Field Notes and Local Culture - Part 2
   What to Write

The breadth and depth of information that you are seeking may vary from situation to situation. Even if you focus only on interviewing, you still have a wide range of available approaches, any of which might be best for your purpose.. Harry Walcott mentions six:

Casual or conversational interviewing
Life history interviewing
Semi-structured interviewing using open-ended questions
Structured interviewing using surveys or questionnaires
Projective techniques using Rorschach protocols and the like
Standardized tests and other measurement tools (11)
Additionally, you may record any of these with audio or video recording equipment, which will change what notes you keep. When I do make an audio recording of an interview, I focus on writing description of the subject and the setting, and jotting down key words that will remind me to ask followup questions at some point.

At their simplest, field notes are jottings or running records of what you observe. When you make jottings, it helps to write freely and lushly. Details are more important than style, so record observations and thoughts as they come, without worrying about spelling or complete sentences or punctuation. Use lots of adjectives, to record as much information as possible. There will be time later for editing.

Here are typical jottings in my notebook from a community event I documented:

100 years by the Bay - 350 people

students dressed formally-black bow ties, vests, white shirts

oral histories-tugboats Bigfork Bay Somers

fire destroyed town “if I had to do it over again, I don’t know what I’d decide”

Model T to church [student mixes humor with facts and respect for subject, the academic report also works as first-class entertainment]

Bud Moore: “Depending on the goodness and loyalty of other human beings”

cutting ice for icebox

Fashion show-1901-1951-2001- everyday, sports, formal, business [professional staging and music]

If such jottings aren’t written into more formal field notes quickly, they lose most of their value. Even I won’t be sure what some of them refer to a few weeks from now. When possible, jottings should be written up into full notes immediately, while the details are fresh and the momentum of the event provides energy. Postponing this can turn it into a dreadful task.
It helps to have a simple system to separate your notes into observations, feelings, ideas, and questions for further thought or research. It is a good idea to separate your ideas, interpretation, analyses and questions by putting brackets [ ] around them, so you know this was not a paraphrase of somebody in the situation, and so when you get ready to do your final writing, you can easily located these passages:

Observation: Late season snowstorm, hundreds of trees damaged, trees already leafed out, weight of the snow broke limbs, virtually every street

Feeling: Mildly depressing to see yet more snow this late in the year

Idea: [People have been worried about the ongoing drought. They were saved from this problem by the problem of the worst storm damage in decades.]

Question: [What is record latest date for snow in this location?]

The finished notes should be written as complete historical documents that would be intelligible to somebody else. This doesn’t need you need to record every detail of what happened. It simply means that once you have decided what is significant, you should try to capture it as fully as you can. This might include description of places and people, dialogue, a chronology of what happened, and your thoughts about it.

Here is the beginning of a completed field note I wrote after an interview with a retired farmer:

“Ed Smythe turned eighty-three last May. On the morning we met him, just after seven-a time he chose-he was already out of his house, changing the oil in his riding lawnmower. He had driven the mower just inside his garage where he had rigged a sling from the rafters so he could jack it up using a hand winch. This way, he could reach the drain plug on the side of the engine while sitting in a lawn chair. The lawnmower was as clean as a city sports car, and the open toolbox beside it held enough wrenches and sockets to rebuild a diesel.

“He still gets up at five every morning even though he no longer goes out into the green pastures in the dark, the eight thousand foot wall of the nearby mountains black against the first traces of dawn. He no longer drives a hundred Holsteins into the holding corral, their breathing sending brief clouds into the crisp air. He no longer turns on the pumps in his milking parlor, warm water flushing through the clear pipes as he did every morning and every afternoon for fifty-one years. He no longer pulls a handle at the front of each stall twice before opening it to each new cow, the unlubricated levers grating as a measured mix of barley and corn drops into the feed bin.

“But he still rises before light, puts on a faded pair of bib overalls over a flannel shirt, even the top button buttoned, and watches from his kitchen table as the cottonwoods beside the irrigation canal slowly become visible.

“He glanced at us as we drove up, then continued pouring new oil into the engine. ‘Beautiful morning, huh?’ he called as we got out of the car.”

This description is made partly of sensory images and partly of the pattern created by selecting details that point to Ed’s work habits-which is to say, his character.


Work at recording observations, until it becomes second nature to you. Select details that will most vividly capture the scene or event, or that will best help you remember it later. Note the physical setting, describe the space, record noises, jot down colors, list equipment, record movements in the scene, count things and write down numbers, make notes about appearances. Avoiding inference while reporting observations can be much harder than it seems, until you get the knack of it. We generalize and summarize effortlessly. We say “Jim got angry” (when all we observed was that his face reddened and he quit talking-maybe he was frustrated, embarrassed, or any number of other psychological states), or we say “The workers were inefficient” (when all we observed was that they sang and joked with each other as they worked), or we say “the teacher gave background information” (without recording any of the words she actually used).

When ambulance EMTs give reports to doctors over the radio, they are trained to call in observations rather than diagnoses. If the EMT said “I think the patient has a broken arm,” not much information is given. He’s communicated his inference as a summary of the situation rather than his observations. EMTs are trained to report somewhat like this: “The patient has swelling and discoloration of the left humerus two inches above the elbow. No deformity. No open wound. Patient has distal (below the injury) sensation and movement. Capillary refill is less than two seconds, and patient has a normal distal pulse.” Now the doctor can “see” what has happened and make his own inferences.

Knowing your purpose will help you monitor the situation for details that might become focal points for what you write later.
It may help to run a “sensory check” from time to time. What information are you receiving from each of your five senses? What do you see? Give details of color, shape, size, and number. What sounds are occurring? Give details of loudness, frequency, and tone. What smells are present? Can you taste anything? What can your skin detect? Coolness? Moistness? Breezes?

