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How to write field notes (and how to teach the writing of fieldnotes)

Writing is hard. And writing field notes is hard, too. I don’t think that there is enough guidance on how to do it. I’ve written about the use of ethnographic fieldnotes in scholarly written output, but I don’t think I had ever written about how to write fieldnotes and how to teach or learn on your own how to write better field notes.

Working and writing everywhere

Given my extensive experience as an ethnographer and fieldworker, I felt that it was important that I wrote a Twitter thread (which I am now converting into a blog post) on how to write field notes, along with references and citations that might be useful for people to read.

Over the past three weeks, in my Qualitative Data Analysis and Interpretation class, we have covered Coding, Theming and Writing Field Notes and Analytic Memorandums. These are classic components of qualitative text analylsis, and I discussed them in great depth. I believe that’s part and parcel of QDA.

In my Qualitative Data Analysis and Interpretation class, I went over what I believe is the core of a field note: I use a notebook, and on one side, I write my observations of whatever I am studying, alongside with the date and time. I make detailed notes (also noting on the left hand side of the page). Usually, the left hand side of the field notebook pages serves me to note my own emotions, the context, etc. This is not an uncommon approach (left hand side “emotions/context”, right hand side “phenomenon we are observing”) but others may use a different approach to mine.

But in my view, that’s also part of why it’s so hard to teach how to write good field notes: many/most of us may not be willing to show anybody else our field notes (for privacy/sensitivity issues, but also because they are primarily for us). And yes, despite good books on field notes.

Now, here’s the thing: you can teach how to write field notes, and how to write GOOD field notes, but then there’s the question of how do you write good ETHNOGRAPHIES? As I have taught my Qualitative Data Analysis and Interpretation students, my own personal bias is that a field note and an analytic memo are DIFFERENT.

But to teach how to write good fieldnotes we also need to educate our students on how to write excellent ethnographic prose. For that particular purpose I have two suggestions:

1) Read A LOT OF ETHNOGRAPHIES, particularly book-length.

2) Read books on how to write ethnography.

Teaching Qualitative Data Analysis and Interpretation has already changed me and the term is not over yet. I have been able to spend a lot of time pondering and thinking about the craft of teaching how to do good qualitative research, and it has benefited me enormously.

So, my take home suggestions. If you want to learn how to write good field notes:

1) Read books on field note writing
2) Read books on writing ethnographies
3) Read well written ethnographies
4) Practice writing field notes
5) Practice writing analytic memorandums.

and…

6) Practice writing scholarly outputs.

Hopefully this blog post will be useful to readers interested in qualitative methods.

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Posted in academia, fieldwork, qualitative methods, research methods, writing.

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