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.