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Nonfiction & Inquiry


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Fieldnotes refer to various notes recorded by scientists during or after their observation of a specific phenomenon they are studying. Fieldnotes are particularly valued in descriptive sciences such as ethnographybiologygeology, and archaeology, each of which have long traditions in this area.
Emerson (1995) defines fieldnotes in ethnography (a term referring generally to descriptive writing in anthropology, and also to subfield of sociology) as 'accounts describing experiences and observations the researcher has made while participating in an intense and involved manner'. A key source, containing case materials about fieldnote writing -- for example, about the relationship between fieldnotes and memory, and about the interconnections among field research process, fieldnotes and post-fieldwork ethnographic work -- is the 1990 collection edited by Roger Sanjek, Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology.
Field notes are one means employed by qualitative researchers whose main objective of any research is to try and understand the true perspectives of the subject being studied. Field notes allow the researcher to access the subject and record what they observe in an unobtrusive manner.
However one major disadvantage is that field notes are recorded by an observer and are subject to (a) memory and (b) possibly, the conscious or unconscious bias of the observer.


Ethnographers engage in participant observation in order to gain insight into cultural practices and phenomena.  These insights develop over time and through repeated analysis of many aspects of our fieldsites.  To facilitate this process, ethnographers must learn how to take useful and reliable notes regarding the details of life in their research contexts.  These fieldnotes will constitute a major part of the data on which later conclusions will be based.

Fieldnotes should be written as soon as possible after leaving the fieldsite, immediately if possible.  Even though we may not think so when we are participating and observing, we are all very likely to forget important details unless we write them down very quickly.  Since this may be very time-consuming, students should plan to leave a block of time for writing just after leaving the research context.

        Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein (1997) have developed a list of what should be included in all fieldnotes:

  • Date, time, and place of observation
  • Specific facts, numbers, details of what happens at the site
  • Sensory impressions: sights, sounds, textures, smells, tastes
  • Personal responses to the fact of recording fieldnotes
  • Specific words, phrases, summaries of conversations, and insider language
  • Questions about people or behaviors at the site for future investigation
  • Page numbers to help keep observations in order

There are 4 major parts of fieldnotes, which should be kept distinct from one another in some way when we are writing them:

1. Jottings are the brief words or phrases written down while at the fieldsite or in a situation about which more complete notes will be written later.  Usually recorded in a small notebook, jottings are intended to help us remember things we want to include when we write the full-fledged notes.  While not all research situations are appropriate for writing jottings all the time, they do help a great deal when sitting down to write afterwards.

2. Description of everything we can remember about the occasion you are writing about - a meal, a ritual, a meeting, a sequence of events, etc.  While it is useful to focus primarily on things you did or observed which relate to the guiding question, some amount of general information is also helpful.  This information might help in writing a general description of the site later, but it may also help to link related phenomena to one another or to point our useful research directions later.

3. Analysis of what you learned in the setting regarding your guiding question and other related points.  This is how you will make links between the details described in section 2 above and the larger things you are learning about how culture works in this context.  What themes can you begin to identify regarding your guiding question?  What questions do you have to help focus your observation on subsequent visits?  Can you begin to draw preliminary connections or potential conclusions based on what you learned?

4. Reflection on what you learned of a personal nature.  What was it like for you to be doing this research?  What felt comfortable for you about being in this site and what felt uncomfortable?  In what ways did you connect with informants, and in what ways didn't you?  While this is extremely important information, be especially careful to separate it from analysis.

A field notebook is a notebook which is used by a researcher to take notes while out in the field. The goal of the notebook is to create a complete record which provides accurate and useful information about field expeditions, and scientists who work in the field are usually required to keep such notebooks. In some cases, field notebooks are considered the property of the employer, in which case a researcher will have to submit them once a field study is over, while in other cases, the notebook may be the property of the author.
In addition to professional scientists, many amateurs also keep field notebooks. A birdwatcher, for example, would keep a notebook of bird sightings which also included data about locations, weather conditions, birding partners, and so forth. By reading the field notebook, someone could get a complete picture of what happened on any given expedition. In fact, someone should be able to read a field notebookand feel like he or she was along for the trip, thanks to the high level of detail provided.
Every single piece of data related to an expedition is recorded in a field notebook, along with general observations. Something which seems less important in the field might actually play a key role in a study or expedition upon later examination, and by recording it, a researcher ensures that it will be noted. Sometimes, a perusal of a series of field notes can reveal the answer to a mystery, as for example when a birder notices that flocks of birds consistently rise out of a certain patch of trees every day at 10:03 AM, and someone mentions that a supply plane lands just behind those trees every day at 10:02 AM.
Typically, field notebooks are hardcover, and many are made from papers which are designed to be water resistant. Researchers carry their notebooks in bags or cases to prevent them from getting wet. The notebook is usually ruled, and it contains recorded observations and measurements, sketches, general notes, discussions of weather conditions, and any other errata which might be relevant to the study, from where cars were parked to who was in the field on any given day.


How to Write Ethnographic Field Notes

By an eHow Contributor
Participant observation is a valuable method of investigating how individuals interact with each other and structure their social group. Ethnographic research enables social scientists to understand the day-to-day experience of the group of people they are studying. Writing field notes can be tricky, but they are a crucial component to successful ethnography. They contain the documentation the researcher observes. Read on to learn how to write ethnographic field notes.
Difficulty: Moderately Challenging


  • Choose the location or group that you want to observe. Select based on how the group's activities help you investigate the social issue you are studying. Arrange a schedule of observation with a person in a position of authority within the group or organization.
  • Decide whether or not you want to be open about your study with the people you are observing. Some people feel uncomfortable or act differently when they know they are being watched.
  • Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. Jot down noteworthy interactions and quotes when possible.
  • Be discreet and protect your notes. Field notes are documentation of what you witness and may include conflicts or gossip. Use significant keywords that jog your memory. Refer back to keywords to develop thorough notes after you have left the field.
  • Type up a detailed version of your notes for future analysis. Fill in the gaps of your field notes by reading the keywords and fully explaining the situation you observed. Use code names for the people you observed to protect their identities. Include an interpretation and impressions at the end of the document.





Tips & Warnings

    • Refrain from telling your subjects your research question. Be vague when answering their questions, even if they are aware that you are conducting some form of research.
    • Complete your field notes immediately after leaving the field. Write with greater detail when the experience is fresh in your mind, which strengthens your data.
    • The sensitive nature of what is written may include what people don't want revealed about themselves or their group. Field notes are for your eyes only.

Read more: How to Write Ethnographic Field Notes | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/how_2081359_write-ethnographic-field-notes.html#ixzz0zbDbAwy6