Emerson, Robert M., Fretz, Rachel I., and Shaw, Linda L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The core methodological issue of this book is that there has been little to no attention on the process of actually writing fieldnotes - all attention has been on analyzing/coding fieldnotes and finished ethnographies.

What ethnographers consider is widely various, from scratch notes to texts to journals and diaries to letters, reports, and papers (pg. x). What counts as fieldnotes often differs for different researchers. Further, how researchers write fieldnotes differs - ranging from, for example, a log written at the end of each day or notes written as observations are being done. Finally, some ethnographers view fieldnotes as a barrier to understanding what is being observed.

Fieldnotes in Ethnographic Research

Ethnography involves studying people/groups as they go about their everyday lives. Ethnographers enter unfamiliar social settings and get to know those involved, participating in daily routines and developing relationships while observing. This is called participant-observation. As the ethnographer does this, they write down observations and learnings and experiences: fieldnotes. Participant-observation and fieldnotes are the two core interconnected activities of ethnography.

Immersion is the process of becoming embedded in the world of those being studied, enabling a deeper understanding of how the subjects experience their lives. It involves both being with others and observing their reactions but also experiencing those events and circumstances oneself. Some ethnographers become members of a group to better understand groups and activities.

Ethnography does not include the concept of being an objective outsider. One can not observe everything, so perspectives will be skewed, and often an ethnographer may follow certain lines more than others through their own priorities. The ethnographer also has a "consequential presence" which can cause reactive effects, yet should not be viewed as unreliable for this reason, given such reactions still reflect how people form social ties or react to disruption.

Fieldnotes describe experiences and observations but extend beyond trying to just accurately capture observed reality, as there is not a singular accurate truth to be recorded. Fieldnotes describing multiple interpretations of the same observation are more useful. Fieldnotes can always be seen as transforming observations and selecting specific frames, missing other frames. They are a reduction of the many other things happening in that moment, just like surveys reduce questions to numbers. Choosing what to write is "intuitive, reflecting the ethnographer's changing sense of what might possibly be made interesting or important to future readers, and empathetic, reflecting the ethnographer's sense of what is interesting or important to the people he is observing" (pg. 11).

In the case of ethnography, method cannot be separated from findings: "what the ethnographer finds out is inherenhtly connected with how she finds it out" (pg. 11). Findings are not absolute or invariant but contextual on their discovery: situational realities. The authors argue that the separatio vbetween data and personal diaries is misleading because it treats data as objective information with a fixed meaning and distorts the role of inquiry and interpretation as purely subjective.

The authors highlight four implications for writing fieldnotes:
  • What is observed and treated as data is inseperable from the observation process
  • When writing fieldnotes the researcher should give special attention to the indigenous meanings/concerns of those being studied
  • Fieldnotes, taken as observations occur, are an essential grounding/resource for broader, more coherent accounts given insights become diluted overtime as a researcher becomes encultured in a site
  • Fieldnotes should detail the social/interactional processes of everyday lives/activities

Participating, Observing, and Jotting Notes

In some cases, an ethnographer may participate fully in a culture before later taking notes down, which may more reflect experiences and reflections than pure observation. Others may conduct field work conducive to writing fieldnotes in the moment. The authors state both approaches have benefits and deficits. The former allows intensive immersion, and the latter produces more in depth and detailed records. Most field researchers employ both styles. Some ethnographers may avoid writing in the moment to avoid distancing themselves / affecting relationships with subjects. Others may pursue/proclaim research interests more openly in their relationships with subjects.

Some researchers might use jottings, brief notes or concepts scribbled quickly and meant to be remembered later so they can write more detailed notes. This might include jotting down regularly used expressions/terms. Many field researchers will develop their own symbols for quicker jottings. Such techniques also protect confidentiality/privacy as they are unreadable to onlookers.

There are different views on the ethics of consent/awareness when jotting notes - some feel all those being observed should be informed, while others to not feel the need to do so for a variety of reasons (pg. 21). The authors feel that being open about research intentions can avoid feelings of betrayal and consequences. Being upfront gives more flexibility in when and where jottings are appropriate, but may also make people uncomfortable.

The authors offer advice for beginning a project, where one might not know what to write down:
  • First, take note of initial impressions, including senses, details about settings and people, and activities. Researchers tend to lose sensitivity to such things overtime.
  • Second, focus on observing key events or incidents. Rely on own experiences to select key events, such as things that are suprising or upsetting, again paying attention to feelings, interactions, senses, etc. Feelings may also reflect what others might be feeling in the setting. However, the researcher should also be aware that people in the setting may react completely differently depending on culture. Nonetheless, the researcher should make note of personal feelings.
  • Third, move beyond personal reactions to sensitivity to what others in the setting are experiencing or reacting to as important. What is seemingly meaningful to others here? Look for gossip, strong reactions, stopping and watching. Also observe responses and actions to these events. Observe how people of different positions make meaning or react.

Writing up Fieldnotes

A block of concentrated time to spend on writing out notes from memory and jottings: who did/sad what, in what order, the details of the scene. The longer the researcher waits, the fuzzier their memory gets; a few days after observation leads to lost nuanced and detail in the fieldnotes. The authors recommend taking fieldnotes directly after leaving the site, with no discussion with others between doing so. Talk fieldnotes are another option rather than writing, though one will not have immediate access to transcription.

How one decides to write/record fieldnotes reflects one's past experiences and positionality. A researcher might choose to highlight issues and insights brought about by their own position/identity.