Writing ethnographic fieldnotes

Posted: May 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: research tools | 1 Comment »

Loving to write does not make it any less of an arduous task, and writing good fieldnotes is, I think, a true labor of love.  The best fieldnotes, i.e. the ones that will most help you in your data analysis and write-up, are those that are most thoroughly detailed and descriptive, and it is no easy task to produce these. One of the best guides I’ve found on this process is “Writing ethnographic fieldnotes,” by Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw.

When I first began writing ethnographic fieldnotes I was a student researcher at UCSD’s Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition where I worked on a project about bilingual afterschool education. For that project a group of us tutored local children at an afterschool computer club.  After each session, we spent long hours at our computers, writing up pages and pages of our observations and experiences.  I still remember being amazed at how long it took.

Nowadays I enter the field with better-formed plans and strategies in mind.  One such strategy is “bracketing,” as described by Bruce L. Berg in his excellent book, “Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences.” Bracketing entails selecting “certain subgroups of inhabitants [of a social setting] and observing them during specific times, in certain locations, and during the course of particular events and/or routines.”  (Berg, 2001, p. 153)  In other words, you think strategically about who exactly you need to observe, doing what, where, and when.  It’s also important to carefully consider what your observational procedure will be once you enter the site.

In terms of deciding what to write down, Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw advise that we first take note of and describe our initial impressions of the scene, and then move on to describing “key events or incidents” (1995, p.27). Another key point is that:

“In writing fieldnotes, the field researcher should give special attention to the indigenous meanings and concerns of the people studied.  …fieldnotes should detail the social and interactional processes that make up people’s everyday lives and activities….  Ethnographers should attempt to write fieldnotes in ways that capture and preserve indigenous meanings.”  (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995, p. 12)

In other words, writing fieldnotes is an excellent way understanding your participants’ worlds from their perspectives, including the meanings that they attach to their actions and interactions.

Aside from guides and strategies, the key thing about fieldnotes is to write them up as quickly as possible, since the longer you wait the less you’ll remember.  Ideally, you’re sitting at your computer, typing away, no later than a few hours after each observation session.

One Comment on “Writing ethnographic fieldnotes”

  1. 1 AswadKannar said at 4:12 am on May 24th, 2011:

    Hey – I am definitely happy to discover this. Good job!