What are Field Notes?
Your field notes are where you record observations and activities that you encounter or participate in during fieldwork. You should begin your field notes as soon as you start your field work, not when you begin collecting your oral histories! This means when you begin to meet with people to discuss the possibility of interviews or visit a community, you should start writing field notes about your experiences and observations. Field notes serve the following functions:
First, they work as descriptions: you write them as notes and details of time, date, activities, settings, observations, behavior and conversations in the field. Field notes keep track of observations that you generally tend to forget over time. They also supplement your research data because field notes help you keep track of observations during interviews and place documentations. According to Thomas Schwandt, descriptive information is your “attempt to accurately document factual data [e.g., date and time] and the settings, actions, behaviors, and conversations that you observe.”
Second, field notes serve as interpretations. They allow you to examine value-laden and subjective aspects of field work. As you write your field notes, in a different section distinct from the descriptive narratives, write your interpretations of what you encounter in the field. Theorize and suggest explanations for what you see. Explain what you observed and ruminate on why your observations are relevant and important. Answer the “so-what” question.
Third, field notes are reflections. This includes an introspective commentary of what you observe and experience — and what all this means to you. According to Thomas Schwandt, reflective information includes recording of “your thoughts, ideas, questions, and concerns as you are conducting the observation.”
Complete the field notes as soon as possible after you complete a fieldwork activity. According to Schwandt, “unless additional detail is added as soon as possible after the observation, important facts and opportunities for fully interpreting the data may be lost.” You can write your initial notes in cryptic form, shorthand, and quick notes that can be later expanded and formalized. You may record your initial notes in a notebook. Another possibility is to talk out your observations immediately after your fieldwork. For example, you could turn on your voice recorder or your phone recording app and discuss your observations while you commute to your next destination. You will refine, expand, and combine your jottings into your full field notes, which will more likely be stored on your computer.
Always paginate your field notes.
Schwandt, Thomas A. The SAGE Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry. 4th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2015.
Characteristics of Field Notes
- Be accurate. You only get one chance to observe a particular moment in time, so before you conduct your observations, practice taking notes in a setting that is similar to your observation site in regards to number of people, the environment, and social dynamics. This will help you develop your own style of transcribing observations quickly and accurately.
- Be organized. Taking accurate notes while you are actively observing can be difficult. It is therefore important that you plan ahead how you will document your observation study [e.g., strictly chronologically or according to specific prompts]. Notes that are disorganized will make it more difficult for you to interpret the data.
- Be descriptive. Use descriptive words to document what you observe. For example, instead of noting that a classroom appears “comfortable,” state that the classroom includes soft lighting and cushioned chairs that can be moved around by the study participants. Being descriptive means supplying yourself with enough factual evidence that you don’t end up making assumptions about what you meant when you write the final report.
- Focus on the research problem. Since it’s impossible to document everything you observe, include the greatest detail about aspects of the research problem and the theoretical constructs underpinning your research; avoid cluttering your notes with irrelevant information. For example, if the purpose of your study is to observe the discursive interactions between nursing home staff and the family members of residents, then it would only be necessary to document the setting in detail if it in some way directly influenced those interactions [e.g., there is a private room available for discussions between staff and family members].
- Record insights and thoughts. As you observe, be thinking about the underlying meaning of what you observe and record your thoughts and ideas accordingly. This will help if you to ask questions or seek clarification from participants after the observation. To avoid any confusion, subsequent comments from participants should be included in a separate, reflective part of your field notes and not merged with the descriptive notes.
General Guidelines for the Descriptive Content
- Describe the physical setting.
- Describe the social environment and the way in which participants interacted within the setting. This may include patterns of interactions, frequency of interactions, direction of communication patterns [including non-verbal communication], and patterns of specific behavioral events, such as, conflicts, decision-making, or collaboration.
- Describe the participants and their roles in the setting.
- Describe, as best you can, the meaning of what was observed from the perspectives of the participants.
- Record exact quotes or close approximations of comments that relate directly to the purpose of the study.
- Describe any impact you might have had on the situation you observed [important!].
General Guidelines for the Reflective Content
- Note ideas, impressions, thoughts, and/or any criticisms you have about what you observed.
- Include any unanswered questions or concerns that have arisen from analyzing the observation data.
- Clarify points and/or correct mistakes and misunderstandings in other parts of field notes.
- Include insights about what you have observed and speculate as to why you believe specific phenomenon occurred.
- Record any thoughts that you may have regarding any future observations.
NOTE: Analysis of your field notes should occur as they are being written and while you are conducting your observations. This is important for at least two reasons. First, preliminary analysis fosters self-reflection, and self-reflection is crucial for understanding and meaning-making in any research study. Second, preliminary analysis reveals emergent themes. Identifying emergent themes while observing allows you to shift your attention in ways that can foster a more developed investigation.
Field Notes Template
First and foremost, your field notes should be useful for you. Organize them as you will best be useful to you, which might include searchable keywords, or a very regular format. Below is one possible template for your field notes which includes a very complete and regular format. Feel free to adapt it to your needs. You can see two different formatting examples in the document entitled “Example Field Notes.”
Write a one paragraph summary or abstract of the events. Include analytic descriptions.
Activity (explain in detail):
Participants (list names):
Length of Observation:
Description and photograph
Write a detailed narrative of what you observed. Document specific words, phrases, summaries of conversations, and insider language.
If you can or would like, include a photograph. Tag the photo.
Questions/Things to follow up with and sketch
This is the interpretive part of your notes. Please make sure you relate the field observations to larger issues discussed in the field school or in the required readings. List additional questions about people, places, or behaviors at the site for future investigation.
“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 … 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?”
Add a sketch of a detail that explains your observations.
This includes your personal responses to fieldwork. “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.”
|Your Name and Date
Activity (explain in detail):
Participants (list names):
Length of Observation: