How to write research field notes

Recently I went on a research trip where we used a research method called ethnography for the study.

Essentially, ethnography is the study of people and cultures, where researchers observe from the point of view of the subject. During this research trip, I was asked to write field notes on my observations. I had never participated in an ethnography study before, nor have written field notes, so I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. Through conversations, I had a sense of what I needed to include but I purposefully didn’t ask my supervisor exactly what she wanted, as I was curious to see what sort of style I naturally gravitated to.



With that said, I do suggest you find your own style but if you are wanting some pointers to help you get started or to prepare you before you research trip, here are a few of mine:

  • Write jot-dots notes, as much as you can, throughout the field study. Bring a small notebook and a pen with you everywhere (even the bathroom). Sometimes it is difficult to write something down when you are in the middle of a conversation or in an awkward position but the more you write, the better. Even if it is a couple of words – it is better than nothing. You can type up more thoughts about it later, but at least these few words will jolt your memory. If you can’t take notes on something for some reason, step away and make sure to recap as much as you can. If not, don’t fret, trust that you will write down the most important information and if you don’t you will most likely remember it.


  • Include descriptive and reactive information. Descriptive information should include actual facts, information about the time, physical setting, participants involved, or quotes. But don’t forget about your reaction to these things as well. Did it catch you off guard, did it rub you the wrong way, did it make you feel good – these are all equally important.


  • Use ALL your senses! It’s not just about what you are seeing – pay attention to what you are hearing, smelling, tasting as well. Is the environment loud or eerily quiet? Are there noises in the background, the radio playing, loud traffic, something on the television? Are there particular scents in the air – good or bad? And if you have the chance to taste something – don’t forget about that too!


  • Keep returning to your research question(s). It is easy to get sidetracked with everything that is going on around you. Especially if you are doing a study on a topic that interests you – your mind might be traveling down multiple research questions. So keep a note of your research question for this study and keep going back to it throughout your day. You can explore those other questions later.
PRO TIP: Include in your field notes those questions you are pondering about the research. As well as future research. And the questions you still want to dive into as you are conducting the observation.



  • Type up your notes immediately and reflect. Typing up your notes after the research trip (as soon as possible) is a great way to reflect on main themes that may have arisen. Chatting about these with a colleague on your team might also be helpful to expand these thoughts even further.


Has anyone ever written field notes before?

If so, whats your process and what do you include? I would love to hear from you!


Until next time,

Christine xo




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P.P.S Applying to grad school for the 2018/19 school year? Check out this FREE eBook on 5 steps to a successful grad school application. Are you in grad school and struggling to find easy lunches to bring to campus? Check out three FREE recipes and full nutritional information here.

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