Collecting Data and Taking Notes

Collecting Data and Taking Notes

Mary Gatta. PhD

In this chapter, we explore the heart of ethnography—collecting data and taking fieldnotes. Ethnographic data is collected in a variety of ways that involve the researcher being embedded in the field in a variety of ways Ethnographers collect data by observing in the field.  This includes both structured and unstructured observations, along with participant observations.  In addition ethnographers engage in formal and informal interviews and focus groups with subjects. Often researchers will engage in a variety of methods for one research project and this data collection will occur over a period of time. An ethnographer may spend days, months or even years in one field site to observe and interview research subjects. A field site is the location or environment an ethnographer is studying. It can be virtually any place—a school, workplace, community, home, street, and even in the online world.  This triangulation of ethnographic methods-using a variety of methods in a field site— helps the researcher to gather as much data as possible to identify trends, patterns and nuances of the field they are studying.

As a result of the intensive data collections methods that ethnographers engage, researchers often end up with a good deal of data to analyze.  It is therefore important for ethnographers to have a plan on exactly how they will collect their data before they head into the field.  How will they collect data?  Will they take notes in the field or when they leave the field?  Will they record interviews via audio or video means?  How will they capture pictures?  How will they organize notes?  Where will they store notes?  In this chapter, we will get a sense of these and other questions.

What Are Fieldnotes?[1]

A staple of ethnographic data collection are field notes.  Field notes are the notes created by the researcher to remember and record the behaviors, activities, events, and other features of an observation. Field notes are intended to be read by the researcher as evidence to produce meaning and an understanding of the culture, social situation, or phenomenon being studied. (Schwandt, 2015)

As you begin your research using ethnographic methodologies, including the writing of fieldnotes, you need to be keenly aware that this kind of research, represented through the written word, is subject to personal interpretation.  You are choosing what to write about, you are making decisions about what to include and what to omit.  You, as the researcher, come to the field with a particular set of values and beliefs and those values and beliefs will affect what you see and how you see it. Ethnographic writing is always, in some ways or others, a representation of the ethnographer.

This doesn’t mean that some ethnographic writing isn’t better than other ethnographic writing, that the primary data itself isn’t valid or truthful.  This may be the first primary data collection experience for you.  This means that this is a learning experience, and your fieldnote writing will, over time, improve, shift, become more dense, and appear more like primary data and less like a journal writing.  Many ethnographers write fieldnotes as well as journals, the principle difference being the degree to which the writing serves to analyze what is being observed.

One of the stumbling blocks in writing fieldnotes for the first time is that, in the end, fieldnotes are only for you. They are the primary data you will use to write your final piece, your larger representation of your research. But, though it seems this would be low-stakes writing (writing only for you, without an immediate purpose), understand that your final project is greatly affected by the time and care and attention you give to these notes. Therefore, while any one set of notes may be low-stakes, collectively, they are high-stakes, in indeed. Together all of the notes are the foundation of this project; they are the point of it all.

To start, it is helpful to listen to some ethnography students at the University of Southern California talk about the basics of fieldnotes.

Basics of Fieldnotes[2]

The students in the video point to several important aspects of fieldnotes.  First, we need to be sure what we are doing is ethical.  If we are interviewing someone, did we get their consent for an interview and to be recorded?  How will the ethnographer protect the confidentiality of the interviewee?  If we are observing a worksite, how will we let the workers know and protect their identities?  This is discussed in the ethics chapter of this text, and it is important to ensure you are ethically collecting data.

Once you have ensured ethical data collection, you want to begin collecting data. What does it mean to “do fieldwork,” to “take fieldnotes”?  The answers to these questions are at once simple and complicated.  Simply stated, one “does research” by hanging out in your research site, observing what goes on and participating in the activities and conversation going on around you.  This process is understood as participant-observation research methodology. However, simply participating and observing isn’t enough.  You need to record your observations and thoughts on paper.  You need to record what people in the site say and do. You need to “take fieldnotes” and write down what you see, feel and think about your research.  When you write these observations, thoughts, feelings and analyses, you are creating primary data.

Your first visit to your site presents the opportunity to “see” the site for the first time as an ethnographer. Make sure that you some device (pen, paper, phone, laptop) available to record in writing everything that you see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and feel. You’re going to try to capture the atmosphere and mood.  You want to gather the kind of information that will make it possible to bring your site alive through your writing. In your first visit to the site, you also want to walk away with a good idea of how you see the site .  Your primary data set—your fieldnotes—will evolve over time. (

Jottings and Notes[3]

Our observations are recorded in the form of jottings and notes.  When we are in the field we make write down (or type into our phones/tablets) jottings about what we are seeing, feeling and observing.

At the site, you should try to take notes that address all five senses:


VISION: What is this place? Who are the people? What do they look like? What are they doing? In what order do people do things? What artifacts and objects do you see? What do people do with them?

HEARING: What do people say? What noises do you hear? How loud is it?  How quiet?  Are is the sound from voice or other activity?

TASTE: Is there food involved in this setting?  Does the space taste like anything you know?  Is taste important in this site?

SMELL:  What odors do you encounter here?  Do people reference smell?  Does it smell like other places you know?  Does the smell remind you of other places?

TOUCH: Is there anything here to touch or feel?  Are bodies close to each other?  Is this place sexually charged?  Is it intellectually charged?  What does the place make you feel like?  Where and how and when do people here touch each other?  Are you engaged in this touch?  Is the touch ritualistic or random?

You should also note how you feel about being present at the site. Are you comfortable? Do you feel out of place? Are you interested in what you see? Are you comparing this context with a similar context in your own culture? Is this your own culture? What, specifically, makes you feel that way?

