Agony in Ecstasy: Loneliness and Isolation in Ethnographic Fieldwork

I recently read Rebecca Schuman’s article, “The Not-So-Splendid Isolation of Doctoral Study,” published on’s Don’t Look Back in Anger series dedicated to exploring topics related to the grad-school experience. In the article, Schuman explains that while pursuing her PhD she ignored her physical and mental health, subsuming to and prioritizing intellectual work over all other physical and emotional needs which resulted in isolating herself to an unhealthy degree in her work. The article resonated with me and was able to put words to many of the creeping feelings I had been trying to ignore while engaging in my own fieldwork- mainly those of isolation and loneliness. Although my experiences on the way to getting my PhD are vastly different from Schuman’s, her article spoke more broadly about a period of isolation, both physical and intellectual, that occurs while pursuing higher degrees in specialized topics that require periods of independent data collection, often far from home. In this post I want to share my own experiences with isolation and loneliness to open a dialogue about how although we generally work independently as anthropologists, we should never feel as though we are alone. This blog post does not address a specific methodological approach, but I think it is equally important to discuss how we should keep ourselves sane and healthy while engaging in ethnographic fieldwork.

I’ve found that my anthropological fieldwork is both incredibly rewarding and frustrating. On good days, I am engaged in a meaningful task or bouncing from one meeting to another where I go from being absorbed in one observation to an equally enlightening interview to a fascinating cultural event. When this happens I can’t wait to take down notes and begin to theorize and analyze what I’ve experienced. On these days I feel confident, uplifted, and motivated. I independently plan and coordinate my schedule and it’s wonderful when I feel like I’m able to pull off piecing together what seems like a daunting, scattered puzzle of plans and appointments. When this goes well I’m convinced that I’m right where I should be and even the minute details I’ve diligently recorded will help yield significant contributions not only in my field but also in society in general.

Then there are days when I feel like I do nothing or my careful planning falls through and a long-awaited interview turns out to be five minutes and useless or worse, two-hours and useless. Even harder is constantly trying to explain my work which sometimes feels as though I’m justifying my personal self and my choices to research contacts, family members, and friends. I’m working on a narrow topic and sometimes I find myself so deep in tunnel-vision of my work that I forget not everyone inherently knows what I know. On one hand, this work I am fully engaged in is a professional side of my life and in efforts of having some semblance of work-life balance, I try to carve out times where I’m not working. On the other hand, I’ve uprooted and focused my life around doing this work I’ve carefully planned and looked forward to doing. I can’t keep the personal from creeping into the professional, or vice-versa, when I live full-time in my field and topic- language use in urban settings where every opportunity of communication is an opportunity for data collection.

This highly independent and self-driven project, coupled with the fact that I live alone, leads to a certain level of isolation that I shouldn’t ignore. Working independently on a project means that I don’t have a team or co-workers with whom I work with, or bounce ideas off of in the moment, or fall back on in moments of uncertainty. It is important to note advice from my department is just an email away and I’ve also met some amazing interlocutors, some who I now call friends, who have greatly helped me advance my data collection. However, while seeing a project that is fully my own come to fruition has boosted my confidence, it slowly dawned on me that I am also willingly isolating myself with this work. It took me a while to realize this because on the days I’m successfully collecting data, I spend the whole day among people. But being among others doesn’t mean that I’m not isolated. And this particular isolation is also not a question of language barriers. I find that although I can speak the local language to a certain degree, and most people I work with speak fluent English, I still find it difficult to connect with people. This perhaps comes from difficulties identifying personally with the life experiences of others. Being an anthropologist, I love learning about people and learning about their experiences from their own points of view but I’m an anomaly here as an American of half-Indian descent. I rarely find others who, while they may be interested in hearing about them, deeply share many of my experiences in life and me theirs. It is also very odd from an Indian societal point of view for me to have decided to pursue this path of study, and on top of that, I am a female happily living alone without household help. Embracing my strange position is both extremely liberating and anxiety-inducing.

