4c- Expanding and Revising Fieldnotes and Observations

After you have tak­en your jot­tings on site or com­plet­ed inter­views, you will want to expand them into ful­ly devel­oped sen­tences and para­graphs. This writ­ing is referred to as expand­ed field­notes. In mov­ing from jot­tings to expand­ed field­notes, it is a good idea to type the notes and store them on a hard dri­ve and on disk.  Again, Emer­son, Fretz, and Shaw observe:

Typ­ing notes with a word pro­cess­ing pro­gram not only has the advan­tage of greater speed (slow typ­ists will soon notice sub­stan­tial gains in speed and accu­ra­cy), but also allows for the mod­i­fi­ca­tion of words, phras­es, and sen­tences in the midst of writ­ing them with­out pro­duc­ing messy, hard-to-read pages.  And field­notes writ­ten on com­put­ers are eas­i­ly reordered; it is pos­si­ble, for exam­ple, to insert inci­dents or dia­logue sub­se­quent­ly recalled at the appro­pri­ate place.  Final­ly, com­pos­ing with a word pro­cess­ing pro­gram facil­i­tates cod­ing and sort­ing field­notes as one lat­er turns to writ­ing fin­ished ethno­graph­ic accounts. (41)

If you don’t have access to a com­put­er, you should still devel­op a sys­tem in your note­book to sort and orga­nize your field­notes.  Here are some spe­cif­ic sug­ges­tions for how to go about expand­ing, sort­ing, orga­niz­ing, and cod­ing your field­notes. You should com­plete this process with every set of notes as you expand them.


  • Note the occur­rences you wit­nessed or took part in when you were engaged in your ethno­graph­ic research.
  • Note the date and time of observations.
  • Record the basic jour­nal­ism info: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, and HOW.  You should leave answer­ing the WHY ques­tion to your analy­sis, unless this WHY is pre­sent­ed by an infor­mant, i.e. some­one offers up their inter­pre­ta­tion of why some­thing is or was or hap­pened and you sim­ply record their ideas.  the
  • Use all five sens­es when you are observ­ing. In our cul­ture we overem­pha­size vision as a way of gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion. In addi­tion to sight, don’t for­get about what how your oth­er four sens­es can gath­er infor­ma­tion: SOUND, SMELL, TOUCH, TASTE. What you hear, how the space feels, what it smells like…all of that is very impor­tant and can lead to great descrip­tion of your site.
  • Be as descrip­tive as you can. Use metaphor and sim­i­le in order to talk about what you observe. Rather than sim­ply say­ing the floor is gray, or the couch is smelly, try and explore what the col­or reminds you of or what the couch smells like. It’s not just green, but per­haps the green that reminds you of salt mixed with pep­per, or the inside of a bat­tle­ship. The couch might reek of cat piss, or remind you of your great aun­t’s perfume–a soft, sub­tle gar­de­nia. At any rate, work to use oth­er images to help folks iden­ti­fy with what you’re describ­ing. Don’t just tell us in plain words, try and cre­ate images and a way for folks to tan­gi­bly con­nect with your site.
  • Record what you do and say as well as what oth­ers do and say. This is just a way of restat­ing the first point made above, but don’t for­get that you are a part of this scene and record­ing where you go and how you inter­act is as impor­tant of tak­ing note of the actions, behav­iors and words of others.

Thoughts and feelings:

  • Con­sid­er your response as par­tic­i­pant, observ­er, researcher in your site. There is a fine line between thoughts and feel­ings at the gut lev­el. Here, you want to explain whether you were hap­py, sad, engaged, angry, grossed-out, excit­ed, both­ered, etc. as you begin to engage with your obser­va­tions as a human being.  If you are using a word-pro­cess­ing soft­ware, use a dif­fer­ent font or ital­ics to code your thoughts and feel­ings. If you’re writ­ing in a note­book, you can high­light these notes or use dif­fer­ent col­or ink.
  • Record how you feel and what you think about what’s going on. Does this remind you of any­thing? Does what you see hit upon a cer­tain mem­o­ry or idea you have had in the past? What do you think about what you’re see­ing now? For the most part, these thoughts are ini­tial reac­tions that have to do with how you’re think­ing about the material.
  • How does your research/observation and par­tic­i­pa­tion make you feel?


  • Obser­va­tions and thoughts and feel­ings are pri­mar­i­ly the kinds of writ­ing you’ll pro­duce dur­ing the first few weeks of your research. How­ev­er, as time goes on, you’ll not only want to record what hap­pens and how you react, but you’ll also need to begin to crit­i­cal­ly con­sid­er the rea­sons behind why cer­tain things hap­pen, and why you think and feel about them the way they do.  As a result, your field­notes should also include analysis–the con­scious explo­ration of the moti­va­tion and the­o­ry behind what hap­pens at your site. If you are using word-pro­cess­ing soft­ware, use a dif­fer­ent font or bold to code your analy­sis. Once again, if you’re writ­ing in a note­book, you can high­light these notes or use a dif­fer­ent col­or of ink.
  • Con­sid­er rea­sons for WHY your infor­mants do/say what they do.  You’ll be able to com­ment on this as you notice pat­terns of behav­ior. What hap­pens over and over again? What is the func­tion of this repeat­ed behav­ior in this site? You might want to com­ment on and respond to what some of your infor­mants think about the pur­pose and mean­ing behind their actions and behaviors.
  • Exam­ine WHY you had the thoughts and feel­ings you had about the site or interaction.
  • Exam­ine your own thoughts and feel­ings and move into a deep­er con­sid­er­a­tion of the moti­va­tion behind your own reac­tions. How is this research affect­ing you? How is it mak­ing you think dif­fer­ent­ly about the world? Is it recon­struct­ing, or rein­forc­ing beliefs you had when you began this research process?
  • Con­sid­er how the sec­ondary sources you have read–other authors’ ideas–help you think about your own research. These sources may help you to think about what you see and hear, to crit­i­cal­ly con­sid­er the mean­ing and moti­va­tion behind the actions and behav­iors of those you are observ­ing. When an idea from an arti­cle or a book helps you think about your project, record that con­nec­tion in the analy­sis sec­tion of your fieldnotes.

One trick to cre­at­ing the orga­ni­za­tion in your expand­ed field­notes is to change font or text style every time you move from one kind of writ­ing to anoth­er.  How you orga­nize them is up to you. You can write an obser­va­tion sec­tion, then a thoughts and feel­ings sec­tion, then an analy­sis sec­tion. Or, you can write chrono­log­i­cal­ly, mix­ing your thoughts and feel­ings and analy­sis in with the descrip­tion as com­men­tary. Or you can find your own orga­ni­za­tion­al scheme for the expand­ed field­notes. The impor­tant thing is to include all of these ele­ments and code them in some way. Then, when you go to look for a focus for your final ethno­graph­ic essay, it will be eas­i­er for you to sort through all the mate­r­i­al you have gath­ered using this cod­ing system.