The Ins and Outs of Field Notes

Writing ethnographic field notes

Field notes are an integral part of ethnographic observation, allowing you to retain detailed evidence of what you have observed in the field. Here we provide some tips for taking ethnographic field notes.

Shubert Ciencia, Flickr

  1. What are field notes?
  2. Taking notes: Methods and Strategies
  3. Negotiating your role as participant, observer and note taker
  4. Making descriptive accounts

What are field notes?

Field notes are descriptive accounts of events and situations that you have observed during fieldwork. However, in order for field notes to be descriptive, they do not merely need to be a written version of reality, your experiences “put into words”. Every ethnographer will observe things differently, emphasising certain observations (such as object placing, people’s appearances) and de-emphasising others, depending on what the note taker notices or views as worth noting down.

There is no “correct” way to take notes, and this means that different interpretations of the same event may occur depending on the observer – this is not to be avoided but to be acknowledged as a part of self-reflection (which will be discussed later). Field notes therefore are not just lists of “facts”, they are in themselves part of the interpretation process. Geertz explains the process of turning events into written record as a transformation:

 “The ethnographer ‘inscribes’ social discourse; he writes it down. In doing so, he turns it from a passing event, which exists only in its own moment of occurrence, into an account, which can exists in its inscription and can be reconsulted”

(Geertz, 1973: 19).

As field note taking occurs as a part of continuous observation, they may change in terms of their focus. As you start to take interest in certain features, or start to recognise what participants view as important, your field notes will reflect that interest. There is no predetermined set of criteria for writing field notes; it is guided by both you and your participants.

Notes might take the form of long prose, short bullet points, sentences written in short hand, diagrams or any other type of note you find useful. The purpose of field notes is to jog your memory when you are writing up what you have seen, so find the method which works best for you.

Taking notes: Methods and Strategies

As discussed, field notes are an integral part of the interpretation process – what and how you choose to describe things as they happen will affect the “findings” in your notes. Therefore, your personal methods should form an integral part of your note taking. It is important to document your own activities, emotional responses and circumstances as a part of note taking; this will affect the way you interpret and record your observations of others. For example, if you were studying a train station you might feel disorientated – this is important to record as part of the overall experience of visiting a train station, and might give you an insight into the ways commuters feel when using the station.

Understanding your own role in the observational process is very useful, as it helps you to avoid accepting one participant’s, or even your own viewpoint on occurrences as the “correct” version of events. Identifying differences or similarities in what you and your participants feel about an event is very useful to gaining a better understanding of the different viewpoints surrounding what happens. “What happened” is not a concrete fact, it is particular to the speaker, listener, time and place it is recounted. If you are able to link your methods and your findings, you will be much better equipped to recognise these situational realities of the people you are studying.

Ethnographers try to get as close as they can to their participants’ ways of life, to try and understand them. In order to make the most of that closeness, ethnographers should make detailed notes of situations and events (spatial arrangements, what people look like, how they interact with each other etc.). As mentioned, there can never be a definition of what is “enough detail”, as this varies by situation, and depending on the researcher’s personality, what they find interesting, and their disciplinary background.

However, detailed descriptions of interaction are a vital part of writing field notes. Making detailed descriptions of interactions helps you to be aware of the link between your methods and your findings. As an ethnographer, you discover by interacting with others, so it is important to observe and record the conditions and events which lead to such discoveries. Interactional detail also helps the ethnographer to interpret the processes behind what happens in the field.

Interactional details are best achieved when they are written down as soon as possible after they occur.

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Negotiating your role as participant, observer and note taker

Ethnographers ultimately produce some kind of written account of what they have seen, heard and experienced whilst in the field. However, the ways in which they do this can vary widely.

Some researchers focus on the participation element of their research. They try to focus on getting to know their participants intuitively and understanding how they tick. Field notes are postponed, perhaps minimised or avoided altogether until a later date, when they turn to the task of recording their experiences.

