Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Second Edition

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Second Edition

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Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Second Edition by Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, Linda L. Shaw

In Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw present a series of guidelines, suggestions, and practical advice for creating useful fieldnotes in a variety of settings, demystifying a process that is often assumed to be intuitive and impossible to teach. Using actual unfinished notes as examples, the authors illustrate options for composing, reviewing, and working fieldnotes into finished texts. They discuss different organizational and descriptive strategies and show how transforming direct observations into vivid descriptions results not simply from good memory but from learning to envision scenes as written. A good ethnographer, they demonstrate, must learn to remember dialogue and movement like an actor, to see colors and shapes like a painter, and to sense moods and rhythms like a poet.   This new edition reflects the extensive feedback the authors have received from students and instructors since the first edition was published in 1995. As a result, they have updated the race, class, and gender section, created new sections on coding programs and revising first drafts, and provided new examples of working notes. An essential tool for budding social scientists, the second edition of Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes will be invaluable for a new generation of researchers entering the field.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226206868
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/25/2011
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,150,844
File size: 940 KB

About the Author

Robert M. Emerson is professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Contemporary Field Research: Perspectives and Formulations, now in its second edition. Rachel I. Fretz is a lecturer in the Writing Programs unit at UCLA. Linda L. Shaw is professor in and chair of the sociology department at California State University, San Marcos.

Read an Excerpt


By Robert M. Emerson Rachel I. Fretz Linda L. Shaw


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-20683-7

Chapter One

Fieldnotes in Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic field research involves the study of groups and people as they go about their everyday lives. Carrying out such research involves two distinct activities. First, the ethnographer enters into a social setting and gets to know the people involved in it; usually, the setting is not previously known in an intimate way. The ethnographer participates in the daily routines of this setting, develops ongoing relations with the people in it, and observes all the while what is going on. Indeed, the term "participant observation" is often used to characterize this basic research approach. But, second, the ethnographer writes down in regular, systematic ways what she observes and learns while participating in the daily rounds of the lives of others. In so doing, the researcher creates an accumulating written record of these observations and experiences. These two interconnected activities comprise the core of ethnographic research: firsthand participation in some initially unfamiliar social world and the production of written accounts of that world that draw upon such participation.

However, ethnographers differ in how they see the primary benefits of participant observation and in how they go about representing in written form what they have seen and experienced in the field. How we understand and present processes of writing and analyzing ethnographic fieldnotes in this and subsequent chapters reflects our distinctive theoretical orientations to these differences. Here, we want to present briefly our core theoretical assumptions and commitments; we will further specify and elaborate these assumptions and commitments as we address the processes of writing and analyzing fieldnotes in subsequent chapters.

We approach ethnography as a way to understand and describe social worlds, drawing upon the theoretical traditions of symbolic interaction and ethnomethodology. Common to both these traditions is the view that social worlds are interpreted worlds: "Social reality is an interpreted world, not a literal world, always under symbolic construction" (Altheide and Johnson 1994:489). These social worlds also are created and sustained in and through interaction with others, when interpretations of meanings are central processes. Symbolic interaction, insisting "that human action takes place always in a situation that confronts the actor and that the actor acts on the basis of defining this situation that confronts him" (Blumer 1997:4), focuses on "the activities of people in face-to-face relations" as these affect and relate to definitions of the situation (Rock 2001:26). The result is a distinctive concern with process, with sequences of interaction and interpretation that render meanings and outcomes both unpredictable and emergent. Ethnomethodology, inspired, in part, by Schutz's (1962, 1964) analyses of the taken-for-granted meanings and assumptions that make interaction possible, can be understood as proposing, in effect, "that society consists of the ceaseless, ever-unfolding transactions through which members engage one another and the objects, topics, and concerns that they find relevant" (Pollner and Emerson 2001:120). Such transactions depend and draw upon a number of "generic processes and practices," including unarticulated "background understandings," a variety of distinctive "interpretive practices," and members' processes of "practical reasoning" (Pollner and Emerson 2001:122). These general emphases on interpretation and interaction, on the social construction and understandings of meaning in different groups and situations, underlie our approaches to ethnographic participation, description and inscription, and the specific implications we draw from these processes for writing fieldnotes.


Ethnographers are committed to going out and getting close to the activities and everyday experiences of other people. "Getting close" minimally requires physical and social proximity to the daily rounds of people's lives and activities; the field researcher must be able to take up positions in the midst of the key sites and scenes of others' lives in order to observe and understand them. But given our emphasis on interpretation, getting close has another, far more significant, component: The ethnographer seeks a deeper immersion in others' worlds in order to grasp what they experience as meaningful and important. With immersion, the field researcher sees from the inside how people lead their lives, how they carry out their daily rounds of activities, what they find meaningful, and how they do so. In this way, immersion gives the fieldworker access to the fluidity of others' lives and enhances his sensitivity to interaction and process.

