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.