Notes

  • Noticing: It seems odd to say this, but noticing things is a skill that can be improved and sharpened. The next time you’re out at a music event of some sort, try to notice all the details around you, and then try to sustain that level of attention all night. It’s not easy.
  • Training for Memory Work: your recall of the past night’s events will get better with practice. Don’t be discouraged if your first attempts at post-party field notes are a bit bare. When I was doing it about once a week in Paris, it still took about 3 months before I developed enough capacity to recall entire conversations.
  • Memory Decay: Although practice helps with detail, I’ve noticed that those details are very volatile. Within 2 or 3 days, you’ll forget most of those fascinating little gestures, facial expressions, overheard comments, recognized tracks/songs, and so on. Write it down ASAP!
  • “Found” footage: in some scenes and at certain kinds of events, other people will sometimes take video or photos and post them somewhere where you can find them (e.g., Flickr, YouTube). These can be useful resources for your own research—although you should always consider whether the original footage/images were taken ethically and ask for permission if you’re going to reproduce them in your own published work.

Up Next: Doing Nightlife Fieldwork III: Interviewing


  1. Ah! One more thing: it’s becoming more and more common for DJs to record their own sets at performances and then post them on Soundcloud or some other music-hosting site. This is also a great way to go back and find the soundtrack to the event you attended without having to record it yourself and look like a tool / miss out on the social aspects.

  2. Hello LMGM, thanks for this interesting introduction.
    It made me think about this question : when you are doing fieldwork, do you reach party events alone? I think it has something to do with your focus, “stranger intimacy”. I’ve been experiencing both cases : going to one event alone and without knowing anyone from the place before, and going there with one or several party companions. I found that this data could strongly influence the kind of relations you get once at the party.

    1. Salut Zalid! I often go to events alone (and, at the beginning of fieldwork in any location, I’m usually always going out alone), but as my contact-network grows, I increasingly see people at these events that I already know, which also creates opportunity for not just stranger-intimacy but friend-intimacy, acquaintance-intimacy, and also friend-of-a-friend-intimacy. Just last weekend here in Berlin, someone recognized me as a friend of her ex-boyfriend and approached me while we were waiting for the toilets; within a couple of hours, we were talking about many very personal things and being very tactile and so on. In any case, it’s difficult to be truly alone in these in EDM situations—maybe just un-contacted or not-yet-connected.

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