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Field Notes and Database Management

Those who want to use qualitative methods because they seem easier than statistics are in for a rude awakening.

—Taylor and Bogdan 1984:53

Anthropologists collect many kinds of data. Some collect survey data; others collect audio and video recordings or networks or caches of personal letters. .. . But all anthropologists take field notes. In this chapter, I focus on how to write field notes and how to handle other kinds of material—like newspaper clippings and photos—that we accumulate during fieldwork. The lessons about coding and analyzing field notes apply just as well to transcripts of interviews and to other textual data, which we’ll take up in chapter 19.


Plan to spend 2-3 hours every working day of a participant observation study writing up field notes, working on your diary, and coding interviews and notes. Ralph Bolton asked 34 anthropologists about their field note practices; they reported spending anywhere from 1.5 hours to 7 hours a day on write-up (1984:132).

Remember that it takes twice as long to write up notes about a recorded interview as it does to conduct an interview in the first place. You have to listen to a recorded interview at least once before you can write up the essential notes from it, and then it takes as long again to get the notes down. If you need full transcriptions of interviews, plan to spend around 6 hours for each hour of interview, assuming that the recording is clear, the interview is in your own language, and you have a transcribing machine with a foot pedal. You can cut transcription time in half by using voice recognition software (more about this back in chapter 8, and see appendix E).

Every colleague with whom I’ve ever discussed this agrees that it’s best to set aside a time each day for working on your notes. And don’t sleep on your notes. It’s easy to forget material that you want in your notes if you don’t write them up in the afternoon or evening each day. The same goes for your own thoughts and impressions of events. If you don’t write them up every day, while they are fresh, you’ll forget them.

This means that you shouldn’t get embroiled in a lot of activities that prevent you from writing up field notes. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule. Here’s one. You are studying how families create culture by telling and retelling certain stories. You sit down to write up the day’s field notes and you get a call from a key informant who tells you to come right on over to meet her father who is leaving on a trip in the morning and wants to tell you himself the story she had told you earlier about his experience as a refugee during World War II. You couldn’t possibly turn that one down. But remember, it’s easy to let doing anything except writing notes become the norm rather than the exception.

Create many small notes rather than one long, running commentary. Make many separate note files, rather than adding to the same humongous file day after day. You can have one file for each day, or you can have files for each interview or each event you attend.

There are two radically different styles when it comes to writing field notes. Some people like to immerse themselves completely in the local culture and concentrate on the experience. They write up field notes when and as they find the time. Most ethnographers advocate writing up field notes every day, while you are still capable of retrieving detail about the day’s events and interactions. I’ve done both and, like Miles and Huberman (1994), I’m convinced that obsessiveness about writing field notes is the way to go.

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