notes from the field: show how you know what you know

Let’s say you’re working on an ethnographic project. And you just spent an hour – or three – in the field. Now you’re sitting at your computer. And you know you’re supposed to write fieldnotes based on what you saw. But where should you start? And what should you write? And how should you write it?

It’s easy to assume that fieldnotes are just a running log of everything that happened during your visit to the field. But that running log approach is problematic, at least on its own.

As a reviewer, I’ve read countless studies where the methods section describes how the author conducted both interviews and observations. But then only the interview data appear in the text. The fieldnote data are nowhere to be found. My hunch is that, in most of those cases, the fieldnotes just weren’t useful. Because they weren’t detailed enough for a reader to make sense of them. Or, worse, because they weren’t detailed enough for the author to make sense of when they went back and looked at them six months later.

How do I know this? Because when I first started my dissertation, I wrote my fieldnotes as a running log of everything I saw. And the stuff I wrote in those first few weeks of data collection ended up being almost completely unusable. Because it lacked detail. And because it lacked context.

So, why not write a detailed, contextualized description of everything that happened? Because there aren’t enough hours in a day.

And that means you’ll have to make choices about what to include in your fieldnotes and what not to include. But that’s okay. Because the point of ethnographic fieldwork isn’t to describe in detail everything you saw. Rather, the point of ethnographic fieldwork is to gather the data you need to answer your research question.

So here’s what I tell my students:

  1. After you leave the field, write a brief, running log of everything you saw.
  2. Circle the three events or interactions most relevant to your research question. And definitely circle any incidents that don’t fit your hypotheses or the larger patterns you’ve seen.
  3. Write up each of those three events as a short story, with clear context, characters, action, motivation, and resolution.

Now, you might ask – why just three key incidents? Because that’s as many instances as most people can handle writing in good, contextualized detail. More than that, and the description gets too thin to be useful. Or you run out of time. So just pick three.

And don’t worry too much about which instances you choose. Your observations are a sample of all the interactions that occur in your field site. And your field notes are a sample of those interactions. So as long as you keep going back to your field site, over and over and over again, and as long as you don’t systematically exclude interactions that don’t fit the larger pattern, your fieldnotes will be representative of what happens in your field site. Or, at least representative of everything that happens that’s relevant to your research question. Essentially, if an event or interaction is important, you’ll see something similar again and again. That’s what ethnographers call reaching saturation.

Now, you might also ask – why write each key incident as a short story? Because you want each incident to stand on its own. You want to be able to make sense of it three months from now when you’re coding your data. And you want your reader to be able to make sense of it when you include it in an article or book.

And stories are one of the best ways to convey information, especially about social interaction. Stories are detailed, but not so detailed that the reader gets lost in the description (unless you’re reading Game of Thrones). They don’t just tell the reader what happened. They show how it happened (body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, adverbs). And they show why.

Let’s take a look at what this approach looks like in practice. Last night, after I put the kids to bed, I spent two hours writing fieldnotes about the hour I spent with my kids between daycare pickup and dinner time. First, I wrote up a running log of everything that happened in that hour: (Note: I changed my kids’ names for privacy reasons).

4:25 Jess closes her computer, packs a snack for the kids, and then goes out to the garage to get the jogging stroller.

4:27 Jess walks the mile to the daycare, walking through the park and past the YMCA along the way. As she walks, Jess checks her email, sends two text messages, and then spends a few minutes scrolling through twitter.

4:37 Jess leaves the stroller in front of the daycare. She opens the gate and walks to the door and puts in her key code. Jess walks to Finn’s classroom first. The sign on the door says his class is in the upstairs playroom. Jess signs the log indicating the time that Finn left for the day. Then Jess checks Finn’s chart to see how long he napped.

4:39 Jess walks across the hall to Lily’s classroom – the door is open and the room is dark. Jess signs the log indicating the time that Lily left for the day. Jess checks Lily’s cubby. It’s empty except for the sheets for Lily’s cot and the stuffed panda she sleeps with at nap time.