In some cases, your most important observations will be what other people say. Try to record their exact words. Keeping up with dialogue is hard, but get as much as you can. Sometimes you will have to paraphrase. Use quotation marks when quoting exactly and apostrophes when paraphrasing. You won’t be able to remember which is which later, but it is important to know what the speaker said and what is only paraphrased. Sometime you’ll just summarize in your own words, and in that case don’t place any marks around them. It should be clear from your notes when you are recording verbatim, when you are paraphrasing, and when you are summarizing.

Note the speaker’s tones, gestures, facial expressions, emotions, and reactions as well as what provokes these reactions. Be careful not to start recording emotional states instead of behavioral observations. Saying “he became angry” is much less useful than recording “He grimaced and slammed his fist on the table. His voice became louder.”

Sociology professor Robert Emerson and his colleagues point out that “details experienced through the senses turn into jottings with active rather than passive verbs, sensory rather than analytical adjectives, and verbatim rather than summarized dialogue.” (12)


Think of notes about your feelings as observations about the observer-you. You will have opinions about people and events as well as emotional responses to what you experience. You might feel disgusted, exhilarated, discouraged, rejected, happy, bored, saddened, etc. The person who documents something is an important part of history, and a record of how the person felt about the situation is an important part of the historical record.

Recording your feelings does several things. The first one I already mentioned: it alerts you to the meaning events may have for you.

Of course, other people may see things very differently, which is why you should work hard, both in notes and later reports, to give accurate observations. This gives others the information they need to disagree with you, should they choose. Sometimes, when you read your notes later, you will find that you disagree with yourself. Our feelings about things often change when we’ve had time to think about them more carefully or when we’ve learned additional things. Over the years, our sensibilities can change dramatically, and you may find your notes a valuable record of a self you had nearly forgotten. Seeing for ourselves how much we change and grow can do wonders to help us understand others, who are at varying developmental stages. When I taught high school English, it was useful (and painful) to review notebooks I had written when I was a teenager.

Incidently, notes written by people who are struggling with ideas that we worked through long ago tend to be less interesting to us than the notes of those who are struggling with ideas we are ourselves struggling with. This is more true of feelings than of direct observations. A world where many people are struggling at all levels of skill and experience to express themselves is different than a world where only the most polished and skilled are heard. It will give us plenty to think about. There will still be important roles reserved for those with authority and credentials, but there will be many more games in town than theirs.

In any case, if you recorded your feelings at the time, you will be able to remember and judge better how you might have been interpreting details. We notice different aspects of situations when we are in different moods, and knowing how you were feeling can help you understand the notes better. You’ll be more aware of how your feelings affected what you experienced.

It may also help you understand the other people. If they seemed to share your feelings, we have useful information about them. If they did not, this might be even more interesting. What accounts for their different responses? What might this tell us about them?

Since your feelings are part of the situation, paying conscious attention to them can both give you a better record of them and help you assess how much they are coloring what you see.


Ideas will occur to you as you listen and observe. You might as well jot them down. When you begin thinking about your field experiences, deciding what is important to write up, you will have more to work with if you have been making notes about such things all along.

It’s not a good discipline to put off hard thinking or writing till later, telling yourself that since these are “just notes” you don’t need to bother with the hard stuff. This attitude leads to writing a lot of stuff you’ll never use, which is a real waste of time and energy.

Think of these as memos to yourself-ideas that you the observer are providing to you the writer, who will use all these notes to find a main theme and communicate it to a larger audience. The more analysis you do while you are making notes, the more your final writing will be a matter of selecting, organizing and developing these thoughts instead of starting with a blank slate.

When all you have is a blank slate, you are poor indeed.


As we you do research in any forum, whether the library or in the field, questions tend to accumulate as quickly as answers. Sometimes it seems that every new thing you learn provokes five more questions. It’s good practice to write these down as they occur to you. You might not end up looking for answers to all of them, but having at hand a list of outstanding questions is a great aid when you are preparing to interview someone, or to visit a site, or to spend time in the library. A quick reading of them will help keep your focus.

You might jot down questions to remind you to find other resources that get mentioned, such as other people or articles, books, or files.

You might remind yourself to ask a different source about a topic that needs more investigation.

You might want more background information about a telling detail. For example, if the posture and attitude of pikas catches your eye while you are researching a historic mountain lodge, and you think you may want to include a few details about them in your final writing, you may jot “pikas?” to remind you to research their life cycles and behavior.


If everything goes well, you’ll move from jottings to compete field notes to final written products, which may be reports or essays, but that might also be scripts, web pages, radio shows, short stories or poems, letters, or nonfiction books.

Whatever it is that you are trying to accomplish, making notes is a way of taking control of your consciousness, of developing the discipline to keep the spotlight of your attention aimed at what you decide, hunting for details that make the moment worth remembering so that what might matter actually makes it from your eyes and ears into your mind and from your mind into a durable record that others might use.

1. Donald, Merlin. A Mind so Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001, p. 314.

2. Merlin, 313

3. Walcott, Harry F. The Art of Fieldwork. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 1995, p. 216.

4. Chase, W. G., and Simon, H. A. “Perception in Chess,” Cognitive Psychology, 1973: 4: 55-81.

5. Nørretranders, Tor. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. New York: Viking, 1998, p. 126.

6. Walcott, p. 186.

7. Berry, Wendell. Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Washington D. C.: Counterpoint, 2000, p. 48-49.

8. Bruer, John T. Schools for Thought: A Science of Learning in the Classroom. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993, pp. 243-44.

9. Bruer, p. 251.

10. Berry, p. 134.

11. Walcott, p. 106.

12. Emerson, Robert M. and Rachel I. Fretz and Linda L. Shaw. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, p. 25

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