The Dimension of Words
by Bronwyn Frey


Because most ethnographic research projects result in written work, it is often best to begin the writing process as soon as possible: in the field. These initial fieldnotes, or jottings, usually consist of terms, abbreviations and symbols that, upon later review, will remind the ethnographer of initial impressions, concrete sensory details, key events, conversations, emerging patterns and their exceptions. Jottings are then fleshed out in detailed write-ups as soon as possible after each fieldwork session. This is a loose, spontaneous form of writing that aims to capture as many details as possible. It is a time consuming process – each hour in the field requires about the same amount of time to write out – and often begins with sessions that describe general routines and later narrow to specific events, patterns, conversations, etc. The ethnographer describes sketches, episodes, and lengthier anecdotes while making note of in-process analyses with asides and memos. These fieldnotes can then be processed through coding (line-by-line analysis to generate and focus themes and topics of interest) and further memoing (of initial theoretical ideas and later integration of these topics and categories) in preparation for writing a final research report. Throughout this process, the ethnographer should record and analyse how their own stance (e.g. as a person of a particular gender, social class, skin colour, etc.) shapes their interactions with interlocutors, and whether this stance changes over the course of the fieldwork.

Fieldnotes are based on ethnographic immersion rather than detached, passive observation. As such, fieldnotes and other qualitative methods draw from the researcher’s holistic experience in the field instead of a series of numbers or a set of survey answers. In service of qualitative research, fieldnotes help in understanding and rendering complex cultural structures. They try to sort out the symbolism and import of human behaviour (Geertz 1973, 315). Fieldnotes and qualitative methods can capture a wealth of information and non-verbal cues (e.g. body language, tone of voice, power dynamics between interlocutors) that quantitative research cannot record. Of course, both qualitative and quantitative data are important to field research, and skilled researchers can incorporate both.

Despite their popularity as an ethnographic research method, fieldnotes are not without their problems. Above all, it must be recognized that fieldnotes (and all other qualitative and quantitative methods) are never objective – they are the work of researchers whose biases and social blindnesses can never be completely recognized and compensated for. Thus, observed and coded patterns need to be constantly tested for validity, and ethnographers should examine their own motivations in accepting or rejecting interlocutors’ emic analyses. Additionally, many ethnographers and interlocutors feel ambivalent about writing in the field, and there may be circumstances in which jottings should be made in private or not at all, with the ethnographer instead relying on memories or “headnotes”. Also, the sheer volume of fieldnotes and their “grayish half-truths” can hinder efficient schematization the material (Jackson 1990, 13), leading some ethnographers to adopt entirely different methods of data collection. These challenges are only a few of many that need to be carefully considered and mitigated according to the context.


Bernard, H. Russell. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. 4th ed. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2006.
Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Jackson, Jean E. “‘I Am a Fieldnote’: Fieldnotes as a Symbol of Professional Identity.” In Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology, edited by Roger Sanjek, 3-33. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990.