Furthermore, immersion enables the fieldworker to directly and forcibly experience for herself both the ordinary routines and conditions under which people conduct their lives and the constraints and pressures to which such living is subject. Goffman (1989:125), in particular, insists that field research involves "subjecting yourself, your own body and your own personality, and your own social situation, to the set of contingencies that play upon a set of individuals, so that you can physically and ecologically penetrate their circle of response to their social situation, or their work situation, or their ethnic situation." Immersion in ethnographic research, then, involves both being with other people to see how they respond to events as they happen and experiencing for oneself these events and the circumstances that give rise to them.

Clearly, ethnographic immersion precludes conducting field research as a detached, passive observer; the field researcher can only get close to the lives of those studied by actively participating in their day-to-day affairs. Such participation, moreover, inevitably entails some degree of resocialization. Sharing everyday life with a group of people, the field researcher comes "to enter into the matrix of meanings of the researched, to participate in their system of organized activities, and to feel subject to their code of moral regulation" (Wax 1980:272–73). In participating as fully and humanly as possible in another way of life, the ethnographer learns what is required to become a member of that world and to experience events and meanings in ways that approximate members' experiences. Indeed, some ethnographers seek to do field research by doing and becoming—to the extent possible—whatever it is they are interested in learning about. Ethnographers, for example, have become skilled at activities they are seeking to understand (Diamond 1992; Lynch 1985; Wacquant 2004) or, in good faith, have joined churches or religious groups (Jules-Rosette 1975; Rochford 1985) on the grounds that by becoming members, they gain fuller insight and understanding into these groups and their activities. Or, villagers might assign an ethnographer a role, such as sister or mother, in an extended family, which obligates her to participate and resocialize herself to meet local expectations.

In learning about others through active participation in their lives and activities, the fieldworker cannot and should not attempt to be a fly on the wall. No field researcher can be a completely neutral, detached observer who is outside and independent of the observed phenomena (Emerson and Pollner 2001). Rather, as the ethnographer engages in the lives and concerns of those studied, his perspective "is intertwined with the phenomenon which does not have objective characteristics independent of the observer's perspective and methods" (Mishler 1979:10). But, the ethnographer cannot take in everything; rather, he will, in conjunction with those in the setting, develop certain perspectives by engaging in some activities and relationships rather than others. Moreover, often relationships with those under study follow political fault lines in the setting, exposing the ethnographer selectively to varying priorities and points of view. As a result, the task of the ethnographer is not to determine "the truth" but to reveal the multiple truths apparent in others' lives.

Furthermore, the ethnographer's presence in a setting inevitably has implications and consequences for what is taking place, since the fieldworker must necessarily interact with and, hence, have some impact on those studied. 5 But "consequential presence," often linked to reactive effects (that is, the effects of the ethnographer's participation on how members may talk and behave), should not be seen as "contaminating" what is observed and learned. Rather, these effects might provide the very source of that learning and observation (Clarke 1975:99). Relationships between the field researcher and people in the setting do not so much disrupt or alter ongoing patterns of social interaction as they reveal the terms and bases on which people form social ties in the first place. For example, in a village where social relations depend heavily on kinship ties, people might adopt a fieldworker into a family and assign her a kinship term that then designates her rights and responsibilities toward others. Hence, rather than detracting from what the fieldworker can learn, firsthand relations with those studied might provide clues to understanding the more subtle, implicit underlying assumptions that are often not readily accessible through observation or interview methods alone. Consequently, rather than viewing reactivity as a defect to be carefully controlled or eliminated, the ethnographer needs to become sensitive to, and perceptive about, how she is seen and treated by others.

To appreciate the unavoidable consequences of one's own presence strips any special merit from the highly detached, "unobtrusive," and marginal observer roles that have long held sway as the implicit ideal in field research. Many contemporary ethnographers assume highly participatory roles (Adler and Adler 1987) in which the researcher actually performs the activities that are central to the lives of those studied. In this view, assuming real responsibility for actually carrying out core functions and tasks, as in service learning internships, provides special opportunities to get close to, participate in, and experience life in previously unknown settings. The intern with real work responsibilities or the researcher participating in village life actively engages in local activities and is socialized to, and acquires empathy for, local ways of acting and feeling.

