When observing a culture, setting, or social sitution, field notes are created by the researcher to remember and record the behaviors, activities, events and other features of the setting being observed.

Field notes are meant to be read by the researcher to produce meaning and an understanding of the culture, social situation or phenomenon being studied.

There are several important steps to consider when preparing field notes:

  • A regular time and place should be set aside for writing field notes.  Generally, field notes should be written as soon after observation as possible.
  • All field notes should contain the date, time, location and details of the main informants.  This should be done in a consistent location.
  • The research question and study design should provide some theoretical criteria to decide what to record, and when, where and how to record field notes
  • Field notes should be prepared so that the order of them can be rearranged and manipulated so that notes can be separated from any particular category in which the researcher has recorded observation
  • During fieldwork, the research must work out his or her relationship to the field, to the members of the setting being observed and to one own's way of seeing

The Process of Creating Fieldnotes

  • Jottings or scratch notes - the observer jots down a few words or short sentences that will help them recall something they observed, something that someone said or something that happened.  Jottings or scratch notes are generally written in the field.
  • Field notes are prepared - jottings are translated into field notes.  The jottings are used to faciliate the observer's memory of the session in the field.  In preparing his or her field notes, the researcher provides a detailed, coherent description of what he or she observed
  • Analysis of notes occurs as notes are being prepared and while the researcher is still in the field.  This is important for at least two reasons:
    • This preliminary analysis fosters self-reflection, and self-reflection is crucial for understanding and meaning-making
    •  Preliminary analysis reveals emergent themes.  Identifying emergent themes while still in the field allows the researcher to shift his or her attention in ways that can foster a more developed investigation of emerging themes


Burgess, RG. (1991). "Keeping field notes" (pp. 191-194).  In RG Burgess (Ed.) Field Research: A sourcebook and Field Manual. London: Routledge.

J. Clifford & GE Marcus (Eds.) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politicals of Ethnography. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Sanjek, R. (1990). "A vocabulary for fieldnotes" (pp. 92-121) In R. Sanjek (Ed.) Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Van Maanen, J. (1988). Tales of the field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Webb, B. (1991). "The art of note-taking." (pp. 195-199).  In RG Burgess (Ed.) Field Research: A sourcebook and Field Manual. London: Routledge.