Professional people-watching requires extensive note-taking. Ethnographers use their fieldnotes to keep track of everything as they conduct their research. They are writers first and foremost. Learning to write useful fieldnotes, to keep good research notes, is an essential skill for environmental and ecological anthropologists.
It is evident from my review of the initial Field Notes assignment I gave to my methods students this spring, that I did not do a good job instructing them about why keeping notes on their learning and research was important OR how to keep good notes. To be honest, initially I wasn’t sure what I should tell them to include given that every ethnographer seems to have their own time-tested method. I did say they should provide a date/time/location, that notes were a place to record observations and reflections, and that you could include your class notes if that was something you felt was important to the overall project. All of them seemed to remember the date/time/location. Otherwise, I got back a wide range of submissions, and for this first round will likely give everyone credit for at least submitting something. However, I want to see a bit more standardization in the next round of fieldnote submissions.
To this end I did some online research to see what others recommend for writing fieldnotes, or research notes depending on your personal approach. What else could I share with my students that I had not shared earlier. The advice I found wasn’t too different. Some folks had packaged it better though. I draw from their work in this post (links to the original material at the end) to create an organized, standard set up that they can use to record their work and learning for the semester. This is even more important now since we will likely not meet face to face again before the term ends. Our class research project is the development of a model of American environmental knowledge. This requires students to draw from the literature, as well as observe and reflect on personal experiences. They are also learning and practicing new qualitative and quantitative methods. My students therefore need some sort of form to record what they are observing, the new information they are finding, the connections they are making, and the questions they have.
Anthropological research ranges from in-the-field participant observation, interviews, and numerical measurements (in some cases) to library/online document research to data analysis in a lab or on a laptop. It can be conducted alone, but increasingly we work in teams and are often the only ethnographer in the group. To capture our thoughts and feelings as we observe, process, and generate new questions and ideas, we rely heavily on notes. Notes are a place to record raw data, ‘run’ some basic descriptive statistics, and essentially serve as a record of how we complete research tasks (Pain 2019). They are a data set that can be analyzed along with interview transcripts and institutional documents. Raul Pacheco-Vega (2019) writes that two key points to remember are (1) creating these research notes can be difficult – you can get writer’s block – but they also can help you develop a writing practice, and (2) your notes are a source of data and motivation to produce scholarly writing in its many forms.
Several ethnographers cite Sunstein & Chiseri-Strater’s book on fieldwork (2011). This book provides a basic list of topics to include in ethnographic fieldnotes (Delabrer 2017; Grieve n.d.). I hit these main points in my classroom mini-lecture using key points from an article in Qualitative Health Research (Phillippi & Lauderdale 2018).
- Date, time, and place of observation
- Specific facts, numbers, details of what happens at the site
- Sensory impressions: sights, sounds, textures, smells, taste
- Personal responses to the fact of recording fieldnotes
- Specific words, phrases, summaries of conversations, and insider language
- Questions about people or behaviors at the site for future investigation
- Page numbers to help keep observations in order
A secondary part of this recommendation is the recognition that there are actually four types of ethnographic fieldnotes, and that these should be kept separate within your fieldnotes (Delabrer 2017; Grieve n.d.; Sunstein & Chiseri-Strater 2011).
- Jottings – brief words or phrases that you write onsite or during a participant observation exercise. These are turned into more extensive textual descriptions later – preferably within 24 hours to preserve as much detail as possible of the observation. I should note that I am a fan of two notebooks. My jottings go into a small notebook that can fit into my pocket while working, and I type up my research notes separately within 24 hours. These final research notes are far more extensive and detailed.
- Description of everything that can be remembered – this is for the occasion you are observing be it a meal, ritual, work task, meeting, etc. Again, try to write this up within a 24 hours after the event takes place to retain as much detail as possible. Sometimes these details can be very helpful at a later date to write a general description of the site, to link related phenomena, or to identify useful research directions.
- Analysis – what did you learn with regards to your original research question or related points just by being, doing, and observing at your fieldsite? Are there themes you can identify regarding your guiding question? Additional questions? What connections can you make?
