Develop Field Notes

Write notes in the field, seeking interpretive patterns.

While true ethnographers have the luxury of spending large chunks of time in the field and can discover their purpose after lengthy observations, you may find it necessary to focus on a more clearly defined purpose early in your research. Writing a proposal for your study and sharing it with your classmates and instructor is a good starting point. Although it is possible (although not recommended) to put off the writing until the last minute when writing a report based on library research, questionnaire, or even interviews, such a strategy is nearly impossible when writing an ethnography.

Never Stop Writing

Ethnographers are constantly writing. In the preliminary stages, they are writing about how they choose the community, synthesizing in writing the literature that exists about the community, writing detailed descriptions about what the culture and members look like, and recording dialogues and insights. Ethnographers rely extensively on their field notes to determine what attributes define members in the community, what common problems community members face, and what power relations or rituals exist. In short, ethnographers rely on their field notes to make preliminary interpretations. Rather than waiting until it’s time to leave the community, they are constantly writing up their observations and results, drawing tentative conclusions. 

Ask Journalistic Questions

By asking the journalistic questions when making field notes, you will ensure that you do not neglect any important observations.

  1. Who are key actors in the culture?
  2. What happens? What key events can you describe to give us a heightened impression about values, rituals, and problems?
  3. Where is the culture located? What does the environment look like?
  4. When did the events happen in time? Do any events or statements routinely seem to follow each other, suggesting a pattern?
  5. Why did the events happen?
  6. How did the events happen?