On (digital) tools for doing ethnographic research

There are a bunch of physical things, smart phone apps, and other software that I’ve found incredibly useful while doing ethnographic research, research in general, and just traveling near or far from home in general as well. Many of these things I learned through experience or trial and error, or found about about because someone recommended them, and so I thought I would share a compilation in case it is useful to others.

For starters, some generally useful hardware and other physical things that I rely on:

A smart phone and–if traveling internationally and switching between phone companies–a small hard box for storing phone chips and a safety pin for insertion. Also extra phone charger cables.

A memorable-looking small zipped bag for safekeeping: passport, keys / credit cards / IDs for elsewhere, that phone chip box, other currencies, etc. all in one place always.

A laptop with extra storage, if possible! And the charger (mine currently supplemented with some electrical tape; a new one is extra expensive to buy here in Chile).

A backup hard drive! to plug into your computer through a USB cord and do regular full computer backups (I aim for weekly or monthly, at worst). I use a I TB drive.

A rechargeable battery–to charge phones or tablets on the go. This has saved me a few times when traveling alone and trying to navigate places.

Tripod for phone–to regularly video call close ones or record events. I got this one at Best Buy for $13.

Plug / power converter, if going to another country.

Hearing aids, (reading) glasses, and any other devices that help your abilities. I’ve been meaning to write an appreciation post to my new pink hearing aids–TBD.

Kindle or tablet for readings. I had to make some hard decisions when packing books because of luggage weight limits, and the Kindle app (which can also be downloaded to a tablet) has really come in handy as well as PDF readings. If working on an iPad, I highly recommend the app iAnnotate for highlighting, bookmarking, virtual sticky-noting, and note-taking on PDFs (currently $10 USD to download) .

A workspace at home! A desk, a wall calendar, colorful markers, sticky notes, a plant 🙂

Smart phone apps for communicating with folks, navigating places, and finding out about local events:

What’s App–I heavily rely on What’s App both for communication with close ones outside Chile and folks here in Chile. It is definitely not 100% secure but end-to-end encryption is nice, as is easy file sharing, and voice and video calls.

Social media has been really key for finding out about local events. I rely mostly on Facebook, and having been meaning to try out the Facebook Local app.

Google translate—I use this phone app mostly because of its offline download option. I downloaded both English and Spanish and can access their text-input dictionaries totally offline.

Word Reference–this is my go-to dictionary when I’m online (both the app and website). It includes lots of information contextual understandings and uses of words and phrases, and a forum for discussion.

Google maps—again, the offline download option is key. I download an offline map of the city where I’m staying, and then use it to navigate–through GPS, the blue dot will follow you when offline and show your spot on the map.

Skype–I don’t often use Skype, but I see it as a lifeline if I need to make an international phone call from, for example, Chile to the US. There’s an option to add some money to your account to do this (more info here).

Tools for field note-taking:

Favorite notebooks and pens / mechanical pencils, always with a backup—it depends on the social situation; sometimes it’s less awkward or intrusive to write notes down in a notebook, or sometimes it’s better or easier not to whip out a notebook and to just jot notes into your phone. As for notebooks, I splurge on these Rough Draft Mini Notebooks by Bando for $9-12 USD each–the size works well for me, they’re sturdy but not heavy, have a small double-sided pocket in the front that comes in handy, and usually contain positive messages that I find endearing.

Apple Notes app–when I do take notes on my phone, I just use the Apple Notes app pre-installed on my iPhone; it’s simple and works well in synching between my phone and computer, so I can switch off between typing from one or the other. I’ve heard Evernote works well too and has a lot more capacities with an iPhone, Android, or computer.

JustPressRecord–this iPhone app audio records and can then do simultaneous or later automated transcriptions in English of audio recorded on that app. I rely on this sometimes when I’m too tired to sit and write, or if I’m hitting a bit of writers block and just feel like talking it out. The automated transcriptions do make errors often so always revise after. (I’m also now making a mental note that this may be useful for future writers block when dissertation writing—to just talk and let it transcribe and return to it later but at least have some progress documented.)

A few notes on field note-taking:

I split my field note-taking between a hard notebook and on my phone. I think this works fine. However, compiling and backing up notes in one place is key!–especially those notes being stored on a cloud that could get lost or jumbled in a technical error. Regularly writing things down in the first place, especially soon after a big day of interviewing, archiving, or participant-observing, is also key. I’ve been trying to be better at both of these practices. In terms of the former, my goal is to–at the end of each month–compile notes from my phone into one text file and if not type at least photocopy the pages of my notebook into a PDF file, and then back up those files on my external drive. It’s always a good idea to maintain at least two copies of your field notes each stored in a different location (e.g. the original copy and a back-up), to avoid losing them.

