Field Notes: What, How & Why?

Nearly a month since my last entry. I’ve made a conscious decision not to post umitigated guff, but to post useful topics that might be of interest to/slightly useful to someone. Afterall, there is way too much unmitigated guff in blogland already.

A topic that’s been on my list of ‘blog posts to write’ has been field notes: what, how & why?  This has been prompted in part by a recent post on the Savage Minds blog  however, it’s also in my list of ‘blog topics for Radical anthro (I also have two other blogs that I write. Keeping lists is a must).

I’ll start with a personal anecdote.

When I began undergraduate anthropology at university, I kept a journal. My undergrad course was filled with subjects like Intro to Anthropology (Anthro 101) and Australian Cultures, Modern Indonesian Identites, East Asian Anthropology etc. and very light on methodology. Here’s an excerpt from my journal at the time:

… How do you write field notes? What goes in field notes? How do you write ethnography about your own culture? I don’t really know the answers to any of these questions. Do they come with experience in social research? Do you get taught them at uni? Maybe this is the reason that only one subject or portion of a culture is examined (per semester). Perhaps it is that actions of people should be noted and carefully looked at to uncover the meanings: the signs, values and understandings a society places on an event or object … How much of your observations do you record? I mean, if we write everything, that’s all we’d ever have time for. We could only write a portion of what we observe. Perhaps only the salient portions…

I’m not sure if others ‘growing up’ as anthropologists in the post-Geertz, Marcus & Clifford world encountered anthropology undergrad courses that were light on methodology – certainly in Australia we have lots of them. My conversations with anthropologists ‘grown up’ before the 1990s tells me that functionalism, along with kinship 101 (kinship ad nauseum if you went to Sydney uni) and field research methods a necessary were part of undergrad courses before the interpretive/reflexive revolution of the mid-1980s. This way of teaching anthropology has merits for those of us undertaking field research as post-grads or in working life.

For me, there was a way around the lack of research methodology courses:  I also majored in sociology (big on research methodology) and took some research methods in psychology courses.  By the end of my 3rd undergrad year, I was employed in a Native Title Consultancy firm as a research assistant.  Here, I was first required to create field notes for cases and other projects. Whilst I don’t have copies of my field notes from this time, it was this experience -and what I was learning in sociological research methods- that really helped me to understand the value of field notes and working out a system (but remaining flexible). This shaped my Honours & PhD research, and to other work that I’ve done since.

The what part of my system for taking field notes is basic, and might seem self-evident, but here it is:

1. What I write in the field, the bare minimum:

Date & time

Who & where

Note where people are placed in relation to each other/main objects (i.e houses, office layout, the Ormiston Gorge Kiosk etc)

Dot point* main topics of discussion/event flows/observations

Record verbatim any key quotes

Record any questions the situation raises for you that require later clarification or follow up

Record any ideas/creative zaps/insights you have whilst in-situ (place is powerful)

*Some situations allow you to write more freely (and copiously) than others. Some research sites are used to people with note books, writing furiously. If you’re fortunate to be in such a situation, go for it. Otherwise, jotting dot points on a piece of scrap paper or a pad that looks like a shopping list might be more appropriate.

I recall a story from a PhD student who was undertaking fieldwork near a sensitive Chinese border and regularly had her notes & papers taken by authorities. There were times when she couldn’t take field notes at all. Thus, a shopping list with random points on it might be your only choice.

2. What I write afterwards, ASAP if possible.

I use my dot points to create a narrative of the situation, events etc. What do I mean by a narrative? Tell the story of what happened in detail. I do this away from the field, in private (as much as possible), without disturbances (also as much as possible).

I finish with a paragraph or two of reflection on the event/situation relating to my current thinking about my research problem/trajectory.

I also find this process creates new questions, which I also record as part of the reflection section (and highlight for follow-up along with those in the original ‘dot point’ section).

I do not code at this point.


If you read my comments posted on Savage Minds, you’ll see I’m very much a pen-and-paper girl. I use a hardcover notebook, A5 size.

Why A5?

It fits in a backpack or handbag (for American readers: pocketbook – which incidentally is a word that means laptop computer to Australians!)  easier than the clumping great A4 notebooks that others use. I now use spiral bound, hard cover note books, but for some reason I’ve never understood, when I did my PhD work I didn’t use spiral bound. Also, I take notes on sheets of paper, ‘shopping lists’ or ‘to do list’ type pages if the situation requires me to be discrete.

I have used a variety of minidisc players, mini voice recorders, expensive voice recorders and even an MP3 player to record interviews – but rarely for field notes. I find them intrusive. In fact, much of my work has been done with Aboriginal people, and I’ve only used voice recording for: stories & songs when requested by the informant themselves, words (place names, site names) in language (Aboriginal languages) that people wish to teach me, formal interviews.

I use a plain old blue pen and always have a spare.


For me, why you take field notes is a personal question, related to your own research. My advice is: if you’re a PhD researcher, you can’t have too many field notes (I have 7 books of field notes from my PhD & 2 from my Honours; a good friend of mine had 12 field note books for her PhD).  It’s this simple: field notes will provide a rich source of data to mine when you’re writing up/thinking about your research. They can also be used to triangulate (back up, verify) with interview/focus group/discourse analysis etc data.



I will post as a separate downloadable document an (edited) example of my system shortly. For now, here’s just two books of the hundreds (!) available that I’ve found useful about field notes:

Emerson, R., Fretz, R., & Shaw, L. (1995). Writing Ethnographic Field Notes. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

The place to start, particularly if you’re extremely reflexive. Tells you how to do it, write them up, code them, turn them into data.

Sanjek, R. (ed.). (1990). Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. Cornell University Press.

I haven’t used this one personally, but it comes highly recommended.

Whyte, W.F. (1984). Learning from the field: A Guide from Experience. Sage: Newbury Park.

One of my favourite books on qualitative research methods.


Ethnographies that give *some* insight into field note methods:

(again, this is a short list – I’ll add to it later.)

Dianne Bell. (1993). Daughters of the Dreaming.

Paul Willis. (1977). Learning to Labour.

W.F.Whyte. (1993). Street Corner Society.

Basil Sansom. (1979). The Camp at Wallaby Cross

7 thoughts on “Field Notes: What, How & Why?

  1. Thank you very much for you kind words, Lara. I am glad that you found it helpful and that you took time to comment.



  2. Im currently ‘in the field’ for the first time doing research for my honours year and I have some how slipped through an Anth major never being given any ideas about writing field notes … so THANK YOU!

    • Hi Justine,

      Yes, I’m painfully aware of this black hole in anthropology – at least how it’s been taught in Australia since the early 1990s. It’s a shame that a lot of ‘real’ field methods are no longer taught, and yet most anthropology jobs are in applied anthropology nowadays (again, in Australia, where there’s something of an anthropology/archaeology/cultural heritage management job boom, thanks to the decade-long mining boom we’ve been having). So many grad students come out of university with not the slightest idea of what’s REALLY needed to get a job in anthropology (in Australia).

      I’m planning to change this. Very soon.

      Anyway, thanks for your kind comments, Justine and I wish you all the best with your Honours fieldwork. Please get in touch again if you’ve got any further questions.


  3. hi there! i’m a little late to the party here, and am a communication person, but my work is primarily anthropological. sadly, as seems to be the case with a lot of people replying to your post, my department is very short on methods classes. can someone maybe offer the quick-and-dirty version of coding? or maybe a place where i can learn more about it? that would be so helpful! thank you. 🙂 eec.

  4. The fact that I’m googling around to learn about field notes says quite a lot. So thank you for providing some much needed suggestions!

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