4b- Considering Types of Fieldnotes

To help frame our approach to fieldnote writing, we present three types of notes. These are three ways of recording what happens at your site.

We also present some additional (fun) ways to think about your fieldnotes on the video (below) and on the website “Considering Types of Fieldnotes”


Taking fieldnotes is both simple and complex.  In all actuality, the idea of writing down what you observe, then what you think and feel about what you observe, and finally what you infer from what you observe, is a rather simple idea.  However, as soon as you begin to think about how this happens, and what it should say or look like, the prospect of collecting data may become overwhelming.  You may begin to question what to write down; whether it is important or not.  You may become self-conscious of your presence in the site, or feel inadequate as an interviewer.  You will, (and we can almost guarantee this) feel as though you haven’t seen, noted, heard, thought or encountered anything of interest to yourself, let alone to an audience or readership.  This last thought is the most dangerous because it can prompt you to quit going to your site, to put your research on the on the back burner, or to not finish the assignment as it has been presented to you.

While feelings of insecurity, anxiety and inadequacy are “normal” with respect to conducting ethnographic research, understand that success is almost a given, as long as you don’t give up.  You must begin early and keep writing–no matter what.  Our suggestion for how you take fieldnotes begins with the initial process. While it may seem obvious, the first step in the process of writing fieldnotes is the act of observing and participating in your research site–in the field.  Your actual thoughts–what you see, what you notice, what you think about, what you remember–are the first step of the note taking process.

This may seem completely obvious, but think about it this way. Headnotes are, simply stated, the notes you keep in your head. They are your memory and, as a result, are continually changing. Headnotes are incredibly relevant and important to your project because they allow you to recall more details than your hand can sometimes record. Headnotes will, as this section goes on to explain, allow you to expand your quick notes on-site, or jottings, into well-developed fieldnotes.

However, even though headnotes are extremely helpful, they can also be kind of dangerous. Because headnotes are a part of your memory, they are subject to interpretation–shifts in perception over time. How you think about what you see will definitely shift over time. As your thinking changes, so will your perception of what it is you have seen. In other words, while what you write becomes static, headnotes are in a state of constant flux.

As a result of the dynamic nature of headnotes, they are the key to good research. If you have taken good headnotes, if you are mentally engaged with your fieldwork, then they should occupy a great deal of mental space from now until the end of the semester. That is, you know you’re taking good headnotes when you are thinking about your project away from the site–when you’re not really even doing research.

Though headnotes are extremely important to your project, your thoughts cannot remain in your head. Your observations and ideas must make it to the page in order to become primary data and inform your ethnographic essay. A first step in this process of recording observations is to take a few, brief notes when you are in a site and then translate these notes into complete sentences and ideas at a later time.  In the book Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, authors Robert Emerson, Rachel Fretz and Linda Shaw refer to these notes as jottings:

In attending to ongoing scenes, events, and interactions, field researchers take mental note of certain details and impressions.  For the most part these impressions remain “headnotes” only.  In some instances, the field researcher makes a brief written record of these impressions by jotting down key words and phrases.  Jottings translate to-be-remembered observations into writing on paper as quickly rendered scribbles about actions and dialogue.  A word or two written at the moment or soon afterward will jog the memory later in the day and enable the fieldworker to catch significant actions and to construct descriptions of the scene. (19-20)

Jottings are crucial to the note taking process. You want to take as many jottings as possible when you enter your scene. Your memory might not be the best at first, so record as much as you can about your scene.

When you spend time in your site, you will want to bring along a notebook or electronic device of some kind for the purpose of recording jottings. Don’t make the mistake of thinking “nothing will happen” on a particular day at your site and end up having to jot on napkins or your hand. Make a habit of carrying that small notebook or device with you everywhere, and at all times, this semester or trimester or quarter. Though you may not even be in your site, you never know when those headnotes you’re working on need to be turned into jottings. As a final note, always make sure to note the date, time and place, before you begin recording. This is very important information to have when you go to write your expanded fieldnotes.

In addition to taking jottings about your observations at the site, you can and should also engage in conversation and interviews with informants at the site. As part of the process of triangulating your research data, you will look to your own observations, information from informants at the site, and secondary source research to create your ethnography.  You can tak a few minutes to think about when and how you might want to conduct interviews at your site.  Are you going to just conduct informal interviews, asking folks questions as you think of them, inviting them to reflect upon moments as they happen?  Or, are you interested in conducting a more purposeful, in-depth interview, one where you actually think about and use the interview as primary data along-side your fieldnotes.  The answers to the questions will depend upon your particular site, upon what you are coming to identify as a focus for your final written essay.

Regardless of your decision regarding informal or formal interviewing, the ethics of ethnographic research come into play.  You always need to let your informant know why you are asking questions and what you plan to do with the information.  It is assumed that if you’re conducting more informal interviews, a kind of interactive reflection as a part of your regular participant-observation work, then you have already obtained permission by notifying folks of your purpose, of alerting them to the fact that you are conducting a research project on this particular site, on their behaviors, interactions and comments.  But it is always important to ask the participant about his or her own desire to be quoted, about his or her own understanding of how the words might be use d in your final work.

In ethnographic research, the interview can supplement what you are learning through observation. Asking questions of someone who can help you understand the setting or group you are researching provides a chance to learn directly how people reflect on their own behaviors, events, rituals, identities, places/spaces, values, etc.  The ethnographic interview is your chance to clarify, and possibly change, some assumptions you have about the culture you are investigating and to gain an “insider’s perspective,” even if you’re already an insider yourself.  Sometimes it seems important, necessary, or desirable to choose to conduct a more purposeful, in-depth interview in order to enhance your project and bolster your data collection.  If you plan to record the interview, you must ask and receive permission and it’s best to do this in writing and many states require permission in writing for legal purposes. You can look back to the Ethnographer’s Toolkit Box in Chapter 4 for a sample interview permission form.

