2.2.1 Field Notes

From the very first day of research, an EAR researcher should always carry a notebook in which they take notes while things are happening, or very soon afterwards. They should also get into the habit - from the start - of sitting down at the end of each day with their notebook to write down their observations more fully (usually a minimum of three or four pages per day), either in their notebook or on a computer.

When we refer to 'field notes' we mean the detailed notes that an EAR researcher makes at the end of the day which describe:

  • what has happened
  • who they talked to
  • what they observed
  • what they think about all of these things
  • perhaps some thoughts on what they need to concentrate on in the coming days of research

Field notes have to be written regularly , preferably every day . They are your most important record of all that you have observed and what you think about your project and community. Over time, these field notes will build into a rich and valuable archive of EAR research.

The aim in writing field notes is to record everything in detail. Field notes are not reports or summaries, or just a selection of interesting things. They are the raw material of EAR research - write it all down!

Things that you might have at first thought were not interesting or important may later become of interest to you or your initiative. By keeping detailed field notes you will always have access to your earlier research ideas and observations and you can use them at any time, now or in the future.

As an EAR researcher you should:

  • Keep your notebook with you all of the time.
  • During or after each activity, jot down a few notes, key words or phrases to jog your memory later.
  • Sit down at the end of the day and write detailed field notes.

Field notes should have several elements:

  • They should provide a log of the main activities and events of the day - those you observed, and those you participated in. For example, observing the ICT centre, meetings, conversations, etc.
  • They will include details of each activity or event - where you were, who was there, when this happened, what people said, what they did, and so on.
  • In addition field notes will also include interpretations . What did you think was going on? You might have several different interpretations, and are not sure which is right - write them all down! You can include your ideas, opinions, speculations. Also, you will write about your role in activities.

Full, detailed field notes will include everything you have observed.

Field notes should include conversations and main points from interviews. While interview transcripts are recorded separately you should still write about the interview in your field notes, especially about things like:

  • A physical description of the person and location.
  • Your overall impressions of the person and the place, and the interview.
  • Your interpretations of what the person said.

Field notes are a 'work in progress', they help you to develop ideas and to theorise about the research over time. In practice, field notes can be taken at the time of a research encounter, or written up immediately (or as soon as possible) afterwards. It may not always be appropriate to take out your notebook and write things down - it may stop the flow of the conversation, or it may make people uncomfortable.

Remember that field notes are a factual account of the encounter that will also include your interpretations. It is important to accept that no one is ever totally objective. Researchers instead should try to acknowledge the difference between factual report and interpretation.

  • What happened, who you talked to and what they said is factual description .
  • What you think about what happened and what you think about what was said is your interpretation .

Include both in your field notes, as both are equally important, but be aware of the difference between these types of data. You will notice that as you become more immersed in the research and the community your interpretations will change as you become more familiar with the research site, and learn to ask more relevant questions.

You are not a judge of what is 'true' or 'false', or 'right' or 'wrong' - you are an interpreter of the situation, and there are many truths to be uncovered, many different experiences, perspectives, and points of view to understand.

  • Remember to write down the most obvious things.
  • You can write notes even if at the time you are not sure if or why they might be interesting.
  • Write things that you normally take for granted.
  • Include as much detail as possible (who is present, what kind of space, appearances, interactions, etc).

You are aiming for rich descriptions that will put the event, action or phrase into a wider context of understanding. You won't always understand it immediately, but by keeping field notes and by carefully thinking about these events, actions and words, your understanding will increase over time.

We have focused on writing field notes, but field notes can include other forms of recording, such as photographs, diagrams or sketches, which map relationships or physical spaces - you might also paste in or collect objects, but do not use any of these as substitutes for written field notes.