Also, it’s generally a bad (or straight-up unethical) idea to save any private details or identifiable sensitive information to a cloud server (which includes apps like the Apple Notes app or Evernote that synch between devices via a cloud server). Any info shared to a cloud is not totally confidential; it is being sent to another hard drive (aka “the cloud”) and could potentially be hacked and intercepted when being sent or accessed by an employee of that cloud company. Using a cloud service for note-taking or storing other data may also raise concerns with the IRB and other institutional bodies that may be regulating your research. Learn more about some of these concerns here: “Cloud Security for Anthropologists” by Alexander Taylor, 2018.

Tools for interviews and other sound recordings:

Honestly, I haven’t yet began recording formal interviews for my current research project, but I am planning to begin soon and have dabbled in some soundscape recordings (check out my post on that here). So here’s what I have found useful thus far:

The Zoom H4N Pro–a portable digital audio recorder for fairly high quality recordings (and a high price too at $220 USD currently), good for more nuanced sound recordings or to capture the broader sounds of the environment. For being a higher quality portable recorder, it still gets great battery life of 6 hours or up to 10 hours in “stamina” mode and can store up to 32 GB (note that higher quality audio takes up more storage). This said, you can pay thousands of dollars on fancy microphones with higher qualities and specific abilities, but that’s more at the level of sound engineering and professional filmmakers and portability is more limited (learn more about a variety of less fancy to fancier options from sound artist Zach Poff here).

Alternatively, there’s the Olympus WS853–various folks have recommended Olympus over the years (see Ryan Anderson’s post on “Tools for the Field: Digital Audio Recorders,” 2013) and this one seems like a good option that is smaller and cheaper (currently $80 USD), has a crazy long battery life of 110 hours, and still provides up to 8 GB storage (though some reviewers complained it doesn’t have a backlight for the screen). If the focus of your recordings will just be people’s voices in a rather quiet and stable recording environment, then a high quality recorder isn’t needed and that longer battery life may be more useful. As I learned from a Digital Humanities Summer Institute course by sound artist John Barber, if you’re just recording speech, you can get totally acceptable recordings at a 11,025 Hz sampling rate, which makes the battery last longer and takes up less storage!

Memory card, wind muffler, USB cable, and rechargeable batteries–if these accessories don’t come with the digital audio recorder you purchase, be sure to get them! The first three are necessary. A wind muffler can also easily be DIY-ed using some fake fur from a craft store and sewing the edges into a pouch that can be pulled closed on top of the microphone. The rechargeable batteries are just super handy–it really sucks to have to keep buying and replacing batteries–and less wasteful. I use the Energizer – Pro NiMH AA/AAA Battery Charger, which includes 4 AA rechargeable batteries for about $20. The Zoom H4N I use takes 2 and then I can bring the other 2 just in case I run out.

Apple Voice Memos app or JustPressRecord–two different iPhone apps for recording audio just directly using the iPhone (see more info on JustPressRecord in the section on field note-taking above), if you really don’t care too much about the audio quality or if on-the-go recording. Note that recording on an iPhone or another smart phone (there are lots of Android options too) will give you monaural recordings, meaning that all the audio is recorded together on one channel, not in stereo (which captures sounds from the left and the right).

Garageband or Audacity–both are good options for basic editing and mixing of audio, if you want to make changes or combine audio that you recorded. Garageband comes pre-installed on any Mac computer or Audacity is a free open-source cross-platform option.

Software for visiting archives and libraries:

TurboScan Pro PDF Scanner–I swear by this app for scanning with a smart phone; it costs around $6 USD (more info here). It allows a user to take a photo of each page and then semi-automatically identifies the shape of the page within the photo (pro-tip: set the pages on a contrasting background) and saves that page within a file, which you can then fairly quickly keep adding pages to and later email or save the whole file to a cloud drive as a PDF or JPEG file. I use it when photocopying reports or books.

Tropy–I’ve heard this is a great free open-source cross-platform desktop application for organizing photos when doing archival research (see this article on “Research clutter: a new app helps create order out of disorder” by Zoë Jackson, 2018). Tropy allows you to tag and group photos and add lots of metadata to each photo. Note that it works on computers only and with photos only (JPG/JPEG, PNG, SVG, TIFF, or GIF formats). It also might come in handy to organize screenshots of publicly posted social media posts.

If the quality of your archival photos are really important, you may also want to consider getting a nice camera for those photos and organizing them using Tropy or another app.

A note on archival researching:

It depends on your situation and the stability of the archive or repository you’re working with, but if it’s fairly stable, I found that reading and taking notes (I just used my notebook and pencil, which forced me to highlight and summarize) while I photocopied helped me pace out the reading through of materials and to get a better sense of the archive’s collection, what to keep looking for, and what to photocopy or not. That said, when photocopying a whole book, I only skimmed it before/while photocopying. See more advice here: “Anthropologists in the Archives: A Brief Guide for the Perplexed” by David Price, 2018.

