Working solo

Just Describe

By Anitra Nottingham


If you want to improve the place where you conduct your research, it pays to fully understand and document the current setting. This recipe works on the idea that the act of writing is a ‘lab tool’ of qualitative social research, and is a practice capable of generating data (Law, 2004), in the same way that a microscope produces data by enabling us to observe realities invisible to the naked eye. Here writing generates a narrative-style description of the field which is then used as data and subjected to analysis.

This dish is the fortuitous result of mixing a lack of human participants, a deadline, and a dash of panic. It springs from theories of the socio-material, in particular actor-network theory (ANT).   It is based on the idea that objects can be made to ‘speak’ – to tell us something of what they may contribute to the social – if we describe them well enough (Latour, 2005).



  • Research space (physical or virtual)
  • One willing volunteer to walk around with a recording device in any remote physical spaces the researcher cannot visit in person
  • Internet access to any virtual spaces, and for sharing data if needed
  • Devices to capture photographic and video documentary data, including smartphones, cameras and screen recording software
  • Something to write on and with


  1. To make this method work you must ditch any ideas that the humans you see in the space are the most important component of the social. You must become open to all the material things you see, no matter how mundane and seemingly unimportant. For example, the first time this recipe was used, writing about the means by which notices were taped to a wall over some office waste bins or trashcans revealed important insights into the people who worked in the space. Just because you are open to the non-human things in the field doesn’t mean that humans shouldn’t be described. What are they doing? What are they saying? What messages do you read in their face or body posture?
  2. Firstly gather your documentary evidence:

o   If a space is virtual, take screen snapshots and/or use screen-based video capture to record yourself using the site(s).

o   Walk around any physical spaces and record as you walk. Hold the camera at eye level. Try not to interfere with anyone in the space as you do so. Record the human and the non-human things equally. Take your time so that you get as much information as possible.

  1. Watch the recordings over and over and study any screen snapshots. Get your writing tool and start writing about each space in turn. Start by describing where you are and how you arrived there.
  2. It helps to write in the form the recordings take, which is as a walk around. As you ‘walk around’ with your writing describe everything that you see and whatever activity occurs in the space in the order you observe it.
  3. ‘Just describe’ (Latour, 2005) means just that. Try not to decide what is important or significant, try not to conduct analysis; just do your best to describe everything you see and hear. You may find it surprisingly difficult. This is because writing a good description is hard work and can take a lot of time. You may end up with a LOT of data (in the form of words), which you may not end up using once the analysis is complete. For instance: look at colours, what’s on the walls, the materials used, the quality of the light, how many people are around, what they are doing, and so on. If you can smell, hear, or touch anything, describe that too. If anything moves, describe how it moves. Don’t leave out your reaction to the space, describe how it makes you feel.
  4. Your writing style should be the best you can manage. Write in full sentences and structure the narrative so that it’s easy and engaging to read. A reader should be able to picture the space easily in their mind’s eye.
  5. Once you have your written descriptions, which might be very long, subject them to analysis depending on what you are seeking to study about a space.
  6. It helps to gather literature on whatever it is you wish to study, and to use this to help you analyse how the space might be working.


This recipe is not for the faint-hearted or those who are unprepared to defend their study methods. Writing as a means of generating data may be discounted by others as ‘non-empirical’ as it seems to come only from the researcher’s viewpoint.

It must be acknowledged that those researchers who privilege the human in their research may initially find this a disconcerting and strange combination. However, those with an open-minded and adventurous approach to research practices will be well rewarded.

BITE: Recipes for Remarkable Research is available in paperback, hardback and as Open Access from:

Sense Publishers: Paperback | Hardcover | Free Open Access
Amazon: Paperback | Hardcover
Barnes & Noble: Paperback | Hardcover

About BITE | Contribute


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s