Others might view their participation as a means to note taking. They are concerned with “getting into place” in a situation in order to record them. Participation may therefore be specifically tailored to facilitate note taking. The ethnographer may even be constantly looking out for events which can be recorded later.

Both types of participation have advantages and disadvantages. The first allows the researcher to gain an immersive and in-depth knowledge of their participants. The second can lead to more detailed and closer-to-the-moment records of that life. Most researchers oscillate between the two.

Field notes may be written as events occur, or put off for hours or even days, when the ethnographer reconstructs events relying on memory. Often notes are made in a short-hand form as events unfold, to be filled out later when writing up into full notes. Field researchers make mental notes of what they are observing, sometimes making a brief record of them by jotting down key words and phrases. A few words written down will help jog your memory when typing up later. When learning a new language during fieldwork, it is important to jot down new words and phrases.

Where, how and when you write your field notes can have a real impact on the relationships with your participants. Jotting down notes in front of participants may lead them to distrust you, or believe you are only with them in order to discover their secrets. It is tempting to try and avoid this risk, by taking notes covertly, or trying to hide the fact you are conducting research. In general, you should always try to inform participants of your research, especially those with whom a personal relationship has been established. Openness makes these relationships more direct and honest, and avoids the risk of betrayal when participants realise you are conducting research.

How, when and where you take notes will change with time spent in the field and as relationships with participants change. Even after you have developed strong relationships with those you are working with, there may be times when taking notes in the setting is inappropriate or out-of-place. It is a significant moment in field relations when you take out your notepad, and researchers take different approaches to note taking. Be open and flexible, ready to change tact if your note taking negatively affects participants. As with language learning, in a new situation mistakes or difficulties are bound to happen – however, you are able to learn from them, and this should in no way discourage you from undertaking field research!

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Making descriptive accounts

When starting your field notes, you should first make note of your initial impressions of an environment. This may small with the senses – the tastes, smells and sounds of your environment, the look and feel of the place and people in it. Such impressions might include details about:

  • The physical setting, including size, space, noise, colours, equipment, and movement.
  • People in the setting, such as number, gender, race, appearance, dress, movement, behaviour.
  • The general atmosphere (formal, casual, uncomfortable, stressed…?).

You can then move on to key events and incidents. At first, you might have to rely on your own intuition to figure out what incidents are noteworthy. You might notice something which surprises you or seems out of the ordinary, paying close attention to the reasons why a certain event might seem unusual.

You might also use your personal reactions to determine whether events are worth writing down. If you react strongly to a certain event it might be an indicator that others feel the same way. To use personal reflections accurately, however, requires a lot of care and reflection. You do not what to assume the way you react to something is universal, and judge events only through your own opinions of them. However, neither do you want to manage your own emotions by omitting them from the observation process and trying to deny them. Your personal experiences are important in observation, and you can step back and view your experiences to become more sensitive to those around you. Are others reacting in a similar way to you? If so, how and when did they show this? Did it affect the way they acted after a particular event?

As an ethnographer, you are looking for the things which are meaningful for those you study. What do they stop and look at? What do they talk and gossip about? What types of things produce strong emotional reactions for them? (NB: please do not try and provoke strong emotional reactions for the purpose of research. This will not end well for you.) “Troubles” or “problems” that participants experience can provide insight into their concerns and feelings. Incidents should lead you as a researcher to jot down “who did what” and “how others reacted”, bearing in mind of course your own role as observer. A follow up strategy to difficult events is to talk to the people involved and those who witnessed the event about their impressions.

So, in summary, when note taking you are taking into account two different perspectives. Firstly, your own, especially at first when you are identifying significant characteristics through your own first impressions and personal reactions. However, as you participate in the new social world, you become more sensitive to the concerns and perspectives of participants. A sensitive ethnographer draws upon his/her own reactions to identify issues of possible importance to people in the setting but privileges their “insider” descriptions and categories over his/her own “outsider” views.

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This article was adapted from Robert Emerson, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, University of Chicago Press 1995.