4:41 Jess goes upstairs to get Finn, first. Finn is climbing across a foam obstacle course. Jess praises him as he navigates across various foam blocks. Finn grins. Jess scoops him up and carries him downstairs, saying goodbye to Finn’s teachers.

4:45 Jess carries Finn to the big kid playground on the far side of the school. Lily run over for a hug. Lily asks if they can stay and play for a few more minutes. Jess tells Lily they can either stay and play for a few minutes at school or stop at the park on the way home, but not both. Lily chooses the park. She runs for the gate, calling goodbye to her teachers as she leaves.

4:48 Jess straps Finn into the stroller and hands him a bottle of milk to drink on the ride. Jess gives Lily a cracker from the blue snack cup. Lily takes off running down the sidewalk. Jess jogs off after Lily, pushing the stroller.

4:50 As they head up the big hill, Lily slows to a walk. Jess and Lily chat about who Lily played with at school and what they played.

4:55 Jess holds Lily’s hand as they cross the street to the playground. Jess parks the stroller on the basketball court and Lily runs for the playground equipment. Jess unstraps Finn and carries him over to where Lily is playing. Jess sets Finn down, and he toddles up the ramp of the playground equipment. Jess follows.

4:57 Lily plays on the swings for a minute. Then Lily asks Jess to play “Lion King.” Jess agrees but tells Lily that she has to stay close to Finn.

5:00 Finn goes down the slide. Jess chases Lily around the playground. They laugh and roar like lions. Finn toddles over to the swings and begins to cry. Jess stops running with Lily, picks up Finn, and begins pushing him on the swing.

5:02 Lily and Jess play “Lion King” again. This time, Lily has Jess be “the bad guy.” Jess chases Lily around the swing set while Finn watches and laughs. Then Lily runs across the playground. Jess doesn’t follow. She goes back to pushing Finn on the swings.

5:04 Lily calls to Jess to come play “Lion King” again. Jess says she can only play if they stay close to Finn. Lily starts to whine and complain. Jess continues pushing Finn. Lily continues to whine and complain.

5:06 Jess checks her phone. She calls to Lily that it’s time to go. Lily complains that she wants to keep playing.

5:07 Jess takes Finn out of the swing, carries him to the stroller, and straps him in. Jess gives Lily and Finn each one cracker. Lily complains that she is hungry. Jess tells Lily that they will have dinner when they get home. Lily asks Jess what is for dinner. Jess says they will have shrimp pasta again. Lily complains and says she does not want shrimp pasta.

5:10 Lily continues complaining about the shrimp pasta as they walk home from the park.

5:15 Lily is still complaining about having to eat shrimp pasta for dinner. About halfway home, Finn starts to whine, too. It starts to rain. Jess finds Finn’s bottle of milk in the stroller and gives it to him. He stops whining. Lily complains that she wants milk. Jess hands her Lily the snack cup, which has a few cheerios in the bottom.

5:22 Jess holds Lily’s hand as they cross the street from the park to their neighborhood. Lily is still complaining about dinner. Jess pushes the stroller up the driveway. Lily waits by the garage door while Jess enters the code. Dan’s car is in the garage.

5:25 Jess pushes the stroller past Dan’s car. Lily goes into the house. Jess carries Finn into the house. Dan is inside. He just got home.

5:27 Lily washes her hands in the bathroom. Jess washes Finn’s hands in the kitchen sink. Jess washes her hands. Finn toddles off to play in the toy room. Dan and Jess talk about Lily’s complaints about dinner. Lily sits at the kitchen table. Dan gets Finn and straps him into his high chair then goes to change clothes.

5:29 Jess takes the leftovers out of the fridge. Jess offers to give Lily pasta with butter and cheese instead of red sauce. Lily agrees. Jess preps plates for Lily and Finn. Jess gives the kids their food.

5:31 Jess preps her own plate. Lily complains that she doesn’t want cheese on her pasta. Jess asks Lily if she doesn’t like the cheese.  

5:32 Dan comes out of the bedroom. He preps his own plate, putting spices on his pasta and shrimp. Lily asks for spices for her pasta. Dan gives her oregano. Lily tries the pasta with oregano and likes it.

