As noted within the section on participant observation in the book, this method involves both participating in, and observing, every day and/or professional life as it happens. Participant observation is the practice of actually collecting data whilst ethnography is the written product that emerges from that process.
Observations span different time spans, however, in every case field notes are an important part of this process. Field notes are important as they are often utilized as a focus for your analysis later on. So, it is important to get them right! Here we provide some guidance on capturing information in your field site, showing you some examples of best practice alongside some field notes which require some additional work or development.
The goal of field notes is to capture everything which is going on around you, including all the sensory information and your own reflections. Writing down what is happening might seem easier than you think!
Step 1. Before entering the field
We note in the book that although fieldwork is inductive, it isn’t blind and so there are some tasks to do before entering the field which we will call ‘Step 1’.
- Have you done your background research on the people or place which you are observing? Do you have some idea of what the space is like and how the people within it operate?
- Have you thought about what you will say if people ask you what you are doing or what your research is for?
- Have you considered your ‘frames of interest’? So what are the key things you are looking for? This will help you to stay focused in the field [see chapter 12 of the book]
- Have you decided how you will record the data? (Pack spare pens and paper, or ensure your recording devices are fully charged!)
Finding your Way: This will help to ensure that you are prepared, so that you are in the best position to collect the data effectively.
Step 2. Creating your checklist
In the book we reference Spradley’s (1980) account of things that can be used to help you frame your fieldwork, this is a great starting point to create a checklist of things to look for. However, you need to create a checklist or document that works best for you and allows you to record information quickly and effectively in the field. Getting this ready before you go is really important, as it makes the process easier (and less stressful!).
We have created some templates for you to utilize in the field. Whilst it might not be possible to capture all of the items on this list during each observation, or you might want to modify them, using the list as a starting point might be helpful.
Additionally, it is important to note that you might be recording notes using technology such as smartphones. If so, the same template can be drafted into a notes page and completed in the same way.
A reminder of Spradley’s (1980) checklist:
- Space: The physical space
- Actors: The people
- Acts: Single actions that people do
- Activities: The things they do
- Events: Larger sequences of related activities
- Goals: The things people are trying to accomplish
- Time: The sequencing of events
- Feelings: The emotions that are experienced
Step 3: Entering the field
You could keep the checklist really precise, borrowing Spradley’s (1990). This can be copied and utilized in the field as it is, allowing you to fill in the details quickly and easily. You might want to expand the boxes or utilize multiple sheets too. Remember to do a pilot exercise to allow you to make these types of decisions before entering the field site.
Examples of Field Notes:
We have provided three different examples of taking field notes, starting with one that has some problems, progressing to better ones. Aspects for improvement are included (written in blue) which demonstrates how field notes could be improved.
In all cases, the study site for observation is a short bus ride. The key aim of the research was to understand how people use public transport and how they interact within this space.
From field notes to (early!) analysis:
If you complete your field notes carefully, these become an excellent starting point begin analysis. After leaving the field, make sure you finish writing up your notes or complete your sketches. Next, it might be a good idea to highlight or identify the things that have interested you most, so ask yourself these important questions:
- What were the most interesting points from the fieldwork?
- Can I make any immediate links to previous research or literature?
- Did the fieldwork run smoothly? What if anything, would I do differently?
For further tips on how to effectively collect qualitative data through observations: