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OSEA Guidelines on Research Equipment & Supplies

To conduct ethnographic research you will need to make a financial commitment for equipment and supplies. Click here for quick checklist of items. See below for detailed discussion of items.

1. Cell phones
2. Photographic and/Digital still image camera
3. Audiocassette recorder, either or both of traditional analog and digital audio recorder
4. Digital videocamcorder
5. Microphones, optional
6. Personal laptop, to upload digital images and recordings as well as to use for text processing.
7. Research Supplies
8. Small waterproof bags for batteries, mike, recorders, cameras that can be attached to belt.
9. Required Software. SIL Fieldworks and ACDSee Photo Manager 2009

Revised and Updated, April 5, 2009; Feb 27, 2010.

1. Cell Phones
  • You should plan on having two cell phones. A Mexican cell phone and your US cell phone.
  • Your US cell phone is for international communications on an emergency basis. Check your service provider for rates and packages.
  • Your Mexican phone is for regular, everyday use while in the program. It is strongly recommended that you purchase an old unlocked phone that you like, which could cost as little as $20 plus shipping -- search for your favorite old school nokia, lg, motorola, samsung, etc. on Ebay. Once in Mexico you would then buy a cell simm chip to use on this phone. This would a prepaid calling card basis.
  • You have 2-3 options for this service, including Amigo Telcel and Moviestar; the former partners with ATT and the latter has service partners in Guatemala among other places.
  • CALLING CARDS for USA calls. These are no longer as easy to use or as cheap as they once were, given the transformations of cellular technology and their pricing. Internet telephony is cheaper and easier to find. See telephony section in osea travel resources.
  • 2. Still Image equipment. It is required to bring a camera.
    Your aim and shot camera is not good enough for ethnographic research. Its fun for the beach and facebook and just other low quality presentations. However, you should seriously consider buying a Digital SLR-style camera if not a digital SLR per se. Alternatively, you can use a Photographic Film Camera, if you are also prepared to spend the money on development and the time to scan images for archiving.
    SPECS: Your camera should have a minimum of 8 megapixels, capacity for high ISO 1600 or 3200 (used for night shots/low lighting). Get something with a minimum 10 or 12 optical zoom. Do not pay any attention to the rating of the digital zoom, you will not use it. Get two memory cards at least, each at 2 megs minimum. Get an extra set of batteries. If you buy Sony you need to buy an extra sony battery otherwise other brands use regular AAA batteries. Buy a recharger and a minimally two sets of 4 rechargable batteries. Batteries should be rated over 2400 mhz for digital photography. Ideally get batteries with 2500 or 2600 mhz.
    »» Most participants will choose to bring a digital camera for their basic documentation; film photographers need not bring or work with a digital camera, but must understand that project requirements entail sharing print or scanned copies of all documentary work.
    »» If you are buying or already have a digital camera, take a few days to explore ALL of its features before arriving to OSEA Program. Do several different kinds of shoots: Action, night, still of objects, portraits of persons, everyday street scenes. Figure out the limits and strengths of your camera. I found that my own (now old) digital camera to be very weak and impossibly SLOW for night action shooting - which is not good for when I wanted to do documentation of Mérida night life (people dancing, talking, walking, playing music, street theatre, doing things!). It was good to better for full daylight and panoramic shots. Try to get something that is versatile for your anticipated needs and type of research project.

    Download the ACDSee Guide to Digital Photography and Digital Cameras. Its dated to 2004, but still useful as a beginning point.

    3. Audio Recorder. Required of all participants.
    Digital Audio Recorders
    for fieldwork is now standard. Even a few years ago, I was still an advocate for analog tape recorders. At this point the technology seems to have developed for there to be an extensive range of high quality machines that serve the purpose of ethnography. Previously, these machines, while excellent in function did not have functions that facilitated ethnographic field research even though perhaps excellent for journalists, musicians, ethnomusicologists. The very best products for ethnographers will always be found among those companies that produce professional quality recording equipment, but the question is for what professions!! Consider Marantz makes professional high end recording devices for music & journalism. Sony has high and mid-range products for music, journalism, business as well as a low/mid range products for popular audiences. Olympus focuses on business users, lawyers, medical professionals, and the like with high end, expensive digital recorders although they do have a handful of lower, more popular and harder to find models. Panasonic and other manufacturers are devoted to the low end consumer who wants a small, light dictation recorder.