I surround myself with relatives I’m lucky to have in my field and friends I’ve made in various ways and I keep a busy work and social calendar. It is difficult knowing that for now the end of my fieldwork seems to be too far in the future to see but there will come a time when the end point is within my view. When that time finally comes I’ll have to disconnect myself from the network of social connections I’ve made here and in some ways it will be as if I were never here at all. Sometimes knowing that makes it difficult to get out of bed, forge new connections, and make attempts at deep relationships. I’m no stranger to picking up and moving and keeping in touch with friends all over the world, but as I get older the adventure of it diminishes and the sadness in leaving another newly made life weighs heavier. As I move through these transitions, I’ve taken various measures to deal with my isolation in my work and the feelings of loneliness that come along with it. I’ve sought out help through therapy, made trips back to the US for R&R with family and friends and face-to-face appointments with those at my university invested in my career, and I try to stay connected in all the ways long-distance communication is possible these days through Skype, Email, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

Despite the difficulty I have with transitions, culture shock, an inevitable feeling of isolation while pursuing a narrow independent project, and the loneliness that comes with living alone and working independently on a project, I feel that I’ve gotten to know myself much more profoundly by doing this work in the way I continue to do it. I first have to justify to myself what I am doing and why I want to do it before I can explain it to others. I’ve found my way in this project through trial and error and have learned where to turn and what resources to call upon when the failures seem to outnumber the successes. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to learn about myself and my research topic, because the work I get to do is creative work and it still energizes and excites me. However, I had no idea there would be so many positive and negative byproducts of the one product I am diligently pursuing- my dissertation. The emotional stresses of conducting independent ethnographic research should be more openly shared in our circles along with our compelling analyses, findings, and contributions.


Call for blog submissions:

Share your fieldwork experience with other students and researchers by submitting a blog post to!

About Fieldwork is key to anthropology. However, as much as anthropologists prepare for the field, it is often messy, frustrating, and full of unexpected challenges. At the same time it also when we open our minds, change directions, and become energized by the work we get to do. This blog provides a space for anthropologists and other scientists engaging in ethnographic fieldwork to share methodological experiences. Anthropological and ethnographic methods courses are great starting points to outline what one can and should do in the field. But it is often in the field that what is learned in classrooms and books begins to take shape. This blog is a forum for researchers to share what worked or didn’t work for them, logistical questions, and how we learn to make the necessary adjustments while in the field.

We accept posts from students of any level in anthropology or a discipline that uses ethnographic methods. Please contact to submit a draft or to ask any questions about submitting drafts.

Blog posts should be between 600-1500 words on ethnographic methods topics not limited to:

  • Gaining access to a field/interlocutors
  • Interviews
  • Fieldnotes
  • Working in archives
  • Hardships/Insurmountable challenges
  • Daily life as a researcher
  • Theory and praxis in the field
  • Pre-research preparations
  • Reciprocity

And any other topic related to fieldwork experiences and ethnographic field methods that you think readers will benefit from in their own research.

Please include a brief (150 word) bio and profile picture with your submission.

Drafts will be accepted on a rolling submission basis. Please email drafts and questions to:

The slow crawl of entering the field

I always intend for careful preparation to make my life in the field as a researcher a whole lot easier. When I was planning my return to my field site to begin research, I knew I was in a unique and advantageous position because I had already spent eleven months learning my field language in the same city where I would collect data. At the end of my language study I began making appointments to meet with people and groups with whom I would conduct observations and interviews. My thoughts were that careful planning and a head-start to networking would ensure a quick re-entry to the field and a swift start to my participant observation periods. I took care of prerequisites to beginning research, such as IRB requirements, and made sure all consent forms were submitted to the institutions. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t have days of sitting around waiting to begin research. This, to me, was one of the worst things I could imagine- all that wasted time! Of course, despite my careful preparations, there was still a slow entry period from which I’ve been able to learn a lot from.