This was a fairly simple interaction with only a handful of characters. But it still took me over an hour to write up. And despite all that time and all those interactions included, it’s not entirely clear how useful these fieldnotes would be. Sure, they capture *what* happened. But they don’t say much about how or why.

So my next step would be to pick three key interactions from that running log to unpack with a more “thick description” approach. Let’s say, for example, that I was interested in answering the question: “How do parents navigate conflicts with their young children?” One interaction I might choose to unpack is the ongoing conflict between Jess and Lily over what Lily will eat for dinner. And here’s how I might unpack it:

It’s a blustery November day. The skies are gray with dark, heavy clouds, and the air smells like rain. Just as she does every afternoon, or at least every afternoon when it isn’t too rainy or too cold, Jess walks the kids home from daycare and stops at the park to play for about 15 minutes along the way. Now it’s time to go home.

It’s just after 5-o’clock, but it feels later. Jess is bent over the jogging stroller, struggling to get 15-month-old Finn strapped in. Finn is fussing – making angry grunting noises and trying to wriggle out of the straps. Jess sighs heavily. She has been up since 4:45am – Finn apparently didn’t get the memo about the time change this past weekend. Jess’s shoulders are hunched and her face looks drawn and tired. As Finn continues to whine and squirm, Jess looks for something to distract him. She reaches into the top of the stroller, plucks a club cracker out of the blue plastic snack container and hands it to F. “Here you go, kiddo.” She coos. Her voice is sweet but strained, as though she’s trying not to show how tired she is. “Have a cracker. I know you’re hungry.” Finn stops fussing, grabs the cracker, and takes a big bite. While Finn is distracted, Jess deftly slips his arms through the straps and buckles him into the stroller.

Meanwhile, 4-year-old Lily, who has been stomping in a nearby puddle, notices Finn eating the cracker. “Hey! That’s not fair!” She insists. “Why did you give F the last cracker?” Jess smiles: “It’s not the last cracker. There’s one left.” Jess turns and holds out the cracker to Lily. But Lily is still scowling – her brow is furrowed deeply and her lower lip is sticking out in a pout. “I’m hungry!” She snaps. “One cracker isn’t enough!” Jess lets out a long breath. With a shrug, she explains tiredly, as though they’ve been through this before: “That’s why we’re going home. We’ll have dinner as soon as we get there.”

“What’s for dinner?” Lily asks skeptically, lifting one eyebrow. Jess doesn’t answer. She starts pushing the stroller, guiding it off the basketball court and onto the sidewalk. “Come on kiddo,” she beckons. “It’s gonna rain soon. See those dark clouds? Let’s hurry.” Lily follows, but she isn’t distracted by Jess’s change of subject. “What are we having for dinner?” She asks again. A little more insistently this time. “Shrimp pasta,” Jess says, with a forced brightness, “Just like last night.”

Jess’s shoulders are braced and her lips are pursed tight, as though she’s waiting for the inevitable pushback. And that pushback isn’t long in coming. “Noooo!” Lily wails. She stops in the middle of the sidewalk and stamps her foot. ” I don’t want shrimp pasta! I hate shrimp pasta!” Jess glances quickly over her shoulder at Lily. As calmly as she can muster, Jess explains: “I’m sorry, kiddo. Pasta is what we have for dinner.”

Jess pushes hard against the stroller to get it going again, leaning into it as the wind whips the hair across her face. Lily follows grudgingly, dragging her feet and kicking at the sidewalk and continuing to complain about the pasta, and especially about the sauce. As they continue home, Lily escalates from complaints to threats. First, she threatens not to eat dinner. Then she threatens never to eat again. At first, Jess offers tired sympathy, but eventually she just gives up and ignores Lily, instead. They continue like that—Lily griping, Jess silently pushing the stroller—for the next five minutes.

Meanwhile, Finn, either frustrated by the rain or by the fact that no one has been paying him any mind, has begun to whine, too. Jess coos at him, reassuring him that they’ll be home soon.

As they cross the street into their neighborhood, Jess reaches out a hand to Lily, reminding her gently: “Let’s hold hands to cross the street.” Lily grudging tucks her hand into Jess’s, and they continue across the street together. But Lily continues grumping – and lets go of Jess’s hand – as soon as they get to the other side. Finally, they reach the house.

Jess pushes the stroller hard up the driveway with Lily trailing behind. The rain is falling now in big, fat drops and Jess shivers against the wind. Jess hustles the kids into the garage and sees that Dan’s car is parked inside. She sighs and her shoulders relax a bit –she won’t have to get dinner ready alone. Jess hauls Finn out of the stroller and grabs the snack cup and coats and carries it all into the house. Lily trails behind, still moping and grumping about the pasta.

As they all wash hands for dinner, Jess fills Dan in on the events of the past half hour, and they exchange knowing smiles. This isn’t the first time Lily has thrown a half-hour tantrum about dinner.

Jess pulls out the leftovers while Dan straps Finn into his high chair. Lily sits sulking at the dinner table – quiet at last. Jess looks across the kitchen at Lily, and her face softens. Jess smiles and offers: “How ‘bout this kiddo. What if I rinse off the sauce and put butter and parmesan cheese on your pasta, instead?” Lily brightens: “Really? You know I love butter!” Jess lets out a breathy laugh and smiles: “I know, kiddo.” While Dan goes to change out of his business suit, Jess preps plates of food for the kids – with red sauce for Finn and with butter and parmesan cheese for Lily.

Jess sets the plates in front of the kids, then goes to prep her own plate. As the microwave buzzes, Jess hears Lily’s voice, small and sad, from across the kitchen: “I wish this didn’t have the cheese on it.” Jess closes her eyes for a long moment and leans against the refrigerator, not turning around to look at Lily. When the microwave beeps, Jess takes out her plate and joins the kids at the table. “I wish this didn’t have the cheese on it,” Lily says again, pushing the food around her plate. “You don’t like the cheese?” Jess asks, though her tired, flat tone suggests she already knows the answer.

Meanwhile, Dan comes out of the bedroom and starts prepping his own plate. Lily cranes her neck to watch as Dan takes spice jars out of the cabinet and shakes a little of this and a little of that on his pasta. “What’s that?” Lily asks curiously. Dan smiles: “Oregano. And a little parsley. You want some?” Lily perks up: “Yes, please!” Dan and Jess exchange tired smiles. Dan helps Lily shake a little oregano on her pasta, saying warmly: “Here you go, kiddo.” Lily grins up at Dan, digs her fork into her plate, and takes a big bite. With her mouth still full of pasta, Lily declares happily: “This is the best dinner ever!”

That whole incident took less than twenty minutes, but it took me more than an hour to write up and recall. Not counting the hour I spent writing up the running log. And I’ve still got two more incidents to describe in detail. So that’ll take me another two hours. Or four hours in total. All to describe one hour in the field.

But it’s worth it. Because, as an ethnographer, your fieldnotes are the only data you’ll have to identify patterns and build your argument. And they’re also the only evidence you’ll have to convince the reader your argument is true.

So, when it comes to fieldnotes, take the time, and write them right, and show how you know what you know.

2 thoughts on “notes from the field: show how you know what you know”

  1. This is fantastic! I’m not a field researcher, so I’ve had no training in how to do field notes. I just (indirectly) used this post in prepping a discussion of Desmond’s Disposable Ties, where I imagine this approach is how he got those stories that he uses in the book. From the tone of your post, I’m assuming that not all field researchers know this? That sharing this around would be a service? I know writing up field notes is taught in some field work classes, because I’ve seen them from some of the students I work with who have taken classes in field work.

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    1. Thanks! My guess is that most ethnographers have read (or at least heard about) Geertz’s “Thick Description: Toward An Interpretive Theory of Culture.” But my sense is that fewer ethnography/qualitative methods courses talk explicitly about how to manage the time constraints of field work. How to decide what parts of the observed interactions get the “thick description” treatment. And what parts get noted in less detail.

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