    Prices range from $30-100 for the low end, popular models. Due to the microphone quality avoid these.
    Prices range from $80-$300 for the mid range, quasi-professional to low end professional models
    High end professional products start at $300 and go up to $800.

    Recommendations and Comparisons
    My recommendation is to get a machine from Bestbuy for a walkin purchase for about $60-$85, say an Olympus. If you are very serious about ethnographic fieldwork and anticipate a future of substantial recording of interviews and music, then go for a Marantz or a Sony portable professional digital recorder for under $400. Check out "portable & field recorders" at http://pro-audio.musiciansfriend.com

    1. Take a peek at this $1800 recorder for music from Sony to get a sense of "high" end!!!
    2. In contrast, very smart, portable, very reasonably priced Sony TASCAM DR-07 Portable Digital Recorder. You cannot go wrong with this at $150
    3. As for me, I have a Marantz PMD620 Digital Recorderwhich is has simplicity, 2 battery function, file folders, great recording quality, and very very light yet solid build.

    In terms of low to lowhigh products, there are a variety of such products that range in price from $40 to $300. Your investment in this piece of equipment is really an issue of your pocket book and your committment to ethnography. Ultimately, I still hesitate to recommend the digital recorder because there is no easy means of transcribing recordings in which there are more than one speaker and recordings from the field. Transcription software has progressed incredibly but it is still a highly inferior product that will not under 98% of ethnographic situations resolve the issue of how you get a transcription out of a recording. However, I have JUST discovered that someone has created the solution to this proble: a usb plug in pedal for transcribing from DVDs, media files, mp3s, etc. The pricing on these however are out of control, starting at $200 and going up to $600 -- dont buy one of these, in other words! This model seems to be good option.

    1. Digital audio recorders and DVRs (digital voice recorders) are good for: music recording; protected environment interviewing; one-on-one interviewing; ambient sound recording for multi-media production. The digital recording is not good for situations that are live on the street or multiple speakers if you are intending to transcribe. The recording will not be intelligible to software that transcribes--- too many different sounds and voices for the voice recognition to work. Thus interviews that are sustained with one person in audio-protected environment is viable. It is imperative that you spend a little bit extra to ensure that your microphone has sufficient quality to record in situations where there are unexpected background noises -- animals, children, traffic, loudspeakers, etc.
    2. Althougth the Sony DIGITAL VOICE RECORDER PRODUCT INFORMATION RESOURCE GUIDE that is available here dates to 2003, the information about what to look for in a DVR is still useful in understanding the various options available. Try this comparison of the top Olympus models
    3. You may consider getting an high quality external mic for either your digital or high end recorder. These range in the $100-300. Do not buy cheaper products. Your integrated mic is already superior to anything priced at under $100.
    4. When you go shopping, if you are interested in doing research, first go to the website of manufacturers --- Marantz, Sony, Olympus -- to find out about their products. Pricing on their sites however are exorbitant. Find the models you like and then find electronics retail stores where you can get prices that lop off $100-200. Ebay is also a good option to find a machine.