My primary goal of beginning to make connections before leaving my field for two months was to extend my network of interlocutors. First, I asked people I had met during my initial time in my field site to introduce me to others – also known as “snowball” sampling. Since they were doing me a favor, I needed to make my schedule according to when they were available to help me. When I met with folks before leaving, I told them exactly when I would be back and asked to plan our next meetings at that time. Most people requested that I get in touch with them after I returned and not before. So instead of having meetings set up when I returned, I ended up needing to start the entire process over again. I was surprised that my interlocutors, all well versed in technology and avid texters, actually needed me to be in the same physical location as them as a precondition to arranging meetings and interviews. Added to that was my dismay upon realizing incorrectly that I could not actually recuperate from jetlag in a matter of days. With a slight shock and the need to recalibrate my careful plans, I realized that commencing my research was going to take much longer than anticipated. Therefore, I put together a few ways to deal with my slow (re)entry and any other slow periods that I’m sure will pop up again in my research.

Time away from the field

I still believe that making myself known to many of my interlocutors and affiliated organizations before I left my field for two months was advantageous, though I now see drawbacks to this approach. When I initially began making contact to lay a foundation and make myself familiar, it was much easier to follow up and “snowball” contacts. With the gap in time, although I met with people before I left the field, I lost the advantage of following up immediately with the other individuals whom they mentioned I should connect with or who they would connect me with. If I had waited to initiate some of these meetings and had begun to build a network only when I was consistently present, the whole process may have been faster. Now, six weeks into my fieldwork, I am still trying to gain back access to some of the contacts who were made available to me before I left.

This slow entry is good and has helped to build stronger and more meaningful connections, but I think it should be coupled with smaller goals to make the initial contact periods useful as well. When I first visited my site in the summers of 2013 and 2014, I was also eager to make contacts who I could return to when I began my year of fieldwork but for those trips I had smaller goals like to learn as much as I could about the education system or more micro-analysis of classroom discourse- goals that wouldn’t deter or delay my broader project but still useful in their own right.

Downtime and getting into a routine

Another important lesson I inadvertently taught myself is that downtime and seemingly unproductive periods of time are important, useful, and necessary. It is impossible to be “on” all the time.  Moreover, it is detrimental to my research to be constantly trying to milk my activities and the people surrounding me for useable data. Not only would I become an annoying companion if I turned every social gathering into an interview or observation opportunity on the topic of my research, but I have found that I also get saturated. At times when I stop absorbing information, I don’t always notice unexpected pieces of data if I’m specifically looking for something or spending too much time focusing on one narrow aspect. For example, since I do the bulk of my research in schools, if I spend too long in a school or classroom, I stop paying attention to the interactions that I am there to observe and my mind begins to wander. I’ve found that it is better for me to do shorter, more intense periods of observation than long and drawn out ones. I think of it as fishing with a rod rather than a net- both good methods to catch fish depending on what you are looking to catch and the time and patience you have.

I’m learning that I need to take time and step back to think about the broader goals of each interaction, interview, observation, and the larger picture rather than barreling into research head first. Sometimes what I saw as unproductive time was being productive at something else (see the next section for examples of this), and I didn’t need to fill my time in an effort to do as much as possible. While recognizing that collecting ethnographic data is far from a structured 9 to 5 job, it has become necessary for me to approach my work and data collection as a similarly structured routine. This routine is separated into hours for data processing (me sitting and re-reading notes and thinking) and analysis (coding, taking notes in my notes, grouping those notes into different patterns, etc).

Side tasks

In the days leading up to my re-entry to the field, I had a list of side tasks that I needed to complete. I began sifting through them as a means to learn more about my field site. These tasks included such seemingly mundane activities like going to a bank and submitting residency forms.  I also felt that in having the time to do side tasks, I hadn’t actually started my research yet. If I had been collecting data at the schools as I had intended at the time, I would have viewed these other errands as inconvenient distractions from my main task at hand- researching language, education, and social class identity. However, since I wasn’t focusing on what I saw to be my main research topic, I began to see and interpret differently some useful pieces of data in the side tasks.