Keep in mind that these notes are just notes. They don’t have to be complete sentences or beautiful words. If your native language is not English and you are more comfortable writing quickly in your native language, these on-site notes, or “jottings,” don’t even have to be in English. What they do have to do is provide enough information for you to expand on them when you revisit the notes to begin to write.  In several weeks, when you have recorded many, many pages of fieldnotes, you will read through them carefully, looking for patterns. What actions/behaviors/words/thoughts reoccur?  What did you find to be of extreme interest to you as you conducted your research? You will use those things to frame and write your final ethnography paper, but in the meantime, you’ll be working with your fieldnotes to produce quite a bit of writing.

You want to be sure to think about the best way to record your notes.  Maybe carry a notebook or journal, or use a computer to type them up in the field.  You want to decide whether you will take notes in the field or carve out time after. Also, you want to think about what photos and recordings you can take that will help you remember what you are observing.

Characteristics of Field Notes[4]

The ways in which you take notes during an observational study is very much a personal decision developed over time as you become more experienced in observing. However, all field notes generally consist of two parts:

Descriptive information, in which you attempt to accurately document factual data [e.g., date and time] and the settings, actions, behaviors, and conversations that you observe; and,

Reflective information, in which you record your emotions, thoughts/theories, ideas, questions, and concerns as you are conducting the observation.

Field notes should be fleshed out as soon as possible after an observation is completed. Your initial notes may be recorded in cryptic form and, unless additional detail is added as soon as possible after the observation, important facts and opportunities for fully interpreting the data may be lost

So what do our fieldnotes look like.  Here are some guidelines to help you.

  • Be accurate. You only get one chance to observe a particular moment in time so, before you conduct your observations, practice taking notes in a setting that is similar to your observation site in regards to number of people, the environment, and social dynamics. This will help you develop your own style of transcribing observations quickly and accurately.
  • Be organized. Taking accurate notes while you are actively observing can be difficult. It is therefore important that you plan ahead how you will document your observation study [e.g., strictly chronologically or according to specific prompts]. Notes that are disorganized will make it more difficult for you to interpret the data.
  • Be descriptive. Use descriptive words to document what you observe. For example, instead of noting that a classroom appears “comfortable,” state that the classroom includes soft lighting and cushioned chairs that can be moved around by the study participants. Being descriptive means supplying yourself with enough factual evidence that you don’t end up making assumptions about what you meant when you write the final report. Others may not reach the same conclusions you do (ie. comfortable), but if you have detailed field notes, they can at least see what you did.
  • Focus on the research problem. Since it’s impossible to document everything you observe, include the greatest detail about aspects of the research problem and the theoretical constructs underpinning your research; avoid cluttering your notes with irrelevant information. For example, if the purpose of your study is to observe the discursive interactions between nursing home staff and the family members of residents, then it would only be necessary to document the setting in detail if it in some way directly influenced those interactions [e.g., there is a private room available for discussions between staff and family members].
  • Record insights and thoughts. As you observe, be thinking about the underlying meaning of what you observe and record your thoughts and ideas accordingly. This will help if you to ask questions or seek clarification from participants after the observation. To avoid any confusion, subsequent comments from participants should be included in a separate, reflective part of your field notes and not merged with the descriptive notes.

Here are some general guidelines for taking descriptive notes:

Describe the physical setting.

Describe the social environment and the way in which participants interacted within the setting. This may include patterns of interactions, frequency of interactions, direction of communication patterns [including non-verbal communication], and patterns of specific behavioral events, such as, conflicts, decision-making, or collaboration.

Describe the participants and their roles in the setting.

Describe, as best you can, the meaning of what was observed from the perspectives of the participants.

Record exact quotes or close approximations of comments that relate directly to the purpose of the study.

Describe any impact you might have had on the situation you observed [important!].

And here are some general guidelines for the reflective content:

Note ideas, impressions, thoughts, and/or any criticisms you have about what you observed.

Include any unanswered questions or concerns that have arisen from analyzing the observation data.

Clarify points and/or correct mistakes and misunderstandings in other parts of field notes.

Include insights about what you have observed and speculate as to why you believe specific phenomenon occurred.

Record any thoughts that you may have regarding any future observations.


Templates for Fieldnotes

So how to you actually capture your notes.  There are lots of templates and ways that ethnographers use. You want to find the one that is best for you.  Here are some examples to check out.

Here is a blog that shares one ethnographer’s process-


And here is another template that you can take into the field-

Storing your Notes

Once you collect your data (be it in words, pictures and videos), you want to find a safe and secure way to store it.  If you save your notes and pictures electronically be sure that they are password protected and backed-up.  For written notes, find a secure and locked file cabinet to keep them in.  Remember the notes are your data—without them you do not have an ethnographic research project.


In this chapter we learned the ways that ethnographers gather data when they are in field sites to conduct research.  We explored how ethnographers collect their data, the role of field notes, and guidelines to create and store your field notes.



Key Terms

Field sites


Field notes


Chapter Questions

  1. What are some examples of field sites that you would be interested in studying using ethnography?
  2. What are some key things you should do as an ethnographer before you enter a field site to conduct research and prepare for collecting field notes?
  3. What are ways researchers engage all five senses in a field site to collect field notes?
  4. What are some guidelines researchers use to collect field notes?
  5. What are some guidelines researchers follow to store their fieldnotes ethically and safely?


Schwandt, Thomas A.(2015) The SAGE Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry. 4th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.


[1] This section is taken from Engaging Communities by Suzanne Blum Malley and Ames Hawkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Based on a work at

[2] This section is adapted from Engaging Communities by Suzanne Blum Malley and Ames Hawkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Based on a work at

[3] This section is adapted from Engaging Communities by Suzanne Blum Malley and Ames Hawkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Based on a work at

[4] This section is adapted with permission from the author, Robert Labaree of Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper