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:
- After you leave the field, write a brief, running log of everything you saw.
- 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.
- Write up each of those three events as a short story, with clear context, characters, action, motivation, and resolution.