Upon reflection, I was again humbled to learn that my research had of course already begun. This may sound contradictory to my last point but by having unstructured downtime but I began to see these tasks and errands as useful. I was also able to focus on other non-time sensitive research related tasks that I told myself I would get around to doing eventually. With so much unstructured downtime, I decided to still try and do something directly related to my research every day. It could be anything from translating newspaper articles to re-reading notes from the past year. These ended up being tasks I needed to complete that did not seem directly related to my research but could still shed light on some of the broader themes and areas that my research delves into.

Now that I see a structure to my data collection becoming clear, I’m learning how valuable it was to have that slow entry, despite being anxious and eager to begin what I saw as my “real work.” I am also learning that I need to constantly reevaluate my goals and perspective on the work that I’m doing and the data I’m collecting. That way, I can avoid running on autopilot and ending up under a pile of data thinking, “What do I do now? How do I make sense of this?” Being flexible and constantly reevaluating my approach to my fieldwork and the goals of that fieldwork is a great deal of mental exercise and a lot more exhausting than I anticipated, but because I have autonomous control over many areas of my research I end each day (after writing up fieldnotes, of course!) feeling overwhelmingly fulfilled and grateful to be able to do this work.

Learning a Field Language as a Research Method

Next month I will complete 13 months of studying my field language. While I’ve been in the field studying this language, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about why I would choose to learn this language and what actual purpose it holds, since English is commonly and widely spoken in my fieldsite. For many anthropologists learning another language or at least using another language in addition to English in field work is commonplace. In this post I’ll expand on some of my experiences learning my field language- Marathi, in Pune, India and explain why language learning is also a method of research.

First of all, I’m very grateful for my opportunity to study Marathi, the regional language of Maharashtra, thanks to a year-long grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies. I am the only student this term and I study with two highly qualified Marathi teachers in Pune. I’ve highlighted the fact that for my research I will need this language to conduct interviews, understand Marathi lessons in schools, and to generally interact with a public, and they’ve tailored my course to meet these needs. In my research with school teachers and middle class families, I’ve found that I can usually converse with others to a comfortable degree in English, which, while I was at the beginning of my lessons, allowed me to speak more fluently and get more out of interviews than my Marathi did at the time. As a result, many of these individuals asked why I was learning Marathi.

In a city where a large number of individuals are trilingual, learning Marathi has had many advantages for my research. Because I am studying with teachers who are native Marathi speakers from Pune, I’ve been able to learn about society and how the language is used in an urban setting along with the intricacies of the language and grammar through my courses.

Studying a language with local teachers means getting to know nuances of the language and how it is used in real life. Just today one of my course readings mentioned at least four different words for the concept “to cut” and two different meanings for the word “cut” or kapne in Marathi. For example, kapne can be used to describe a tremble in hands or voice or to say “cut in large pieces.” But if you’re going to talk about cutting vegetables, you need to use the world chirne.  In addition to learning new vocabulary, the teacher guiding my reading lesson expressed to me the author’s sense of losing a rich Marathi vocabulary and how certain words and phrases are changing in the daily spoken language.

Similarly, as I’m learning a new language I want to use it as much as I can. But I learned quickly that the Marathi used in an urban setting includes a large amount of English and by trying to use Marathi as much as I could, I was actually hindering my communication because I was remaining unintelligible due to my vocabulary choices. My teachers later explained to me which words I had learned in a classroom setting should remain in the classroom. For example, the word building (imarat), glass (pela), and practice (sarao) are words I frequently used but was getting laughed at for using. I’ve since learned how to try and incorporate English into my Marathi as locals do.   

Additionally, through my course I’ve been put in contact with people who are helpful for my research. Our program does a great deal to cater our lessons to our research interests. I’ve had lectures and meetings facilitated through my classes with people who work on topics similar to mine who I have remained in contact with. Also through spending a long time studying this language in one program I’ve grown very fond of my teachers and have been able to spend time with them outside of the classroom to not only learn about their lives and families but also their views on my research topics. 