    Why spend $140 on Digital Audio Recorder and not $30?
    »» Check out the interface of the machines. Which do you like and feel is intuitive, easy to use?
    »» Is there an ON-OFF button? dont laugh, these switches seem to be the highest technology available since their presence boosts prices up $60 at least! If you dont buy one with an on-off button, you WILL end up spending your money on endlessly buying batteries!
    »» does the machine allow for a firewire-USB cable connection to your laptop? or does it require you to pull the memory chip and insert that into the laptop?
    »» does the microphone have STEREO, not mono-recording? is the mic built in or can it be removed? can you use a different plug-in mic? the key difference in quality of recording is the microphone. higher quality means: not built-in, stereo, option for plug-in. These features boosts the price over $100
    »» Does the recorder say it can work with Dragon Naturally Speaking Voice Recognition Software? If so this adds to the price, say $30-60. Note that this software can usually be bought through your university at student discounted rates for approx. $100-130. You need not buy the most expensive version of this software (for lawyers and doctors, priced at $800, $1600!). This software may be extremely useful for taking field notes but not for interviews and other kinds of ethnographic audio recordings since it only comprehends ONE voice.

    1. Technology is such that regardless of your needs, it should be available in walkman size or smaller.
    2. DO NOT BUY microcassette recorders made for dictation. These are not suitable for ethnographic research purposes nor fieldwork. Read comment below about notebooks regarding digital voice recorders (i.e., "digital dictation" machines for business)
    3. The basic walkman style audio cassette recorder. This basic field equipment. You can buy a $20-50 version as your basic recorder. Panasonic and Sony are the most common and good brands for this type of low end recorders. It is also recommended for the future, for your future as a field researcher, that you have one of these as a back up for any and all occasssions, even if you are primarily using other devices. The old style audio recorder is the best technology for in-situ field recording of interviews that involve one or more person. The higher the quality of the machine ($200-$300) the better; but these will also need a good, professional microphone.
    4. The cheaper product will have an integrated microphone and integrated speakers. The higher quality products will have external mic and a plug for external speaker/headphones. The price of the high end machines are actually mostly because of the quality of the microphone. Get a lapel mic.
    5. For the highend walkman style recorders buy Sony or Aiwa. Marantz is also good brand for music recording but does not come in walkman sized machines. These are all identified as professional recorders. When you talk with sales reps, find out for what kind of professional! (i.e., musician, journalist, etc.).
    6. For the low end products Panasonic, Sony, Aiwa, and other lesser brands are adequate. Make SURE that what you buy on the low end is a RECORDER and not just playback. Recorders are not an easy find at the stores, even before ipod. Try ebay for low end products, preference is new, but used is okay as well. For the high end, only go with new. To buy these you will need to go to a major electronics store that has diversified products.

    4. Video Camcorder.
    Required for video-documentary work according to participant focus, use Digital Tape or DVD.
    Please see the following discussion of tips on buying and using digital video

    5. Microphones
    Omni-directional, uni-directional, conference, or wireless microphones depending on participant's research focus and needs; these must be purchased separately if they are not provided with the audio or video recording equipment or if participant has special research needs.
    I have been told by a colleague that the recording functionality of Ipods can work effectively for well contained voice recordings where the sound environment is well controlled. However, given that not all recordings take place in ideal sound ambiance, this is not an ideal solution to recording equipment.

    6. Personal laptop computer, strongly encouraged.

  • OSEA is PC based. If you bring an apple, please ensure that you have means by which to share your data and files with PCs. You should have WIFI capability and sufficient storage space on your harddrive.
  • You are not required to bring a printer or scanner. Limited printer and printing is available from OSEA.
  • It is STRONGLY suggested however that you bring a USB flash drive of at least 2 gigs. Your laptop should have the ability to burn CDs and DVDs for sharing your final project and research materials with OSEA for permanent storage.
  • Storage disks, for digital cameras, vidcams, and audiorecorders. If you have disks larger than 2 gigs you need to make sure that you have the usb adapter to plug into any PC. These can be substitutes for flashdrives.
  • portble harddrive with a minimum of 40 gigs no need to go over 100 or 250 gigs. Make sure that this is PC Friendly! This is a $60-80 investment max for your storage and backup.
  • There will be two PC laptops for student use at OSEA Pisté Note these are not this year's models, however! They are functional for purposes of note-taking, uploading images, interviews, printing, writing/editing, and scanning.


