iPod as fieldwork device

It seems like we have to revisit the ‘what technology should I bring to the field’ discussion every six months since technology keeps on changing, and while I don’t want to be a shill for Apple, I have to admit that I am intrigued in the possibilities of using the new iPod Nano in the field. For US$150 the device offers 8 gigs of storage, and audio and video recording. At this price with even a most fieldwork grant you could get take four or five to the field, use some of them as hard drives to back up your data, use some to record things, and still have backups if those broke. I haven’t seen the new iPods in action and can’t speak to the quality of their recording — I am sure that for people who really want to record audio or video they will be inadequate. But for people who want a solution for just capturing everyday life, taking pictures, and making ‘home movies’ (always good to give to your hosts) mightn’t it provide a cheap and ubiquitous solution to some very basic fieldwork recordings? They’re also the kinds of things you can give to people when you leave as well. I think they might fill an interesting niche in the technology ecosystem all anthros drag into the field.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

14 thoughts on “iPod as fieldwork device

  1. I used an iPod with an attachable Belkin mic for interview-based fieldwork a couple of years back and found the quality to be quite good. Conversations in loud bars where it was almost impossible to hear anything came out clearly as long as the iPod was positioned correctly. Don’t know about the recorder quality of the new Nano but if it is similar to what I had it will be more than adequate for fieldwork.

  2. I’ve been using an iPod video with Griffin and Belkin microphones for a couple of years now. Awesome sound quality (MUCH better than Olympus recorders) and ridiculously easy to transfer to the computer. The only issue was the mic picking up hard disk noise, which should not be a problem with the Nano’s flash drive. Highly recommended. I’ll post samples when I get the chance…

  3. Great post, I’ve been using my mobile phone as a one stop data gathering device for the last few years. It has a 5 megapixel camera, a built in mic and removable memory cards for storage.
    And another advantage is that it has allowed me to take field notes in siuations where a pen and paper would invoke hostility (a neo-nazi festival in Romania). So instead of whipping out a notebook, just write your notes as memos or text messages and then flesh out the details when you have some free time later.

  4. Years ago, when the first ipods were coming out, before they became ubiquitous, I thought I would use mine to record interviews with my informants. One of my informants was in indigenous person and the assistant curator of a large museum. When I took out the device he bristled. His demeanor completely changed. I couldn’t figure out what had gone so horribly wrong.

    I later discovered that he was a musician and lyricist who had penned some of the songs on my ipod. Apparently assumed all mp3s were stolen off the internet and my ipod was robbing him of royalties (which was not the case at all as I had purchased 2 copies of the CD).

    A year or two later I tried to record another interview with my ipod. The informant, a minister for a congregation of indigenous peoples in central Taiwan, looked at me like I was insane for recording our interview on a “music player”. He couldn’t take me seriously with an ipod.

  5. I recorded a series of interviews with my 3 year old i-river e10. I did not use an external microphone, but the audio quality was still great, even in noisy cafes. I have even been able to use the recordings to find out words that I misheard in the original interview due to the background noise. Being a different brand meant that it did not look like an i-pod.

    In some situations it was also helpful to be using what appeared to be a second rate, and somewhat improvised, recording device. Many of the interview participants seemed to be more more agreeable to being recorded in what they appeared to interpret as a ‘less formal’ way. Of course I imagine that such reactions would be very context specific.

  6. I have very negative feelings about the use of iPod, since I have twice lost important field data when the iPod I was using to record and store it failed. A Pogo recorder (similar to iRiver) also failed, thankfully before I had recorded anything vital on it. These were, however, hard-drive based recorders, not the flash drive used in the nano. I have been very happy with my Tascam flash recorder, which has better sound quality, no hard-drive noise, and no crashes (so far; knock on wood).

  7. But for people who want a solution for just capturing everyday life, taking pictures…
    It’s worth noting that the new nano won’t take still pictures, only video (apparently it’s too thin to house a camera with high enough resolution for acceptable stills).

  8. But for people who want a solution for just capturing everyday life, taking pictures…
    It’s worth noting that the new nano won’t take still pictures, only video – apparently it’s too small to fit a camera module with acceptable resolution for stills.

  9. We anthropologists must be cognizant of power structures in our research material, but it seems that few of us ever stop to think about the power structures in the tools and technologies we use. While it is true that an iPod is a convenient tool, it is part of a group of technology which function to remove control from their users. Beyond the issues of DRM that might be on files, an issue I’m sure most are familiar with, iPods are designed in a way that prevents many legitimate uses of the hardware. Apple has even designed them such that the location of the firmware (the code which operates the hardware) is hidden and encrypted so that uses can’t install their own firmware on it.
    In the technology world, the idea that “If you can’t open it you don’t own it” has become pervasive, but these ideals seem to be slow to permeate the rest of society. So, if you want to use an iPod for research, ask yourself how you feel about the lack of control you have over the device you are using. I’m not going to claim that using an iPod, despite its problems, is wrong in any way, but I will make the statement that one should think about the power relationship you enter into when choosing such a device.

  10. Zachary, relax. I suspect that most of the people here are more interested in doing anthropology than hacking their equipment. Simple and reliable are the only two relevant issues.

  11. My bust. Make that three relevant issues: Simple, reliable, and data exportable in standard, universal formats. It’s a bummer when every time software or media change, moving the data becomes a pain.

  12. @John
    It isn’t a matter of relaxing or not. I am simply stating that anthropologists should examine the power structures in the devices we use. Now, if you do so and find that iPods are acceptable for use, great, but we should be aware of these issues.

  13. And when you discover that every device, including a pencil and a notebook that you might choose is, “Gasp!” linked to global capital, what will you do then? Practice Matteo Ricci’s Memory Palace and look for improv cafés to present your work?

    Better remember that Ricci was a Jesuit…Damn, it’s that “power structures” thing again!….

    Yes, I am being sarcastic. Nothing personal. When phrases like “examine power structures” become pretentious clichés, they have to be deflated.

  14. To defend what (I understand) Zachary is saying, buying a pencil and notebook is like buying a CD while buying an iPod is like buying an album on iTunes.

    Does Professor Kelty care to chime in?

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