- Reflection – this is more personal. How did your research go? What was it like to conduct the research? What worked or did not work? What made you comfortable or uncomfortable? How did you connect with your research participants? Reflection is important to improve your skills, but also helps you to identify bias or possible issues with the data you collect. This reflection is very important, but should be kept separate from analysis.
Lorena Gibson, a cultural anthropologist, shares a basic template on her blogsite (2013) that hits many of the points I was looking for in my serial assignment. This template provides a general method to organize jottings, details, analysis, and reflection into a single entry each day. I’ve summarized her overall structure for fieldnotes below with some additions specific to my class.
[PROJECT] – This information can go into the header.
[TITLE] – summary title that encapsulates the overarching theme/idea of the entry
[DESCRIPTION OF ACTIVITY] – Stick to the facts of who, what, where, when, why, and how to give a descriptive snapshot. Feel free to include photos, direct quotes, snippets of conversations, text messages, filenames of audio recordings, links to relevant webpages, news stories, drawings, maps, etc. Refer to raw data that you collected which will be put into the next section. Use your jottings to develop a richly detailed description of the research observations/experience.
[DATA] – Record raw data you have collected in this section. If you are conducting surveys or interviews, the responses and transcriptions will go elsewhere but you should include a list of who you interviewed, where if you were at multiple locations, and where the data is located (i.e. audio files, survey data sheets, interview notes, .docx files) here for referencing at a later date. Other types of data that could go into this section include GPS points, measurements, classnotes, notes on documents you have read to collect data (be sure to include the citation), etc. If you are working with a partner/s be sure to include their name (and contact information should you not have it elsewhere).
[REFLECTIONS] – Reflect on how your presence and participation may have influenced events that occurred, what went wrong and how you could do it differently for next time, how you feel about the research in process, connections with research participants, etc.
[EMERGING QUESTIONS/ANALYSIS] – Document the questions you have after reviewing your activities and reflecting, future lines of inquiry to pursue that may or may not be directly related to the research project you are working on, theories and published material that may be useful (stuff you might have read in class or looked up). This is also a place to start documenting analysis of results – identify themes for text analysis, include your descriptive statistics if your recorded raw data, offer some initial thoughts on what these results might mean.
[FUTURE ACTION] – Essentially your to do list for future work. Gibson recommends including a timeline task deadlines for each item on your list.
My fieldnotes discussion and description here is aimed at my methods students. For other readers, I hope that you find enough flexibility in the structure to accommodate your own needs. Experiments with digital media are using techniques like live fieldnoting to bring ethnographic research directly to a larger, not-always-anthropology audience (Wang 2012). With new tools at our disposal, the possibilities are endless.
Delabrer, Nicole (2017) Field notes and participant observation in ethnographic studies: a skill summary. Medium, 4/9/2017.
Gibson, Lorena (2013) A template for writing fieldnotes. Anthropod: Thoughts from a Cultural Anthropologist, 8/14/2013.
Grieve, Gregory. (no date) How to write fieldnotes. Online pdf. UNC Greensboro, Dept. of Religious Studies.
Pain, Elizabeth (2019) How to keep a lab notebook. Science, 9/3/2019.
Pancheco-Vega, Raul (2019) Writing field notes and using them to prompt scholarly writing. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. DOI: 10.1177/1609406919840093
Phillippi, Julia, & Lauderdale, Jana. 2018. 10.1177/1049732317697102 [used in my class]. Qualitative Health Research, 28(3), 381-388. DOI:
Ruck, Andy, & Mannion, Greg (2019). 10.1080/13504622.2019.1594172 [used in my class; access through ResearchGate]Environmental Education Research, 1-18. DOI:
Sunstein, B. S., & Chiseri-Strater, E. (2011). Fieldworking: Reading and Writing Research. Macmillan.
Wang, Tricia (2012) Writing live fieldnotes: towards a more open ethnography. Ethnography Matters, 8/2/2012.