Websites for finding books (and movies) online, and software for organizing citations:

Google Books–it’s amazing how many books are uploaded on this site, often including full introduction chapters. Also, even with limited pages available for public viewing, usually if a book is on Google books, its pages are entirely text-searchable which can be useful.

Libgen.io–if you, like me, favor sharing over private property, this site is great for finding lots of PDFs of full books, new and old. Note that I find it works best on Firefox as an internet browser, and not Chrome.

Sci-hub.se–I’ve heard this is a great site for finding pirated science research papers, if you don’t have subscription access through e.g. a university library system.

Unlocater.com–if you are based in another country and want to access a video streaming platform not available in that country, like me trying to keep up to date with the CW’s last season of Jane the Virgin <3, this online service costs $5 USD/month to set up a “smart DNS” that makes your computer appear to be in the US or whatever country you pick. (If you create an account, login, follow their instructions to complete set-up, then click “Advanced” under the “Smart DNS” menu section, on that page copy “Your Private API Key and URL” and paste it into a new internet browser tab, wait for a message like “IP [long number] exists” to appear on the browser page, and you’re good to go to the CW, HBO Go, Hulu, or whatever site and stream away.)

Zotero–I don’t often use citational software, which probably makes me way less efficient though I am pretty stickler at file naming e.g. “[Last name(s)] [Year published] [Book/article title]” which makes searching my computer files fairly easy. But if you do want to keep your citations super organized, Zotero is a great free open-source software for capturing, saving, and grouping citations. You can also create private or public Zotero groups for sharing lists citations, and Zotero is compatible with a variety of other software, including Atlas.TI (see the section below).

Software for qualitative data analysis and coding:

Note sure what qualitative coding is? This article provides a good intro: “Themes Don’t Just Emerge — Coding the Qualitative Data” by Erika Yi, 2018.

You can literally do qualitative coding with some printouts and highlighters, or in MS Word using the highlighter formatting or note bubbles in track changes and copy/pasting into a MS Excel sheet, and I’ve also heard some folks use sticky notes on a wall (see “The tools we use: Gahhhh, where is the killer qualitative analysis app?” by Tricia Wang, 2012), but if you want something fancier and more comprehensive… I haven’t begun data analysis for this project yet; usually folks wait until they’re done with fieldwork or pick a mid-way point to break and do some preliminary analysis. Anyhow, here’s a brief run-down of some popular software options that I’ve looked into:

Atlas.TI–the general go-to qualitative data analysis and coding software for anthro! It’s a desktop software (2 years of access to the PC or Mac software for full-time students currently costs $99, or there’s also a free cloud version that’s currently in “beta” aka an early stage preview version) available for various platforms. Atlas.TI allows you to upload various “documents” (text, image, audio, video or geographic materials) into the software of which it then saves copies that you can annotate and group, create “quotations” or clips of various documents, create and apply qualitative “codes” across those documents and quotations, create “memos” with your notes that can also be added to groups, and visualize data through “networks” and other methods, and export data (e.g. a table in Excel format or a report in MS Word / Open Office or PDF format, graphics of networks, or copies of your documents showing all of your coding in the margins). They made a great Atlas.TI 8 Quick Tour summary of features here for Mac or here for PC.

NVivo–this seems to be a popular qualitative data analysis software among sociologists. NVivo also allows you to upload various document types (text, images, audio, video, spreadsheets, database tables, .rtf files) that can then be grouped, quoted, and qualitatively coded, with different options for data visualization. For students, NVivo Pro 12 currently costs $99 USD/24 months or NVivo 12 Mac costs $85 USD/24 months. A key feature of NVivo is that it comes with the option to automatically transcribe good quality speech in a video or audio file to text–and it actually can transcribe in a bunch of different languages, though I’m not sure about accents (also note that the transcription service runs through a cloud).

Transana–a popular software option among linguists and the only one here where you can actually purchase and download a copy of the software to keep, rather than pay for a time-limited license. A key feature of Transana Professional (currently $350 per computer), and hence its popularity among linguists, is its ability to “import, transcribe, code and analyze up to four simultaneous media files (e.g. multiple cameras)” and “locate media Clips in context and export Clip videos,” and “create and synthesize up to 5 simultaneous media transcripts representing analytic layers” in a single video or audio file (source).  There’s also a cheaper version, Transana Basic, that doesn’t allow for these multiple streams and some other features currently for $150/computer.