Close, continuing participation in the lives of others encourages appreciation of social life as constituted by ongoing, fluid processes of interaction and interpretation. Through participation, the field researcher sees firsthand and up close how people grapple with uncertainty and ambiguity, how meanings emerge through talk and collective action, how understandings and interpretations change over time, and how these changes shape subsequent actions. In all these ways, the fieldworker's closeness to others' daily lives and activities heightens sensitivity to social life as process.

Yet, even with intensive participation, the ethnographer never becomes a member in the same sense that those who are "naturally" in the setting are members. The fieldworker plans on leaving the setting after a relatively brief stay, and his experience of local life is colored by this transience. As a result, "the participation that the fieldworker gives is neither as committed nor as constrained as the native's" (Karp and Kendall 1982:257). Furthermore, the fieldworker orients to many local events, not as "real life" but, rather, as objects of possible research interest and as events that he may choose to write down and preserve in fieldnotes. In these ways, research and writing commitments qualify ethnographic immersion, making the field researcher at least something of an outsider and, at an extreme, a cultural alien.


In writing about one's experiences and observations deriving from intense and involved participation, the ethnographer creates descriptive fieldnotes. But writing descriptive accounts of experiences and observations is not simply a process of accurately capturing as closely as possible observed reality, of "putting into words" overheard talk and witnessed activities. To view the writing of descriptions as essentially a matter of producing texts that correspond accurately to what has been observed is to assume that there is but one "best" description of any particular event. But, in fact, there is no one "natural" or "correct" way to write about what one observes. Rather, because descriptions involve issues of perception and interpretation, different descriptions of similar or even the same situations and events are both possible and valuable.

Consider, for example, the following descriptions of express checkout lines in three Los Angeles supermarkets, each written by a different student researcher. These descriptions share a number of common features: all describe events from the point of view of shoppers/ observers moving through express checkout lines; all provide physical descriptions of the checkout counter and players in the lines—checkers, baggers, other shoppers—and of at least some of the grocery items being handled; and all attend closely to some minute details of behavior in express lines. Yet, each of these descriptions is written from a different point of view; each shapes and presents what happens on the express line in different ways. In part, differences arise because the researchers observed different people and occasions; but differences also reflect both distinctive orientations and positionings taken by the observers, different ways of presenting the observer's self in "writing the other" (Warren 2000), and different writing choices in creating and framing different kinds of "stories" in representing what they observed happening.

Mayfair Market Express Line

There were four people in line with their purchases separated by an approx. 18" rectangular black rubber bar. I put my frozen bags down on the "lazy susan linoleum conveyor belt," and I reached on top of the cash register to retrieve one of the black bars to separate my items. The cashier was in her mid thirties, approx., about 5_2_ dark skinned woman with curly dark brown hair. I couldn't hear what she as saying but recognized some accent in her speech. She was in a white blouse, short sleeved, with a maroon shoulder to mid thigh apron. She had a loose maroon bow tie, not like a man's bow tie, more hangie and fluffy. Her name tag on her left chest side had red writing that said "Candy" on it.

[Describes the woman and three men in front of her in line.] ... Candy spent very little time with each person, she gave all a hello and then told them the amount, money was offered, and change was handed back onto a shelf that was in front of the customer whose turn it was. Before Candy had given the dark-haired woman her change back, I noticed that the man in the pink shirt had moved into her spatial "customer" territory, probably within a foot of her, and in the position that the others had taken when it was their turn in front of the "check writing" shelf (I thought it was interesting that the people seemed more concerned about the proper separation of their food from another's than they did about body location).

This account gives a central place to the cashier, first providing a description of her physical appearance and apparel, then offering a summary of her procedure for handling customers. It also focuses on the close sequencing of purchase encounters, noting that the pink-shirted man has moved into position to be the "next served"—within a foot of the woman in front of him—even before she had received her change. Indeed, this description highlights spatial aspects of the grocery line, contrasting in an aside the care taken to separate grocery items and the seeming disregard of personal space as one shopper moves in to succeed an about-to-depart one.

In contrast, in the following excerpt, the observer focuses on her own position and experience in line, highlighting her own social and interactional concerns in relating to those immediately in front of and behind her.


Excerpted from WRITING ETHNOGRAPHIC FIELDNOTES by Robert M. Emerson Rachel I. Fretz Linda L. Shaw Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Index 8. Conclusion Notes References 5. Pursuing Members’ Meanings 6. Processing Fieldnotes: Coding and Memoing 7. Writing an Ethnography 4. Writing Fieldnotes II: Multiple Purposes and Stylistic Options 2. In the Field: Participating, Observing, and Jotting Notes 3. Writing Fieldnotes I: At the Desk, Creating Scenes on a Page Preface to the First Edition 1. Fieldnotes in Ethnographic Research Contents Preface to the Second Edition

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