On practices of writing field notes

I found it hard to find sources that talk about the day to day realities and struggles of keeping regular field notes during ethnographic research and what those field notes actually look like and amount to—the practices of taking field notes, as opposed to an ideal-type (or extremely Type A personality) method for taking them. With this in mind, I’m sharing here some of my practices and struggles with taking field notes. I lean on the book Field Notes by Luis A. Vivanco (2016) for its very useful theorization and concrete discussion of field note taking (and ethnographic methods in general). I greatly appreciate Vivanco’s approach, as written into the title of chapter one, that emphasizes: “anthropology beyond ‘just go do it.'”

Note that I added a post-fieldwork update below! “On taking field notes when, where, and how you can, and what to document” [Added January 9, 2020]

During my current research, I’ve been taking three kinds of field notes, in the following order (lately at least):

(1) Reflective journaling;

(2) Jotting down details in the moment; and

(3) Conventional, slightly more formalized Field Notes—detailed summaries of events with fully formed sentences that I type up later in the day or following days in a particular template that I created (based off an example in Vivanco 2016 on page 41).

I take both types (1) and (2) notes in and between two forms: on a notes app that automatically synchs between my phone and computer (I use Apple’s Notes app pre-installed on my iPhone 7 and Macbook Air), and writing in pen into a hard copy notebook dedicated to my current research (I’ve written about notebook type and tools for ethnography here). Type (3) is strictly only typed on on my laptop and saved as Word .doc files.

In terms of saving back-up copies, my goal has also been to then copy/paste all the type (1) reflective journaling that made it into the Notes app into a monthly Word .doc (for extra safekeeping in case the app has any errors). Then I try to do a full backup of all the contents of my local laptop (including .doc files of types (1) and (3) notes) onto a backup hard drive every two weeks or so. I don’t regularly save type (2) jotted down notes in the same way because they hopefully get summarized into my more formalized type (3) notes, or sometimes type (1), in a more fleshed out way. Ideally, though, I would also regularly photocopy and save copies of my type (2) handwritten notes onto my laptop that is regularly backed up.

I do a lot of reflective journaling. The way I write them they’re a complete blur between what I’m learning about my research topic, about myself, about the relations between me and my research topic, about ethnographic methods, about theory, about teaching, and also drafts of blog posts such as this one here. I often do a sort of reflective journaling into the Notes app on my phone when I try to face big questions or when I’m feeling a lot of anxiety or just feels in general. What I like about these notes is that they allow me a space to keep a record of what’s going on in my head, how I’m thinking through the practices of the methods I’m attempting, and how the research that I am trying to produce can never really be separated from this process of me thinking through and practicing it. I also find this kind of note taking to be somewhat therapeutic.

Screen shot of the Notes app (pre-installed on Macbook computers) with a draft note highlighted. The title of the highlighted note is "Fieldwork Free Write".
Screenshot of my Notes app open on my laptop, with the currently open “Fieldwork Free Write” note highlighted in yellow

I take these notes in one single “Note” [see the photo above, the note titled “Fieldwork Free Write” that is highlighted in yellow] divided by month in all-capital letters and bold, with the theme of each stream of thought in bold before a chunk of writing. Within that one long notes, I organize the months and the content within each month so that the most recent writing always appears at the top of the note so it’s the first thing I see when I open the note file and when I scroll down I can see all of my past reflections in reverse chronological order. In that “Fieldwork Free Write” note I also include notes on citations, policy, news, and topics to look up for more information.

This said, I do also see the importance of taking more formal conventional field notes—type (3). At the end of the day, this research I am doing is not about me as much as it is about a social formation that constitutes a political movement and the significance of that movement in relation to the people that comprise it or are claimed to be represented by it as well as local, regional, national, and transnational politics. Focusing too much my on my role and feelings as a researcher shifts the focus more onto my own subjectivity and onto questions of methods. These are still very worthwhile and important questions that are deeply entangled with the research that I produce, but such a focus on them can draw attention and space away from details of the movement itself, and not just my interactions with it. I hope that in my near-future process of writing up to find a sort of balance in discussing both my relation to the research and the research itself.

photograph of page 41 from Vivanco 2016, which includes images of two field note writing styles
Photograph of Vivanco 2016 page 41, presenting two field note writing styles

In my practice, more formalized field notes force me to focus more specifically on the research itself—to creating a detailed record of events and spaces that I participated in and/or observed, where/when/how events happen by or with who, and details and background regarding how they happen in practice between people in places. I began taking field notes in a way that also delineates a space for follow-up questions and ideas written to my future self as well (that Vivanco advocates for on pages 40 and 42, citing Emerson et al. 2011), including future questions to investigate, futures places to look for sources, future contacts to reach out to, and citations or information to look up.

