Taking participant observation field notes

I just began the field work component of my PhD in June. I’m beginning my field work period with a language study course and recently I had a few weeks off from my classes to dip my toes into in my research. Before this short stint I had done a summer pilot study to prepare for this project and see what was feasible and what I really wanted to focus on. In the initial pilot study, I had a rough time starting out taking field notes because I didn’t know what I should be recording in my notes. I would write a little about what I was doing and feeling, what other people were doing, and what the setting was like. I thought this would be enough to successfully produce a paper or presentation. Now, after I’ve written a paper, an article, and a couple presentations from field data, I reflected on what I wished I had known while taking those initial field notes, what I wished I had recorded, and what I have since changed in the way I record details from my experiences in fieldwork. 

The notebook

The system I have now is adapted to the nature of the research I’m doing for the time being, which includes mainly classroom observations in primary schools. In my most recent stint of field work I was collecting data on student-teacher interactions, specifically focusing on the language used in these interactions. So I had been sitting in on primary and pre-primary classes for their entire school day. I sat with a notebook and wrote down everything about the setting. I began each entry with the date, time, and my location which usually meant the school and grade level I was sitting in on. I would then describe the interactants and their activities while also trying to record how much time each activity or interaction (like disciplinary breaks) took.

I took notes on interactions also by specifically focusing on “key incidents” (Wilcox 1988:462). An analysis of key incidents helps to connect concrete actions to abstract concepts and theoretical frameworks such as language socialization and discipline (Erickson 1977). In addition to writing down what everyone was doing in as much detail as I could, I explained events that seemed to me to deviate from a norm in even greater detail often with some reflection and interpretation too. If I was confused by something, I would try to explain what exactly confused me. For example, if a student began crying why did it seem that she began crying now and not at other points of conflict?

Over my past few fieldwork experiences I’ve learned what makes for valuable information to my future-self by trying to make something out of these notes recently. I was frustrated with my past-self, writing these notes over a year ago by things I would write like, “the students are out of control” or “Mrs. S is giving a math lesson.” While to me at the time these seemed like perfectly fine descriptors of what I was observing. However, as I went back through my notes, I began to ask myself what exact behaviors indicated that a class was “out of control” and how many students exactly engaged in those behaviors, where were they in the room, and what exactly is “in control” to compare this to? Similarly, what exactly did the math lesson entail and what are some exact words, phrases, and languages the teacher used? When I went back to my notes, I had completely forgotten things that seemed so vivid to me at the time. So to do my future-self a favor, I now take more explicit notes often detailing what exactly minute things like “the teacher is angry” look like. I think I’m finally getting the hang of this practice as thick description rather than an exercise in journaling.


Something that sets my current fieldwork apart from participant observation I’ve done in the past is that while I’m in classes I try and record everything with a small voice recorder. Since my research will entail getting into the nitty-gritty of the language(s) used in classrooms the most accurate and detailed examples of language are extremely important to me. I use a small Sony recorder that I place on my desk or in one class I placed on top of a cupboard to record the communicative interactions of everyone in the room. So, I know while I’m writing, there’s also another device recording too. Therefore, I write in my notebook “started recording” and “stopped recording” respectively so when I go back and listen to the interactions on the voice recording I can read more about what I was observing from my position in the classroom at that time. In the future I plan to video record classroom interactions. I plan to continue this system, though since the video will capture a more visual representation of the scene I hope it will give me a little more freedom to move around and so I will not constantly have to sit and write. I realize sometimes that my writing attracts unwanted and disruptive attention from the students and teachers.

Electronic field notes

While I’m not in my specific field site, I find it hard to write about events from the day in the amount of detail that I use when I’m writing in my field notebook in the moment. Therefore, I had a very difficult time writing up notes at the end of the day. I wasn’t even quite sure why I needed to do this or what the purpose of since I had been writing in my notebook while at my field site during the day. I just knew that whenever I spoke with other anthropologists about field notes and methods, I’ve been told to write up field notes for the day before going to bed.  Since I am keeping a document on my computer for this specific purpose, I decided I should actually use it for something. Having electronic field notes helps me to organize my thoughts more coherently since I am more used to writing in computer documents. This way I can categorize and call attention to (or begin to code) passages as I write. Instead of copying my notebook into an electronic document (which is something I should maybe still consider doing), I’ve decided to use my electronic field note document as a place to explain general glosses of my day. This means I give a summary of the day in broad or general detail. I also write up interactions in as much detail as possible if I did not have a chance to write them out in my notebook. I still have to really push myself to do this each day but overall, when I am successful, I explain the course of main events in the day and try and step back to call my attention to larger patterns and emerging themes. I also add notes to myself in italics about topics to remember, follow-up questions, or connections to readings or other experiences. I usually write the date of the entry in bold and add a title that encompasses the main events of the day that I want to explain or highlight there. This could be something like First day with first graders or School festival day. I’ve found that doing this draws my attention to specific aspects of the day while also creating a link to remember other events that occur on these days.

These are the key ways that I’ve been keeping field notes on my participant observation experiences so far in my field site. I use three different systems (voice recorder, on-site note taking, and electronic notes on overall reflections) to best capture and remember as much as I can from my time in the field. However, while remembering details is a large part of this process, as I am taking these notes down in various forms I am trying to be kind to my future self by anticipating what I will need from my present self. My advice to anyone starting out on this journey is to think into the future about what you will need from your present. For me this includes recordings (either electronic or written) of exact speech. I will also include in this notes on how my current observations connect to larger themes and theoretical frameworks that I see applicable in the moment that I can come back to and either use or discard in the future. I would suggest to others to try and make something of your data early on to go through this trial and error process to hone your note taking skills.  I realize the way I take notes is adapted to the nature of my research and my site. I began with a basis of what I thought field notes should be and how I should take them, and then learned what works and what ends up being useless. I am still adapting my system or the different systems that work for me based on the work I’m doing that day and overall I’m still learning, which is something I think we should always be doing.

Jessica Chandras

PhD candidate, Anthropology, The George Washington University

Works cited

Erickson, Frederick. “Some Approaches to Inquiry in School-Community Ethnography.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 8, no. 2 (1977): 58–69.

Wilcox, Kathleen. “Differential Socialization in the Classroom: Implications for Equal Opportunity.” In George Spindler, ed. Doing the Ethnography of Schooling: Educational Anthropology in Action. Auflage: Reprint. Waveland Pr Inc,1988.


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