Dedoose–another qualitative data analysis software that works with a variety of materials (text, audio, video, images, and survey and test data). It is fully and only available as web-based software that functions through a cloud–so keep in mind those security concerns and potential issues if you don’t have a steady Wifi connection. It seems like one key benefit to using Dedoose is that it’s designed with group work in mind so I’m assuming workflow may be smoother than with other software options. Also it’s a more affordable option if you are working on a shorter-term project and aren’t concerned about long-term access, Dedoose charges per month–the current student rate is about $11 USD/month.

DEVONthink for Mac and iOS–a couple friends have recommended this document management app software. It seems by far the most extensive in terms of its ability to search into all the corners of your computer, and, relatedly, its breadth of compatible data types that can be tagged and later viewed altogether, without actually making a separate copy of any files so it’s easier to port data in/out of the app (more discussion on that here). It also boasts a lot of special features, including OCR (to scan documents and make them readible as text), email and website downloading and archiving, document duplication detectability, and an option to synch the software across various Mac or iOS devices (again beware of cloud confidentiality concerns). That said, it does not appear to allow you to tag or code a section/quotation/clip within a file and then view those sections together, and doesn’t seem to have any data visualization features. DEVONthink Pro 3 currently costs $199 USD (a one-time fee?), which can be used on up to two Mac computer/devices. There’s a discount option for students, educators, and nonprofits. There’s also a free beta version, DEVONThink 3.0, that has less features. Given that it’s more of a document manager and tagger, a lot of folks cite Evernote or One Note as an alternative–see a discussion of using DEVONThink Pro for research here: “Organizing Your Research with DEVONthink Pro Office” by Evan Cordulack, 2012.

A note re non-open-access software:

Sadly, none of the above qualitative data analysis software options are open access (see a great discussion of what makes something open access by GC Digital Fellow alum Patrick Smyth here). Never has open access had such tangible meaning in my life to be honest, and speaking as a GC Digital Fellow alumna no less! Why? Because, for my current research, Atlas.TI seems like a near-perfect option in terms of capabilities, but I am worried about creating all of my webs of coding and other organizational connections across research materials through that private software and eventually getting locked out of those webs because I’m done with paying the extension fees. Yes, I could export and save excel files with coding data saved in them, or copies of materials with coding in the margins, but those are flattened versions of the webs of connections that I (hypothetically) created and drew analysis from in the app.

So then a one-time downloadable software option like Transana seems more useful, because I could buy a copy of that software to keep on my computer for good, but then if some kind of future issue arises I still can’t modify the software myself (or get a friend to help) and if I ever lose or stop using the one specific computer it’s downloaded and licensed to, I’d have to buy the software again and data saved within the old version might not be renderable anymore.

A note re file and software compatibility:

Be vigilant in checking which qualitative software matches the kinds of files you are / will be working with (e.g. audio, video, text, photos) and the specific file types (e.g. an image saved as .jpeg versus .png, or text saved as .txt versus .docx) that are compatible between devices and software. If you are looking for a software that does automated transcription or suggests qualitative codes, language compatibility may also be important to verify.

Relatedly, it is also good idea to research ahead of time what sort of qualitative research software will work best for you before dumping all your data into and organizing or coding it in one particular software. Switching materials and organizational systems between softwares would likely be a big hassle and not something you want to do often if avoidable.

Tools for maintaining physical and mental health:

Honestly not my strong suit lately… I’ve been sick about half the time I’ve been here and already noticeably lost weight. My mental stress usually translates into getting physically ill and so here I am, but anyhow this is an area I’m really starting to focus and work on.

Academic Muscle–this is an awesome blog that includes posts on exercise, food and nutrition, lifestyle, mental health, and saving money, all from the perspective of a current PhD student.

Therapy via CISI Health Insurance, for folks from the United States–if traveling internationally (where health insurance isn’t universal / doesn’t cover therapy), purchasing a travel health insurance plan might make therapy for once in your life actually relatively affordable. And with all the stress involved with independent travel and research, if you’re not already doing therapy, it might be a good time to start. A comprehensive plan through CISI Health Insurance is the program recommended to CUNY students (currently for $58 USD/month), and I just found out that therapy sessions on that plan through a provider based outside the US are totally covered, including video calls if you can’t find someone local (or in my case a local English-speaker because therapy in my second language sounds stressful).

The Somatics Toolkit for Ethnographers-–I am curious to try this out. The “toolkit” on the linked website includes a set of Core Practice Audio Guides for bringing an awareness of your body more deeply into your ethnographic sensibility and research practice, which seems to include working through some of the many anxieties that accompany doing research.


Per usual, I might keep adding to this. To send along ideas you may like to share, contact me!


1 Reply to “On (digital) tools for doing ethnographic research”

  1. Love this! What a great great thing to do for your fellow human beings and Anthros. I hope your efforts have brought good energies back to you, Melissa

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