Regardless of whether you plan to conduct only informal or formal interviews, you need to work through these four guiding principles of interviewing etiquette and preparation in order to help ensure valuable and valid data collection:

  • Know what you’re talking/thinking about.   

This is the main reason why it’s important to wait a bit, to do a good deal of observing and fieldnote writing BEFORE you begin asking folks a lot of questions.  You need to write, read and consider your own thoughts, to review and read context materials that other scholars may have written about similar sites before you should launch into asking questions of folks in your research site.  You need to do this for two reasons.

First, because you want resist the temptation to think of yourself as a journalist, of someone who is “collecting information” for the purpose of “reporting” truth or reality.  While simple information gathering is important, it isn’t the point or objective of this sort of research.  As suggested in Chapters 1 and 2, you aren’t supposed to know what you’re going to write about until after you’ve collected all of your data and considered to patterns of discovery in your notes.  As you conduct primary and secondary research, you should come to learn and simply know the who, what, when, and of your project.  What you want to know, what you come to learn, should move well into the territory of why and how.

Second, because you can’t really determine what it is you want to know/ask before you’ve figured out what you do already know.  Too frequently, students make the mistake of creating inquiry questions based upon fragments of knowledge, and bits of information, most of which comes from the media, rather than fully developed academic writing.  You need to spend time in your site, spend time with secondary resources and truly think about what your seeing and, maybe more importantly, what you’re not seeing before you start to ask other folks any questions.

  • Know what you want to ask.  

In coming to know what you’re thinking or talking about, you will be better able to create relevant and interesting questions, questions that invite interviewees to express their beliefs, relay their interpretations, rather than simply reinforce your own.  Once you come to learn what you do know, and determine what else you might like to know, you need to take the time to write out questions that you might ask of others.  These questions should work to invite the interviewee to present their interpretation or understanding of an idea.  They should be open-ended.

There are many possible interview topics that you may want to ask your “cultural informant about” in relation to the place/group you are investigating. Some ideas include:

  • social relationships (how they see themselves and others in the group)
  • organizational hierarchy
  • ways of doing things for others, patterns of politeness, ways of treating others, helping, ignoring, criticizing and praising
  • ways of organizing space and things; using things; sharing space with other people during different activities
  • clothing or food or other aspects of life that are key to their identity, their ideas about themselves
  • story-telling, use of sayings and ways of talking, types and patterns of conversation
  • ideas and opinions about the place and the people there

With informal interviews, you may enter the site with one or two broad, open-ended questions that are crafted in order to see how folks might respond to the larger trends and observation patterns you’re making.  For formal interviews, you’ll need to prepare a list of questions that move from more specific to more general, open-ended questions, but the goal is to get to the open-ended questions.  Some suggestions of form for these kinds of questions are:

  • Tell me about the time you….
  • I noted that you once said “X,” can you tell me what that means to you/what you meant by that?
  • I notice that it seems you/others (engage in X behavior).  How is that important/what does that mean to you?
  • What do you want to tell me about (this place/their life) that you think I need to know in order to better understand you?
  • What would you want me to write about this place/your culture?
  • What’s most important to you about this place/culture?

It’s always a good idea to engage in a writing workshop when you’re creating questions so that you and other students can learn from each other and share your thoughts with the instructor.  It’s never a good idea to enter the field, or initiate an interview without feedback on your list of questions.

  • Know how to listen. 

One of the most important things you can do in an interview, after establishing what you do know, in order to get at what else you’d like to know, is to be a good listener!  The first, and last lesson of interviewing is this: You should talk much less than the person you are interviewing.  One of the best ways to do this is to convey genuine interest and try to make it a relaxed situation, even if you are taking notes and recording responses.  If you make someone comfortable, they will talk.  If you illustrate interest in a story and truly listen, most people will positively respond with a lengthy response.

Much of making someone comfortable is about personality, but even if you don’t think of yourself as personable, you can follow the following guidelines to encourage interviewee response:

  • Ask them to tell their story
  • Use a tape-recorder when possible so you can look at the person rather than write a bunch of notes. Always record verbal permission to make the recording.
  • Allow the folks time to answer—don’t feel the need to fill space.  If there’s not much of a response, ask if they need the question rephrased and be able to do so.
  • Listen while they are telling their story.
  • Ask follow-up questions about HOW they have told their story.  What did they mean by the use of the words X or Y?  How did they feel when this was happening?
  • Note points of anger/frustration/sadness/joy and mirror it back to them:  I noticed that you smiled when….  It sounded as if that was a difficult time for you….

Remember that as an ethnographic interviewer, you are not a talk show host with a prescribed plan. You want to make your informant comfortable, listen to the stories she or he has to tell.  This is, after all, a human relationship.  The way you collect this data has to do with humane interaction (Chapter 4) that situates your informant, above all, as a person and not just a source.

  • Consider what you think/feel about the interviewee’s responses. 

Though you may not recall every response provided by your interviewee, you will most certainly reflect upon the interview in your fieldnotes.  There are, of course, the basics at issue here– date, time, location.  But you also need to reflect upon what you heard, how it made you feel to ask and hear the answers to these questions.  This is where you can record and reflect upon how and why you made specific decisions to ask what you did, to follow up upon answers as you did.  Can you think of ways of improving the interview process?  What went well, what didn’t?  What else might you want to know?  Who might you also speak with?  In this way, the interview itself can be used to inform the next one, reflected upon as what you now know in an effort to revisit what it is you still need to know.  You may not ever reach a specific “end,” but in this way you can continually work to narrow your focus and identify the area that most interests you in this project.