Following an example by PhD fieldworker Teresa Mares included in Vivanco’s book on page 41 (see photo above), I created a template .doc for myself to copy/paste and save as a new doc to begin taking field notes for a particular event. I always save the file name as the full date followed by the name of the event, for example: 09.19.2019_event_name.doc (and I do not use any spaces in the file names just in case I want to attempt to run these files through any digital programs in the future.)

Download my Field Notes template .doc

Vivanco shares some great advice regarding some of the key “principals of good note taking” (pages 40-41), shortened and summarized below:

    • “Jot down some background.”
    • “Show, don’t tell.”
    • “Avoid generalizing.”
    • “Avoid projecting internal states and emotions.”
    • “Jot down any sensory details and intuitions you might have.”
    • “Keep a running list of questions.”

Vivanco also includes some “practical strategies for ethical note taking” (on page 52), which can be tricky to balance while capturing the above details and while being out and about:

    • “Remove identifying information about people you are observing or interviewing”–though, I would add some exceptions:  if public figure is openly speaking to the audience during a very clearly public event, or during an interview during which the interviewee prefers and consents to be identified by their name.
    • “Use pseudonyms for individuals instead of actual names.”
    • “Try not to include details about individuals that could allow them to be identified if somebody sees your notes.”
    • “Keep your notes in a password-protected computer file or locked file cabinet.”
    • And, I’d add: sometimes just don’t take any notes ever! Specifically if someone makes it clear something is private or not to be shared

Also, remember that any field notes saved on the cloud, including on phone or computer apps that save or synch information when online, are not entirely confidential (I discuss that more on this post, under “A few notes on field note-taking”).

Lastly, I should add for the sake of honesty (which academia desperately needs more of), that I hard-core procrastinate typing up these more formal field notes! No, I will not tell the internet how much. And I think that’s fairly commonly practiced just not admitted?

Anyhow, this is all I’ve got for now on field notes. To the other researchers out there: We can do it! I’m assuming our future selves will thank us for as many and as good of notes we can produce!

Reference cited:

Vivanco, Luis A. 2016. Field Noes: A Guided Journal for Doing Anthropology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Update! “On taking field notes when, where, and how you can, and what to document”

[Added on January 9, 2020, post-fieldwork]

With hindsight, I wanted to add some more less reflections here on writing field notes. My last two months of fieldwork in October and November 2019 were a flurry of scheduling and conducting interviews, and attending lots of events, meetings, and protests. In correlation to the rise of nationwide anti-inequality and anti-austerity protests in Chile (still ongoing!), folks already socially or politically organizing seemed to really increase their work and many new organizing practices / spaces were also emerging. So I was literally running from one thing to the next and sleeping very little. Then, before I knew it, I had to start doing goodbyes and just barely finished packing before catching my first flight back to return to NYC.

So with this all in mind, I realized that what I wrote before was still a bit idealistic, especially in the context of when/if fieldwork gets really busy or stressful. It can be really hard to find time (and energy!) to sit down and write up field notes after running around all day. In those last two hectic months I did my best to jot down basic details (Type 2 described above), between quickly typing things into the Notes app on my phone and always carrying a notebook and pen around with me. I also tried my best to save PDFs of media and other publications, and just take Types 1 and 3 notes when I could without guilting myself for when I couldn’t. And I protected all my audio files and signed consent forms from interviews like the precious objects that they are, each saved in at least two places.

In short, in my experience:

field notes in theory, this every day:

Gif of a woman typing on a laptop with a mug of coffee steaming next to her and clocks with spinning hands in the background, as if time were passing quickly without her keeping track
Gif above by Rebecca Hendin, shared on Giphy

vs. field notes in practice:

take them when you can, where you can, how you can

But what notes should you take when you can? And other forms of quick documenting?

