As our PhDs launch their fieldwork this month (or soon), I’ve compiled some practical lessons for ethnographers I’ve learned during my own PhD research (2013-2015). These are basic “tips and tricks” that I wished someone had told how important they were since the beginning of my fieldwork. Hope it can be useful for some young researchers around there!
Observations and note-taking
- Make a lot of pictures whenever you can. Use your phone for that if you can’t or don’t want to carry a camera with you. This is one of my greatest regrets regarding my research. I was afraid to bother people, so didn’t even ask to make them.
- Take notes on things you see happening, feelings or impressions you have, questions to be asked later, on the spot or as soon as possible. Again: use your phone if necessary (have a note-taking app exclusively for that). Vivid descriptions of key events will give life to your thesis.
- When I use a notebook, I like to use the left page for things I see and hear, and the right page for my analysis and impressions of the things on the left page, on that same line. The right page always remains a bit more empty, but as the fieldwork develops, I like to go back, read stuff again and write more in these empty spaces.
- Social media or WhatsApp: these can also be an important source of material, so make sure to save them as they appear to you, and not later. Make print-screens or backups of WhatsApp conversations. Make print-screens of Facebook posts and comments.
- You should come up with your own system to distinguish interviews you want to record from those you don’t want to. The simplest way to do it is, of course, by recording formal interviews and not recording conversations day-to-day interactions with your informants. But only time will help you to bring this differentiation into practice. It is noteworthy that some interviewees will expect – and even wish – that you use a recorder, sometimes as a sign of professionalism and that you find what they have to say interesting.
- For the types of interactions you’ve decided to record, try to stick to your “system”, as it will help the organisation of your data. Carry your recorder with you at all times, with extra batteries. If you can’t record, take notes on the spot. If you have never done this, make it a goal to get effective in it: to write fast without losing contact with your interviewee, and even develop codes for expressions or feelings so you won’t have to write too much while interviewing. If you’re not recording the interview, pull your notebook and first write down the interviewee’s name, location and start time. Write down the end time. If you couldn’t take notes, immediately after the interview write down its approximate duration. This is a stupid thing to say, I know, but you’ll be surprised but how many people are going to ask you to give the following statement: “the interviews ranged from X to Y minutes”.
- Try to save free time after every interview – or try to take some time free after an important conversation – to compile your notes and write everything down (also for recorded interviews, writing down your impressions that the recording won’t show). The next day will be too late already, you won’t remember a lot of things. As a consequence, try to avoid scheduling too many interviews on the same day.
- You can come up with a template for your interviews (or more important conversations), where the first page contains all the important information to be filled in separate fields. This way you’ll always remember to gather that information, and also to have the same information for every interview. You add a comments field to describe the conditions under which the interview took place. After that comes the transcript (which you will probably have after your fieldwork if you recorded the interview), where you can add your notes in-text. In the end, you should have at least two fields to “answer” for that interview: “reflections”, where you can add come pre-analysis right away, and ”things to do/questions to ask” for you next interviews with that person or someone else.
- Of course, for more casual interviews, most of the above recommendations don’t apply. Either way, try to create a system to organise important information without the recorder. Having files for each contact may help, as you add interactions you have with them as your fieldwork advances, adding the date and relevant contextual for each entry. This will also allow you to easily see the way your relationship with particular individuals develops.
- As you write down your notes, look for a way to organise the text, with tags (hashtags, colours, symbols, side notes with codes), to help you navigate them later.
- What to take from a particular interview? This post might inspire you to come up with an answer appropriate to you, the most important thing there said being: “1) You really can’t miss jotting down basic facts that cannot be found elsewhere; 2) You want to capture your interlocutor’s specific viewpoint or “narrative”, preferably through good quotes that aptly convey it; 3) You should retain novel angles of analysis you hadn’t come across so far.”
- Choose a good app to compile all your data. This can be Atlas.ti already, but not necessary. Scrivener, Evernote, etc… If you are going to use normal folders and independent files, organise from the beginning different levels of folders/subfolders. Since we will use Atlas.ti for analysis, writing your notes directly there will save you a lot of time, so give it a try.
- Try to write down your notes daily (or as frequent as possible), and be thorough. If you wait more than one day my guess is you will lose around 50% of important data.
- If you are using notebooks instead of a computer to write down your notes, make time to type your handwritten notes into the computer. Do it systematically at a frequency you determine from the start and try to stick to it. The typing is also a nice (second) moment to reflect on your notes, so part of the iterative process. You’ll see how 500 words of annotation easily become 1000 on the computer screen.
- Make sure you clearly differentiate types of information. Use colours, bold or italic, titles, whatever, but you want to clearly see at first glance the difference between quotes, first-hand observations, other people’s impressions, your impressions, your analysis, things to revisit or questions that need to be answered.
- Have one folder called “Participants” or something of the like. There you will add one file for every relevant person you meet, and gather all the important information about them. Make sure to include some basic information that you will ask all of them (at the first meeting or later), which each one of you will decide on what’s important, but something such as: date and place you met, photo(s), age, profession, family composition, family background, housing condition, political identification, and also observations on how someone looks like, dress, etc. This info is often necessary for writing a good article/ book chapter.
- A similar but maybe separate folder can be “Contacts”, which will contain people you meet (or hear about), but not necessarily that you interviewed or talked to properly. This can also be a spreadsheet, where each line is one individual, and columns are information you want to gather. Be it in folders or columns, try and separate contacts in categories, groups, anything that can help you sort them out easily. I like spreadsheets more because it gives you the possibility of “tagging” instead of separation.
- You should make folders or files for the different subtopics of your research (which can be constantly developed). In this major categories, you can put everything you collect or write down for that certain subtopic. Later you can create more subdivisions. This is important to do from the beginning so you don’t have only journal-like notes, only separated by date, which will take you longer to go through later.
- Excerpts can belong to more than one category or subtopic. Nothing should be chopped out from its context. Be careful not to determine categories too soon and close your eyes for important information that doesn’t fit in (not everything has to fit your “model”).
- From grounded theory I’ve learned to start coding from the beginning all your data. For every observation or interview excerpt start distributing “codes”, or “labels”, key-words or short descriptions that might help you easily find that information later. Keep track of them (like a glossary), and as your fieldwork advances you will notice how certain codes will reappear systematically, even if they do not fit in your broader subtopics. Slowly you can start using this glossary to code more data (as in looking what you have already and checking if any applies to this new data). After some time you can try to make clusters of codes, as in to build “categories”. The rest of the process (as recommended in grounded theory) you can do later, after your fieldwork, but these first steps should be taken from the beginning.
– Postdoctoral Researcher in the BROKERS Project
– Postdoctoral Researcher in the BROKERS Project