doing field work? don’t ignore the anecdote

Anecdote. It’s the worst thing that someone can say about your research, right. This is an anecdote – it’s not “evidence”. Well, there’s a lot of ways to deal with that objection, and I want to offer only one here. And this is it – when we use anecdote in research, it’s as an integral part of the research… it’s not ALL of the research nor is it the END of the research. It’s simply A STEP in the research, and it’s very often a beginning point.

Let me explain.

An anecdote is a story, usually a short one. And it’s generally written as it was experienced – as a slice of life, a verbal version of a scene from a research cinema verite film. An anecdote is always written from a particular point of view – the person whose experience is being described, or the perspective of someone who saw an event happen. Key elements of the anecdote are:

  1. it’s a short and straightforward story
  2. it usually relates to one incident or event
  3. it focuses on one central idea
  4. it includes key, concrete detail
  5. it may contain quotes
  6. it closes quickly after the climax
  7. it requires some kind of punch line, or a snappy or whimsical ending, to make a point, and to make the story stick with the reader. (Van Manen, 1989)

Anecdotes often arise from field work. They are the things that we talk about immediately, and the things that stick with us for reasons that may not seem clear at the time. As Ely, Vinz and colleagues put it

Each researcher has one story or even several that burn to be told. We know it when we live it, when we come home literally chomping at the bit to write it or to call a colleague and share the core of a story that keeps hounding at us to be told and told again. You know these anecdotes when they resonate for you: you’re taken by it; you talk to yourself about it. Dream it. If it has happened to you, you’ll know what we mean. This is why anecdote should be among the first narrative forms to write – a bellwhether to reveal insight, something to hold onto and play out in many possible forms and venues. (Ely, Vinz et al p. 69)

These kinds of sticky research anecdotes contain a nugget of something that is worth digging out. They stick with us for a reason. We often find a Eureka moment as we write and craft them.  

Once written, we can ask questions of an anecdote, opening out what it might have to say to our research. Staying with an anecdote and working with it often allows us to locate an idea that otherwise might have slipped past. The anecdote might be a kind of metaphor which encapsulates several key themes in our data. Or it might provide a possible direction for further analysis, something we can tinker with, in ever more detail, as we get deeper into field work and/or analysis. An anecdote doesn’t provide answers, it offers a particular and specific entrée into critical thinking, and into a conversation with our data.

You can write anecdotes at any stage of field work. I certainly do. You don’t have to wait till the end. If you write anecdotes as you go along, they become part of your research field notes – or whatever process you are using to keep track of your thinking during the research. You can revisit anecdotes at any time, they help you to reflect on the place and significance of events, interactions, relationships, practices.

Ely, Vinz and colleagues suggest that it’s helpful to critically examine the anecdotes that we write, assessing their value for the research. They offer this question –

Do the anecdotes I write give me a clearer focus on the essential core of my research and help me see more clearly aspects of the work in which I am engaged?


Anecdotes are often used in final texts too. They capture a reader’s attention. But they are not simply inserted into a text to entertain. An adroitly chosen and well written anecdote can help readers to see layers of meaning – in just the same ways that the anecdote worked initially for us in the research process.

The anecdote below for instance, written from my personal experience and as part of an ethnography of learning in art museums, requires more from both the reader and me as the writer…

In May 2014, my partner and I visited the Musee Reattu in Arles, Provence. The exhibition at the time was devoted to clouds – the show was entitled Nuage – and it occupied the entire building. One large room, about half way around, was filled with cloud-shaped helium balloons. A not entirely unexpected contribution. We were walking a little behind two conservatively dressed elderly French couples. We had been following them for some time, losing sight of them as we stopped at particular works, then catching them up again. They walked at a regular pace through the allotted route, keeping the appropriate museum-like silence. As they reached the doorway which marked the end of the balloon room, one of the women turned. Kicking off her shoes, she tiptoed into the middle of the room and began, slowly at first, to throw the balloons up in the air. As more and more balloons became airborne she threw faster until the whole room was filled with floating silver pretend-clouds. She didn’t see her companions turn away and leave the room; we were close enough to see their startled and embarrassed expressions. We stayed for ten minutes watching her and what had become a veritable whirl, a single air-movement-swirl-cloud. She showed no signs of stopping when we also moved on.

This anecdote foreshadows an argument to come. Perhaps it’s already obvious to you where I took it… but there are more than one set of possible lines of further narrative contained within this single, small event. How I actually played out the argument depended on the rest of my analysis.

Like other narrative forms, anecdotes can focus or switch the readers’ attention, provoke responses, raise questions, disrupt what might have seemed like a straightforward and unproblematic analysis, offer alternative perspectives. A great anecdote can “touch, move or teach us” (Ely et al, p. 70).  It’s the brevity and immediacy of the anecdote that makes them memorable. And if they have a sting in their tail/tale, this helps the reader to remember the analysis and argument that follows.

So  – you can write narratives at any time in the research process. They are worth playing with during your research, even if they never appear in your final text. They are often the key to something important, an insight we might not have had if we thought of the anecdote as something only good for a chat over a coffee, or a laugh at the pub.

Write the anecdote –  then ask it what it is trying to show you.


Ely, M., Vinz, R., Downing, M., & Anzul, M. (Eds.). (1997). On writing qualitative research. Living by words. London: Falmer.

Van Manen, M. (1989). By the light of anecdote. Phenomenology + Pedagogy (7) 232-253

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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