    7. Research Supplies
    Participants need to bring their own supply of film, digital storage media, audio-cassettes, flash drives, back up hardrives, etc. It is recommended that you are also bring your own supply of your favorite pens or pencils and notebooks, although these can also be purchased on location.

    You will need to buy a set of notebooks, each with about 100-200 pages. Because you will carry these around with you all the time and be writing in them in awkward positions - standing on a street corner, kneeling beside a wall, sitting and swinging in a hammock-you need to figure out what you will find most comfortable and appropriate to use regarding size of paper, thickness, flexibility-durability and strength of the binding and covers. Alternatively you can complement your writing of notes with digital recording of voice notes. However this is not a good solution unless you have the ability to TRANSCRIBE these notes. Digital transcription equipment starts at $200.

    I have found that small (half letter size) hardcover notebooks to be the most sensible and worthwhile. The hardcover allows you support and lightness while providing something hard to write against. The covers are also good protection against the elements. These come in sizes ranging from 50,100, 200 sheets. You can also find these in soft cover.

    I suggest buying this in Mérida, because they will be less expensive. However the choice of cover might not suit your aesthetics! Because the production of paper products is totally geared toward the elementary and middle school consumer, your choices of cover will be limited to colorful flowers, Disney characters, ninja and hello kitty, batman, etc. Unfortunately, no Southpark covers are yet available… Sure, there will the hard to find simple plain color cover, but you have to do a little searching.

    Personally I find the full letter-sized notebooks typically used in classroom context to be unwieldy for ethnographic fieldwork and field notes. You will need to use a few notebooks for fieldwork. One for writing fieldnotes, one for jotting notes and one for a diary. The jotting notebook is to quickly record information in order keeps track of your hourly activities and all digital, film, audio, audiovisual documentation that you taking. The jotting notebook can also record other information as necessary. Because of this function, these jotting notebooks could be much smaller sized according to your own personal preferences.

    As an alternative to the jotting notebook, you may also consider the use of a personal digital voice recorder - or what used to be called dictation machines.

    8. Bags for Transporting Supplies and Equipment
    I find it cumbersome to use a backpack for all of my stuff. This may be a personal issue. However if you consider that you will need to have mobility and quick access to supplies, you should strongly consider using one or more of waterproof cases/bags for different equipment. A belt buddy/pouch is excellent for a variety of things: keys, wallet, cell, batteries, flashdrives, memory cards, etc. Waterproof Cell phone cases that can be strung onto a belt are also great options for batteries, memory cards, and the like. If you check out the bag accessories for cameras and GPS you will find a variety of things, some of which may suit your personality and expectations.
  • for More on this topic see "carrying supplies & equipment"

    9. Required Software. SIL Fieldworks and ACDSee Photo Manager 2009
    OSEA requires you to have two software program on your computer. These are loaded on the OSEA laptops. One is free-- the SIL Fieldworks. The other has a $30 pricetag from the vender. You are likely able to find a good student discounted price from your home university.

    Starting in 2009, OSEA will also be using the SIL FieldWorks software to write notes directly in a word processing file on a computer. Once on site, we will have a session devoted to learning how to use this software. In the meantime, please visit the SIL FieldWorks site to download the software. If you have the chance to play around with it before arriving on the start date of the OSEA Program, that will be very helpful.


    The ACDSee Photo Manager 2009 is the top of the line, most versatile and effective system of digital photographic management. You will need to use this to quickly and very effectively create the meta-data or fieldnotes on all your pictures not one at a time but in batchs. There are other alternatives, but our recommendation is with ACDSee. Other programs such as Adobe Lightroom require you to import your images into the lightroom software and thus make it very difficult to back up, copy and to access outside of this software. Picaso and similar simply do not have the power/capacity to do what is necessary. This software is normally priced at $50, and in Feb2010 is on sale.

  • Visit www.acdsee.com
  • Given that there is an upgrade coming, this sale price is likely to continue for some time before the replacement knocks the 2009 off the market. If so, try www.download.com for earlier versions.