For anyone writing ethnography – or doing any participant observation at all – writing a thesis begins in earnest in the field, with notes: an absolute heap of them. Fieldnotes are tricky to get right, and if they aren’t written properly the richness added to a project by participant observation is unlikely to shine through. In fact, get them wrong you might not take much from the field at all. Write them well, though, and you will find everything else much easier later on. Not just that. You’ll have a healthy stock of authentic excerpts that can transport your reader back to that place, that time, those interactions where you saw your theory in reality. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to making fieldnotes, but this blogpost offers a few practical tips – some I have learned the hard way – that should be of broad appeal.

1. Be disciplined

Begin writing fieldnotes as soon after events as you can. The sooner you start writing your fieldnotes, the better they will be. In other words, work with a sense of urgency based on the assumption that you will forget almost everything that’s happened very quickly. When you’re in a place, things quickly become familiar and it’s easy to think that you’ll remember what that person looked like, or what that person said and how they said it, or how the room was arranged. Odds are – unless you’ve got a photographic memory – you’ll have forgotten in a few days. Or at least your recollection will be a characterless reconstruction compared to if you had written about it 10 minutes after being there. Work from the jottings – hurried notes taken in situ – as soon possible after the events or interactions of interest as you can.

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2. Structure your notes

Have a structure for your notes that lets you accomplish your analytical goals with ease and precision. The page you write on should be set up to provide structure to your notes. This will make them easier and quicker to write but also clearer to read later on. There are a many different ways to structure fieldnotes. Exactly, how you do it will depend on the specifics of your project. I’m going to share the one that I use and is pretty broadly applicable – a variation of which was taught to me by Timothy Pachirat, author of Every Twelve Seconds. First, format your page to landscape. Next, create a short form at the top of the page to note down ‘meta-data’, including: observation/participation site, date, start and end time, as well as writing location, date, start and end time. Next, create a table with three columns. Label the first ‘description’, the second ‘reflexivity’, and the third ‘analysis’. Your page should look something like this

 

 

The form at the top provides a quick reference and keeps you honest about how fresh fieldnotes are. The table format allows you to keep concurrent notes about yourself and analysis, without interrupting the flow of description (more on this in points 6 and 7).    

3. Be specific

Remember, when you’re writing your notes you want them to transport you back to a specific event that’s important for your research. You aren’t going to be able to do that with general language. As with most things in ethnography, this is easier said than done, but aim for the excruciating detail of what made you arrive at a general description. For example, your first thought might be to write something like ‘Person X turns to person Y, shaken and exasperated, and says ‘Leave, now!’. This sort of sentence won’t do you much good when you come to reread your fieldnotes a year later – and it definitely won’t help anyone reading an excerpt of your thesis. 

Something better would draw out the specifics of Person X’s action that made you think they were shaken and exasperated: ‘There is a sudden squeak from Person X’s shoe turning on the laminate floor as they pivot, turning their body sharply, whipping their left arm around as they turn to face person Y. Now – stood shoulders square to Person Y – Person X flings their left arm further outward to point at the door, finally extending a finger and jabbing it towards the exit. ‘Leave’ person X says with a slight quiver in their voice, followed by the word ‘now!’, spoken firmly and loudly with a final, more exaggerated jab towards the door.’ It should be obvious from this example that your fieldnotes don’t need to be works of literary genius throughout, but they must be powerful enough to evoke a memory – to recreate a sense of a real event: To do this, detail is required. 

4. Consider all of the senses

Another common mistake – one which I have fallen prey to several times – is to become a mindless scribe, hastily writing or typing everything that’s said by everyone verbatim. While it’s true that verbatim accounts of what is said are the gold-standard, they are no good if they mean you sacrifice attention to everything else. When writing description, don’t obsess over catching every single word that is said, if it detracts from paying attention to how it is said and how it is received. Verbatim accounts of what is said do not constitute a complete description of events. What is said must be contextualized. Often, it is in the activity surrounding the words spoken that is important – who is and who isn’t listening, who understands, who is responsive, who is muttering with quiet contempt to a counterpart while someone else is speaking. These are the sorts of details that often prove illuminating when going back over fieldnotes.  

6. Be reflexive

Next, reflexivity is important to include in your fieldnotes. In other words, pay attention to yourself and the effect you might be having on your surroundings, noting them in the reflexivity column of your table. When doing participant observation, it’s very likely – especially if your focus is social interactions – that you will have some effect on what is unfolding. Your background, past experiences, and analytical priors will inevitably affect your interpretation of events, and you should acknowledge this. This is what your reflexivity column is for. Use it well.  

7. Analyze

Finally, document any analysis – no matter how small or seemingly trivial – alongside description in your fieldnotes as you write or reread them. Your analysis section is where your theory gets (re)built. It is likely that in the beginning your analysis section will be fairly bare. Don’t feel pressured to force your analysis too early – it should emerge primarily from your description. Just note down small things that stand out and – most importantly – why they stand out in the analysis column. As you progress through fieldwork the analysis section should get fuller and its contents more sophisticated as your ideas about what you are exploring develop. 

Conclusion

So, there you have it. Seven tips to get you started writing fieldnotes:

1. Begin writing fieldnotes as soon after events as you can. The sooner you start writing your fieldnotes, the better they will be.

2. Have a structure for your notes that lets you accomplish your analytical goals. I suggest the ‘description, reflexivity, analysis’ format.

3. When writing your description, be as specific as possible. Avoid generality.

4. When writing description, pay attention to as many senses as possible.

5. When writing description, don’t obsess over including every single word that is said if it detracts from paying attention to how it is said and how it is received.

6. Pay attention to yourself and the effect you might be having on your surroundings – and record this in your notes.

7. Document any analysis – no matter how small or seemingly trivial – alongside description in your fieldnotes as you write or reread it.

There are a million other tips that could be included here, but these are a few of the most general that should help you write well-rounded descriptions accompanied by self-reflection, analysis, and theorization. With these elements, you’ll be well on your way to generating the material you need for strong empirical chapters that are faithful to your fieldwork experience and achieve your analytical goals.

I leave you with one final tip, keep writing even when you aren’t entirely sure why. Writing fieldnotes is tough. It requires hard work, patience, and an exhausting degree of attentiveness, but stick at it and you’ll find original contributions to knowledge – and not just devils – in the detail.

If you want to get more detailed advice, be sure to check out Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw’s excellent volume, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes.

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