Learning my field language also grants me access to social circles. I am able to gain access to groups of people in different ways than how I would have interacted with these groups and individuals if I had not been learning their mother tongue. I’ve had some very pleasant rickshaw rides with talkative and friendly drivers, I am able to have friendly conversations with the fruit and vegetable vendors and shopkeepers, and I’m able to go fearlessly into largely Marathi speaking spaces and neighborhoods knowing that I can communicate and relate to those sharing the space with me. I’ve been invited to hang out and spend time in places where people will fluidly mix English and Marathi and my hosts know that I will not feel left out or confused, which puts all of us at ease and lets them off the hook for constantly translating for me. When some people I’ve met learn that I speak Marathi, I’ve seen a smile spread across faces and in that moment I know I’ve begun to forge a connection based on the fact that I’m making efforts to learn their language. Many people are happy but also confused that I’m working so hard to learn Marathi though I’m a guest in their country, especially when many in their country work hard to learn and use my native language which is seen as a language of power and access. Overall the people I meet are very friendly, interested, and often offer their help to me in my efforts at learning Marathi which is a great way to begin conversations and make connections and friends, especially when my research deals with language- a topic on which everyone has something to say.

On a more practical note, since my research will largely take place in social spaces where Marathi is spoken, I need to understand it for when I will do observations in my research. Since it’s something people in my field use, I therefore should also use it- even if many people insist that I could speak and interact in Pune just fine without it. Learning Marathi has completely changed how I interact in Pune in ways that deepen and enrich connections to my host community and my research. My research isn’t about only asking questions and getting answers; it’s about understanding and being able to analyze the interactions of others around me.

To Go or Not to Go Native: Losing and Finding My Self in Fieldwork

To a certain extent, fieldwork entails losing a part of yourself in your work and the community in which you work. On second thought, the phrase ‘losing yourself’ sounds a little too harsh to apply here. After all, as anthropologists we choose to take ourselves away from our established lives at home to cultivate a new life working and living in distant or not so distant locations among strangers for a year or two. But the common anthropological phrase “going native” entails actively and willingly shedding a previous identity to assimilate to local culture and norms to live as a member of the host community. Going native can be considered both a positive and a negative aspect in fieldwork. A large part of our work, after all, is to understand the perspectives of other people. It can be a natural progression to take on habits of those around you as you continue your work and life in the community of your fieldwork. In many cases “going native” is necessary to gain access into spaces and groups for research. However, when there is no reflexive analysis on the part of the anthropologist and their specific and unique role in the community is where “going native” can be problematic.

I entered my field not a complete stranger to the local community. I have relatives in my field site who I’ve visited at various times throughout my life. I knew when and with whom I should utilize different eating and clothing habits which I’d become accustomed to throughout the visits with my relatives and throughout conducting research stretched over a couple summers.

After all, the initial part of my fieldwork stage in Pune, India, is to learn Marathi, the regional language. Being able to apply these attributes to how I present myself to the community helps me to blend in and helps me to establish rapport with those I speak to about my research. By showing interest in the culture and language and showing that I have adapted in some ways to the community here, I try not only to show respect and gratitude to the individuals who have taken me in as a niece, cousin, student, and friend, but I also show that I am receptive to the sentiments of others. To me, I’m saying, “Look at all that I know and now tell me more.”

However, recently I’ve noticed that some of what I do to assimilate into this particular host community contradicts habits that I’ve previously taken for granted in my home community in the US. I want to explain what I mean here not to show examples of how one community is better than the other but to explain how my personal acculturation to one community is in contrast to how I’ve adapted to another community. The following examples are my own personal experiences in my field site and are not meant to speak for or against other women’s experiences in this community. Many of these new habits I’ve taken on to live in this new city highlight the place of women in a highly male dominated public society to the extent that I have recently felt that I’m losing myself for the sake of assimilation.

