A template for writing fieldnotes

For my PhD I carried out ethnographic fieldwork in different locations: bastis (slums) in the twin cities of Howrah and Kolkata (India), and urban and peri-urban settlements in the city of Lae (Papua New Guinea). I knew from earlier visits that these different settings would mean that I was in for very different fieldwork experiences. I also knew I was unlikely to have much control over events. However, I could take steps to standardise my data collection and notetaking processes as much as possible. In the early stages of my research I decided to create a fieldwork template with that goal in mind.

After reading what others had to say about ethnographic fieldnotes (including A Thrice-Told Tale by Margery Wolf [1992], Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology edited by Roger Sanjek, [1990], and Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes edited by Robert Merson, Rachel Fretz and Linda Shaw [1995]), I created a fieldnote template (originally in MS Word; now I use Pages) with the following sections:

In these sections I insert the filename of each document as a header, give each fieldnote a short title, and record the date.

This is for describing what happened during the day as accurately as I can. I take a ‘who, what, when, where, why, how’ approach and try to stick to ‘facts’ to create a verbal snapshot of what happened. This includes noting direct quotes and snippets of conversations, text messages, filenames of voice recordings, and what photos I took.

I am aware that all fieldnotes are constructed, and what we choose to take notes about are influenced by a range of factors, so in this section I try to minimise that. My aim is to keep description separate from analytical work for as long as possible while recognising that these snapshots are just that; a glimpse of a point in time from a particular perspective, through a particular lens.

I reflect on the day’s experiences, writing about how I might have influenced events, what went wrong (and what I could do differently next time), and how I feel about the process.

Here I note questions I might ask, potential lines of inquiry, and theories that might be useful. This is where I start to do some analytical work.

This is a ‘to-do’ list of actions. I usually include a timeframe alongside each point.

How it works for me
I usually type my fieldnotes at the end of each day and use this template alongside handwritten notebooks, which I carry when I am out and about. I find that people often want to look at (and correct!) what I’m writing in notebooks so I use them to record people’s names, questions I want to ask, specific times of events, and for participants to write notes about what they think I should pay attention to.

I draw on all of the above sources, as well as photographs, emails, voice recordings (and their transcriptions), and my memories, when I write. I find the description section of my template is extremely useful for providing the context for photographs, recordings and transcriptions, and as a point of comparison for my memories, which change over time .

I have not (yet) started using digital media in my fieldnotes, although I am interested in how this works. I have been following EthnographyMatters since Tricia Wang’s post Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography about ‘live fieldnoting’ on Instagram. A recent issue of Popular Anthropology Magazine (Vol 4, No 1, 2013) has a section dedicated to blogging fieldnotes.

I am always keen to hear about how others take fieldnotes. What is your process? What are your thoughts on ‘live fieldnoting’ or blogging from the field?

2 responses to “A template for writing fieldnotes

  1. Thank you for these observations. I have little experience in ethnography but am embarking on some qualitative research my work for a charitable nonprofit organization. Your notes here have been very useful.

  2. I’m at the beginning stages of my field work and have been toying around with how best to stay organized, and reading your post is super helpful. Thank you!

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