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.