It first occurred to me that I should begin paying attention to my own process of “going native” began when I saw signs of my assimilation in my body. Inscribed in my posture were ways I’ve tried to blend into my host community. It began innocently enough by dressing in the local style of clothes and wearing a head scarf in public, as many women do here, to shield my hair and face not only from dust and sun but also from gazes. In fact, this was fun! I loved my new clothes and the ways that they were different from what I wear at home. Then, I noticed my shoulders began curving downwards, as if my chest were trying to turn in on itself when it was already under layers of fabric from the face scarf and dupatta or odhni, a piece of cloth worn for the specific purpose of hiding women’s breasts. Next, though I am learning the language and have a basic proficiency, I noticed that I began to take for granted that I would be spoken for if I were in the company of a man. I stand behind him or to the side; I glance his way first if a waiter comes to take our orders or ask a question at a restaurant; I make requests through him à la Ilongot speech acts to show hierarchies (Rosaldo 1982)- “I’m thirsty,” is all I’ll say, and my male companion will flag down a waiter on my behalf and ask for water. This began with my older male relatives when my language abilities were shaky though now that I share company with men my own age and use Marathi more and more in my daily life, I have let these habits of deferring to men continue, and no one bats an eye. Except for me, as I downcast my eyes in the presence of men in public and think about how I’d never instinctually behaved in exactly this way before back home.

Recognizing the aforementioned behaviors was the start to seeing how I’d assimilated to a woman’s role in this society. In many ways these behaviors and new instincts have helped me, which is why I believe I’ve taken them on. I’m allowed access to women’s-only spaces like sitting with women and chatting in a bedroom or the kitchen. I’m not an embarrassment or liability when I’m in public with other women. They don’t apologize or explain away by behavior by saying I’m not from here. No one gives a second thought to my motives for working with young children in primary and pre-primary schools for my research. So far most teachers and principals have also been female and many have been around my age, so it’s been easy to establish a friendly work rapport.

However, as much as I’m given access to spaces in a strictly gendered community, I’m also restricted from many other spaces. This was made apparent to me while visiting with another male friend. He was telling me of his daily routine and some of the places he’s explored on his own by scooter. It was done in kind casual conversation, but I sensed a familiar feeling that I was only then able to put a name to- jealousy. I was jealous of his freedom and realized that he was telling me these things in the sense that I had not done them only because I was not aware of them, and he was being nice to enlighten me to them. He had little if any idea that I was in fact aware of them but my access to these spaces are generally restricted and if I were to even try and access them, my experiences would be radically different from his. I have avoided such places he talked about like roadside dhabas or small, cheap restaurants. I have not walked into small hills around Pune, alone or otherwise, to watch a sunset. Nor have I been able to take a solitary drive into the countryside or explore some close-knit and conservative neighborhoods where a strictly gendered public space has little tolerance for women wandering alone, no matter how “authentic” and cheap the food or a goods market may be there. I also have never gone alone to a bar, a restaurant, or some entertainment event- only cafes during the day where I am often the only woman alone though not made uncomfortable by this fact.

Who is to say that these are things I would even want to do if they were socially acceptable for me to do? Perhaps it’s the gender segregation norm that is so ingrained in my habitus that I say I wouldn’t even want to do these things. But the fact remains that it would be much harder for me as a woman to stay safe in these places, in the sense that I would not be bothered by anyone or have criticism thrown my way, if I were to take part in activities like the ones he mentioned or go to these places alone or even alongside another woman.

From my feelings of jealousy I began to reexamine ways in which I resist going completely native in my fieldwork. For one, I live alone- a fact I try to obscure when I first meet people for my own safety and for the sake of assimilation. However, I could not do my work and maintain a comfortable life here any other way. I also stay out late and try to take part in activities that are also normal in my life at home, such as having a drink at a bar and going listen to live music- though I do these things with the company of friends who usually include men. Moving forward with my new realizations about space, gender, and my role as a female anthropologist, I want to try and continue (safely) resisting other gendered expectations that exist here in India that are staunchly contrary to the life I led in the US while still maintaining a position of a respectable female in this society. Therefore, I will not let myself go completely native for a fear of losing my sense of self entirely.

Work cited:

Rosaldo, Michelle Z. “The Things We Do with Words: Ilongot Speech Acts and Speech Act Theory in Philosophy.” Language in Society 11, no. 2 (1982): 203–37.

