How to Write Ethnographic Field Notes

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Participant observation is a valuable method of investigating how individuals interact with each other and structure their social group. Ethnographic research enables social scientists to understand the day-to-day experience of the group of people they are studying. Writing field notes can be tricky, but they are a crucial component to successful ethnography. They contain the documentation the researcher observes. Read on to learn how to write ethnographic field notes.

  • Choose the location or group that you want to observe. Select based on how the group's activities help you investigate the social issue you are studying. Arrange a schedule of observation with a person in a position of authority within the group or organization.

  • Decide whether or not you want to be open about your study with the people you are observing. Some people feel uncomfortable or act differently when they know they are being watched.

  • Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. Jot down noteworthy interactions and quotes when possible.

  • Be discreet and protect your notes. Field notes are documentation of what you witness and may include conflicts or gossip. Use significant keywords that jog your memory. Refer back to keywords to develop thorough notes after you have left the field.

  • Type up a detailed version of your notes for future analysis. Fill in the gaps of your field notes by reading the keywords and fully explaining the situation you observed. Use code names for the people you observed to protect their identities. Include an interpretation and impressions at the end of the document.

Tips & Warnings

  • Refrain from telling your subjects your research question. Be vague when answering their questions, even if they are aware that you are conducting some form of research.
  • Complete your field notes immediately after leaving the field. Write with greater detail when the experience is fresh in your mind, which strengthens your data.
  • The sensitive nature of what is written may include what people don't want revealed about themselves or their group. Field notes are for your eyes only.

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