What I did was make sure to have some kind of personal record of event names, dates, times, how I got invited, what happened, and who hosted and was there (written with anonymity / pseudonyms when necessary). My goal for these quickly jotted down notes was essentially to capture: Okay, so I was at this event at this time with these people and got there via this introduction and saw these things happen and these other things confused me or were super unfamiliar and interesting, and I really had this strong feeling about that one other thing…

Depending on context and consent, it is also great to catch and write down direct quotations or particular actions or facial expressions that seemed notable to you, as well as any details of the space that stuck out to you (note: don’t fall into the trap of trying to guess or assume people’s motives or emotions!). Among these notes, I jotted down details that seemed interesting or something I should follow up with later, such as looking up a policy that was mentioned that I’m not familiar with or a key contact I should reach out to–in other words, notes to my future self (as discussed earlier).

Specifically, I tried to keep a record of details I imagined I would need if I wanted to write up an ethnographic vignette of that event later. In terms of the notes to my future self, I had in mind a few different future selves at different stages of fieldwork, such as: my future self the next day remembering who to call on the phone as promised; my future self in another month looking for more research threads to follow; my future self a year later writing up and wanting to remember what headspace I was in at that time and maybe some ideas or theoretical questions I was wrestling with.

I also sometimes used my phone to take screenshots of social media event pages and sometimes photos / videos at events (only when clearly public-facing)–not to share but for my own records. Note that I admittedly have only recently–now post-fieldwork–have begun to organize any of those screenshots, photos, etc. though! I simply didn’t have the time or energy while still in the field, again, particularly during those last two busy months. And again, tried not to guilt myself for this (guilt is not a useful emotion!).

In contrast, towards the beginning of fieldwork when things were going much slower for me research-wise (and the general state of things in the area was much calmer without the nationwide protests), I wrote a lot more of reflective notes (Type 2). And, honestly, I think I did a lot of this reflective writing my first few months in part because I felt really lost and overwhelmed. The extreme inductiveness of ethnographic research, its required social / emotional labor, and the extreme independence and pressure of doing a dissertation was just a lot.

This is partly why pairing ethnography with other more structured methods may be useful. For myself and many others, the first few months of ethnographic research seems like just a lot of feeling around in the dark–for a theoretical anchor that guides what you do or don’t focus on in practice that is fully feasible, for folks who are really open and consent to have you hang around a lot as a “participant observer”, or to piece together all of the layers of political, social, historical etc. context that you need to find a way to understand. That said, in my case, it got a lot better later on and what I learned from that feeling-around-in-the-dark later turned out to be super useful and interesting! But while I was in that beginning stage, having a physical archive at an NGO where I could regularly visit, flip through hard materials, and take notes really helped give more sense of structure to the act of “researching”, and also helped me get to know the activist Señoras working there.

During these slower research periods, I also tried to remind myself that what I wasn’t hearing about or seeing matters too! For example, it could be interesting to examine and maybe ask around about who or what wasn’t at or part of an event or project and why. It could also be telling and interesting to investigate what kinds of practices aren’t happening–or, more likely, not happening where or whom you are focusing on…

Certainly more formal typed-up field notes (Type 3 described above) are awesome too–to keep organized and have a very thorough set of field notes for later reference–but that level of writing and formalization is just not always super feasible. So I cut myself a break! Even so, there still were times that I did actually catch myself losing track of time while writing reflective or in-depth (Type 2 or 3) field notes like that cool .gif above, but no, not everyday.

Over time, a mix of all these kinds of notes accumulated. The process of writing and collecting these notes, and periodically skimming over them, helped me start seeing some patterns and more concrete direction, which is now guiding me in the very beginning of drafting a proposal to write up my dissertation! Also, I think, depending on who you talk to, many anthropologists would consider all three types to be “field notes”–or, at least, I do! 

To end with some general advice: While I hate to write this because it’s not very concrete, I feel like folks just need to find a style that works for them to write field notes in however many forms, and then also make time to write (and in my case also get over the awkwardness of note-taking in front of folks, depending on the context). This writing will likely be a combination of sometimes just quick key details on-the-go and other times more reflective or in-depth.  So try to keep that I’m-not-writing-enough guilt and the always-present imposter’s syndrome at bay, and just write when you can, where you can, how you can. You’ve already made it this far, you’re probably already a damn good student with perhaps overly high expectations of yourself!

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