Me and my recordings: a lesson

The best advice I took away from the 2013 AAAs in Chicago was what to do with recordings after completing fieldwork.  Specifically, I gained insight from a panel of students who candidly spoke about their methods and experiences in their fieldwork and analysis stages. I’m just starting the fieldwork stage of my PhD, collecting recordings on a small voice recorder of various lessons in schools to analyze the languages teachers and students use while interacting.  Already, I’ve started to process some of them as I go along, to better shape my research and observations.  In this post, I’m going to break down some of the methods I learned from the Chicago panel speakers and how to put them to use. 

Live in your recordings– One piece of advice that one of the panel members gave was to “live in your recordings.” She explained that this meant listening to them over and over again.  The key was, listening to recordings was not solely restricted to a work atmosphere.  She talked about how she would listen to them outside of a work setting too- for instance, when she would go on walks or wash the dishes, she played back interviews, almost to the effect of white noise.  I’ve been employing this method of playing back my recordings and have found that this passive listening style allows me to mentally process my recordings in new settings which sometimes brings out new insights and aspects. Listening to them multiple times also has the same effect. Especially since I am often busy, this method means that I can listen to recordings and interviews while I go about my day and multitask, so I don’t have to always carve out time to sit and listen.

Listen Actively– While going about my daily life and listening to my recordings at the same time is useful, I also need time to actively listen to my classroom recordings and interviews. Active listening for me entails listening to recordings playing back on a transcription program that timestamps recordings as I transcribe them and make additional notes. I’ve found that I can often only intently actively listen to my recordings for about 45 minute stretches, after that my mind begins to wander.  I also begin missing things, which is why listening to recordings multiple times is important. Thus it’s crucial to know yourself and your work habits.  My strategy is to let myself work for shorter spurts of time and then give myself a break rather than trying to power through a whole recording at a time.  I also slow down my recording when I listen back to it while transcribing, in order to catch all sounds made in the classroom. This means a twenty minute recording can end up taking over an hour to play back.

Layer the Process and Notes– Along with the different listening styles that I’ve been employing, different styles of note-taking and transcribing have also come in handy. I expect to do many versions or layers of transcribing with the recordings I’m listening to now. My first time listening through a recording to transcribe it, I often take meta-notes or spot notes. For example, I’ll write “storytelling” or “evaluation” to label the overall activity occurring in the flow of the lesson and recording. I’ve also been marking what I call, “exceptionally interesting moments”. These are points that relate to my research questions and that stand out to me on the first time listening through the recording. Sometimes I briefly transcribe a whole passage if it strongly exemplifies some of my main research interests.

The second time I listen to the recording, I transcribe the minutes around those exceptionally interesting moments in greater detail. I’ll also flag them in some way, like with a preliminary code, such as “codeswitching,” so I can remember the spot and why I found that part to be a fruitful location to return to. When I next listen through the recordings, I’ll try and transcribe more and more of the recording to fill in the parts between the exceptional moments or key incidents that I have previously transcribed.

Finally, I tend to take notes in the transcription about what is happening at a particular moment and how I can see it connecting to other moments or theory. In the future, I can see it being very useful to compile these notes in a separate and supplemental document to consolidate coded moments.

Tools– As with any profession, it is important to understand and utilize the tools available that will complement your work.  First, it is important to save multiple copies of recordings, just in case.  I upload all my recordings onto my music device so I can carry them with me and listen to them away from my computer. I have them saved in multiple locations like my phone, recorder, iTunes, and transcription program. I try and immediately make copies of them just in case something should happen to the originals on my recording device. Second, my life was radically changed when I purchased my foot pedal. I recommend that anybody doing any sort of transcription invest in one. I use the free version of F5 for transcription and a foot pedal to easily stop and start my recordings.

So far in my research, these are the ways that I’m working with and “living in” my recordings. While I often have an organization plan in place before I begin any sort of transcription, usually the path I end up taking is a mix of multiple methods of re-listening and transcription styles. I sometimes also let the nature of the recording dictate how I process and transcribe it.

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.