practice – writing field notes

It’s the time of year when doctoral researchers – and those with new research projects – head off enthusiastically, and sometimes a bit fearfully, into their field work sites. Field work usually – but not always – involves going away from your usual location. And that’s something you need to, and can, prepare for. In this post I want to talk about getting yourself ready for the note-taking you’re going to have to do.

Now the most important thing about any field notes you take is that they become a record that you use in your analysis. While you’re going to read them over and over, you’re probably only going to get one chance at writing down what you see and hear. Your notes therefore need to be as accurate and as detailed as possible. There’s no going back to fleeting events. Instead of having to just rely on your memory, you need to make the best possible description of the things you saw and heard at the time they happen – or as close to this as possible.

Why only close? Well, you might be in a situation where you can to sit on one side of the action and watch what is going on. If so, you can take pretty good notes there and then. But actually, some – or most – of us don’t have this luxury. We can’t write down what’s going on in the moment. We might be taking part in the action, or just be in a social situation where it would be pretty off-putting to everyone if we sat taking notes. So while some methods texts will try to tell you that your notes must be accurate and verbatim, this is a norm you try to live up to – but not beat yourself up if you don’t quite get there.

So it’s likely you’ll have to find a way to write down enough at the time to help you reconstruct events afterwards. You might be able to make scribbles which you can expand later while you still remember what happened. You might find yourself rushing off to the loo or into the stationery cupboard to make a few surreptitious marks on paper. Most of the time you will work later that night or the next day to expand those notes you have managed to take into a relatively accurate record, the best that you can do in the circumstances.

It is a really good idea to get some practice taking notes before you go to your field site. Here’s one easy way to do this. You can simply pick up your notebook and pen and head off for a coffee, and observe what happens around you in your chosen café. It’s not at all odd to see people sitting in cafes with laptops these days, so you probably won’t get a second glance. It’s important that you do this with an ethical mindset – you’re not there to observe any individual people and you aren’t going to use the field notes afterwards. But you might need to check if this kind of work is OK with your institution’s ethical procedures – remembering this is a learning occasion for you, not a piece of actual research..

So there you are in the café/public park/town square … now what? It’s good to focus the writing in order to practice, and here’s a few suggestions you might want to focus on to begin with:

(1) The built environment. Begin by recording the material surroundings, the room, the windows, the furniture and so on. Draw a map of what is where. You may be able to take a photo or two if you have permission. Remember this won’t include people unless you are prepared to go through a long formal ethics process! What signs and symbols are in this space: what words, languages and images are used?

(2) The sensual environment. Write about the things that you can see, hear and smell. What can you touch and not touch? You may be able to bring a recorder and make a little soundscape of what you hear to accompany your notes.

(3) The human environment. Who is here? What kind of people are they? Can you see various roles? What do people do in this site? What are their movements in and out of the site?

(4) The social environment. How do people interact with each other? How do people interact with the physical site and all the “stuff” that is there? What are the interactions within and between the natural environment, between humans and the natural environment? Are there any conversational and/or movement patterns that you can observe and/or hear? Take this pattern and describe it in detail. Record conversations and movements as near as verbatim as possible.

Now here’s two things that are perhaps less commonly thought about by many social scientists:

(5) The natural environment. What kind of animals, insects, birds, plants are here? What are they, what are they doing and how? Is there weather, and does it make a difference to what happens here? What else is here – water, earth, air –what and how are they in this place? How do they interact with people?

(6) The temporal environment – are things fast or slow here? How does time matter, why, how and to whom? How is history here – what signs of the past can you see?

Now while you are writing your practice field notes about all of these things, you may find that you’ve also thought the odd thought, come up with a question or perhaps half formulated some kind of analytic proposition. The convention with field notes is that you try to separate these thoughts from your description. This is so that you don’t get confused later between thoughts and what you were trying to record. Some people use double column pages in order to do this, or Cornell notes. Other people use some kind of consistent signage in their notes which indicates to them, some time later when they are reading through, that this was a thought not an observation. I’ve seen people use square brackets to do this work. I’m a bit messier and always draw a little cartoon-like cloud symbol which I place on the side of the page and I write my thought inside it.

As part of your field note practice it’s a good idea to try to write from your field notes . Turn them into a page or two of prose. This means you get to see what it’s like to use the notes you’ve taken. How well do they allow you to describe where you were and what happened there? What information did you find yourself wishing was there – is there a way that you can think of to include this missing stuff next time?

You can of course use time in your actual field site to practice taking notes and to work out what’s going on there – it’s a kind of reconnaissance. But if you can find the time to practice before-hand, and make that practice somewhere else, it will pay off when you first go into your real field work site. You’ll just be much more confident that you know what you have to do in order to record what’s going on. Dib, dib, dib… You’re prepared.


The usual reference to writing field notes:
Emerson, R., Fetz, R., & Shaw, L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The problems with making field notes – start here:
Behar, R., & Gordon, D. A. (Eds.). (1995). Women writing culture. University of California Press.
Sanjek, R. (Ed.). (1990). Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology. Cornell University Press.

Scientific field notes – some with beautiful illustrations
Canfield, M. R. (Ed.). (2011). Field notes on science & nature. Harvard University Press

And for not just writing, see:
Back, L. (2007). The art of listening. Berg.
Pink, S. (2009). Doing sensory ethnography. Sage.
Pink, S. (2013). Doing visual ethnography. Sage.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Ethnographic kit, field work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to practice – writing field notes

  1. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Thanks Pat. I am getting ready for my own fieldwork (for my PhD) I am confident I will learn from the experience, less confident though I will be able to spot what is “actually” relevant to my research!

    This line: “What information did you find yourself wishing was there” is a brilliant one.


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