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?

5 thoughts on “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. Hi! I am halfways in my process of doing fieldwork for my masters. I want to ask you if it would be possible to see one fieldnote of you? That would tremendously help me through my process🙂 Best, Katharina

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