4- Writing Fieldnotes

Chapter 4 provides a method for observations and writing fieldnotes as primary source material.

“Hey, what are you writing in that notebook?”

“Why do you want to know that?”

“Put the pen down, you’re supposed to be bowling. Come on, you’re up.”

During your ethnography project, you’ll collect most of your primary research by taking fieldnotes, or descriptive observations at your research site. As you begin to jot notes down around other people, whether they are familiar or strangers, you will undoubtedly be confronted with questions similar to the ones listed above. It’s probable that people will directly address your note taking, question why it is you’re recording elements of the scene, the conversation.  Or, people may just stare and try to look over your shoulder to see what you are writing. You can, pretty much count on this sort of reaction, so the idea is that you’ll need to be prepared.  All of these things come with the territory of gathering ethnographic data for your research by watching people and noting what they do and say, the process of observing and recording that you will engage in again and again as you complete your project.

Chapter 2 asserts that you must enter into an ethical relationship with your informants.  You will need to obtain permission—be it oral or written—from those you are using in order to gain information, primary data, for your project.  How this is achieved is often particular to the site and the project.  Even so, you MUST ALWAYS let your informants know that they are being observed, that you are engaged in a project for class, that their actions and words may be re-presented by you in a paper at some point down the road.

Such disclosure needs to precede note taking.  But, the note taking and the subsequent writing of fieldnotes is, and should be understood, as the actual purpose and point of your observations.  In other words, while observing is important, the observations themselves mean nothing if they aren’t made visible and tangible in the form of fieldnotes.  In order for your interaction and observations to be understood as valid, to have any academic or intellectual weight, it must have matter, it must be visible, it must move from intangible idea to tangible observation and this transition happens when you, the researcher, write down what you see, when you, the participant-informant, begin the process of creating your own set of primary data.

This chapter explains the “how to” of writing fieldnotes, a particular form of primary data.  The production of this primary data is what separates this research project from so many other research projects that may occur at the high school and college levels, ones that really only ever involve the reading and regurgitation of secondary sources.  Understand that it is the collection of primary data, the writing of fieldnotes, that brings you and your project into conversation with so many other disciplines, with writing and research in other fields.  This really is where and how writing becomes a practice, the practice of observing and taking notes, of expanding those notes and eventually analyzing those notes.

Fieldnotes as a Primary Data Source

As you begin your research using ethnographic methodologies, including the writing of fieldnotes, you need to be keenly aware that this kind of research, represented through the written word, is subject to personal interpretation.  You are choosing what to write about, you are making decisions about what to include and what to omit.  You, as the researcher, come to the field with a particular set of values and beliefs and those values and beliefs will affect what you see and how you see it.  Ethnographic writing is always, in some ways or others, a representation of the ethnographer.

This doesn’t mean that some ethnographic writing isn’t better than other ethnographic writing, that the primary data itself isn’t valid or truthful.  To be sure, fieldnote writing, and ethnographic research does result in the production of primary data and you are, in this class, being asked to produce such data, to actively participate in your own project.  This may be the first primary data collection experience for you.  This means that this is a learning experience, that your fieldnote writing will, over time, improve, shift, become more dense, appear more like primary data and less like a journal writing.  Many ethnographers write fieldnotes as well as journals, the principle difference being the degree to which the writing serves to analyze what is being observed.

One of the stumbling blocks in writing fieldnotes for the first time is that, in the end, fieldnotes are only for you.  They are the primary data you will use to write your final piece, your larger representation of your research.  But, though it seems this would be low-stakes writing (writing only for you, without an immediate purpose), understand that your final project is greatly affected by the time and care and attention you give to these notes.  Therefore, while any one set of notes may be low-stakes, collectively, they are high-stakes, in indeed.  Together all of your notes will become the foundation of this project; they are the point of it all.  But because it is “all you,” because of the appearance of low-stakes writing, because you have probably never engaged in this sort of iteration before, writing fieldnotes can be time consuming, confusing and, at times, appear pointless.

In the following sections, we work to demystify the fieldnote writing process, to organize and structure what has historically been a “word-of mouth,” “learn-as-you-go” process.