Field Notes she Wrote

One of the most common responses I get when I tell people that I’m doing long term field work is… I don’t think I could do that much self-directed work for so long.” Honestly, it’s a daily struggle, but it’s essentially what I’ve been doing since I’ve started my PhD. Along the way, I’ve had to create systems in order to keep track of my progress and fieldwork is no different.  In this post, I thought I’d share my version of field notes, and how I’m ‘attempting’ to stay on top of daily happenings (emphasis on attempting). To be transparent, I don’t document everything the day it happens; sometimes I forget, I’m too tired, or just don’t want to and I have to make it up the following day (or the following).


I take notes in two different ways…..

Daily Field Log

I don’t actually think these would be considered field notes per se, but this is kind of a logistical track sheet. I say this because the information captured here isn’t necessarily about my research but more so basic day to day happenings. I started doing this during my reconnaissance trips, so I have been using this same document since 2016. In an Excel spreadsheet, I have one row per day, and the columns are labeled as follows:

  • What I did
  • What document I created/data collected
  • Things I learned (ex: make sure to follow up with ” ¿detrás de quien?” while standing in line)
  • New questions
  • New words or phrases
  • People I met
  • Things I need to do
  • Rose (Win for the day)
  • Thorn (Something to do differently)
  • Miscellaneous

I like doing this because it helps serve as a quick reference for information I’ve gathered.  Also, in the event that I lose someone’s phone number, business card or I lose my phone all together, I have that information saved here. Now that I’m here for an extended period of time, I do think this daily log is best suited for shorter trips, since the document keeps getting longer and longer.

Formal Field Notes

I started taking traditional ‘field notes’ after realizing from a group chat with my cohort members that I was a bit lost. In short, my little Excel spreadsheet wasn’t going to cut it. I consulted a few suggestions from Anthropod and University of Southern California and finally came up with something that worked for me.  Much like how I studied for my qualifying exam, I keep a Word document with a series of 4 questions or prompts that I answer for each day that I consider ‘field work’ (there’s a very blurry line for what should be documented and what shouldn’t—that’s for another day). Here’s an outline of what each entry looks like:

Date: Title (I try to keep it fun)

  • Setting Details
    • Basics of who, what, when, where and how, etc.
  • Narration
    • Describe what happened
  • Analysis/ Questions Generated
    • What do I think about what happened?
    • What might this mean in light of previous experiences?
  • Themes
    • If I had to sum things up in a few words, what would they be?

*I do keep short hand-written notes in a notebook or type them in my phone as that’s usually more convenient in the moment or write afterwards. I type things up afterwards.

So far, this is field notes approach is working well for me particularly separating the ‘what happened’ from ‘analysis’ because the two are in fact different. I often don’t have questions in the moment, but as I’m recounting what happened, questions seem to arise. Also, writing out themes for that day allows me to do some light coding that I will hopefully be able to go back to and use when I’m writing and analyzing.


This two note approach obviously isn’t for everyone, but it’s been working.  I plan to take a few weeks off from research to reflect on how things are going, so as I’m doing that, it may become clear that I have some major gaps in my data collection/documentation.  If that turns out to be the case, I’ll be sure to update this post or create a new one. Let me know what you think about my system or if you have any other recommendations.  Pa’lante

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