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Participant Observation as a Research Method: A flexible and rigorous strategy for understanding our world

 

Fieldnotes

Fieldnotes are a key piece of any participant observation project. In brief, you should try to write down anything that took place during your participant observation that is relevant to your research questions, or that you think could potentially be relevant down the road. Often times, it is difficult or inappropriate in the situation to take notes during the participant observation itself – instead, you should try to write the notes down within an hour or two of leaving the field site on a given day. You might also carry a little notepad with you to jot down some basic reminders, or maybe even bring a tape-recorder with you to make audio notes during or after your participant observation.

Your fieldnotes should answer the who, what, where, when and why of the actions that you participated in and observed. Each set of fieldnotes should start with a basic description of where you were, when you were there and who else was with you. From there, you should describe as much of the action as you can, writing it out as if you were narrating a novel. This means you should include descriptions of what people did, as well as quotes of what people said (as best as you can remember). Here is an excerpt of what a fieldnote might look like from the Metamorphosis Project example described above.

February 12, 2011 – at the Community Center

It is a bright and sunny day. I arrive at the Community Center just in time for the workshop. Elena tells the audience that the workshop will be focusing on how to make compost for an urban garden. There are about 15 people in the audience, sitting in folding chairs, in addition to three staff members from the organization – Charlie, Joan and Roberta. I recognize some of the audience members from earlier workshops. It is mostly middle-aged women, although there are a few men, as well as three girls who are about 9 years old. It looks to be a mix of about half African-American and half Latino residents in the audience.

Elena begins, “Composting is a key to keeping healthy soil, and healthy soil is the key to growing healthy foods.”

Roberta is standing right next to Elena and immediately translates that same sentence into Spanish.

At the same time as you write your fieldnotes, you should also be conducting qualitative data analysis on your fieldnotes. The main method of analyzing fieldnotes involves the constant comparative method, in which you develop codes as a way to come up with major themes. In this method, you are constantly reading through your notes to look for topics that continue to come up and are related to your primary research questions. From there, you give this topic a code name, which you use every time you see that theme continue to occur in later fieldnotes. Let's return to the example above – this time, you will see several codes put into the text (in bold)

February 12, 2011 – at the Community Center

It is a bright and sunny day. I arrive at the Community Center just in time for the workshop. Elena tells the audience that the workshop will be focusing on how to make compost for an urban garden (Farming Tips).There are about 15 people in the audience, sitting in folding chairs, in addition to three staff members from the organization – Charlie, Joan and Roberta. I recognize some of the audience members from earlier workshops. It is mostly middle-aged women, although there a few men, as well as three girls about 9 years old. It looks to be a mix of about half African-American and half Latino residents in the audience (Multicultural Interaction – Gathering)

Elena begins, “Composting is a key to keeping healthy soil, and healthy soil is the key to growing healthy foods.” (Farming Tips)

Roberta is standing right next to Elena and immediately translates that same sentence into Spanish. (Multicultural Interaction – Language)

As you can see in this example, several codes were used that speak to major themes. The first is “Farming Tips” – this code might be used whenever there is practical advice about farming in the participant observation. The second and third codes use the same primary code and add a secondary code that is different. Both are examples of “Multicultural Interaction”, but the first speaks to the fact that there is simply a gathering of different ethnicities, while the second speaks to the fact that the translation suggests there is something specific about language to this interaction.

Important to know in the process of writing and analyzing fieldnotes is that you should do whatever works best for you! Use code names that make sense to you and speak to the questions that you are trying to come to some conclusions about. Chances are you will start off with lots of different codes, but as you continue to read back through your notes in the analysis process, you might see that some might be combined, as we did with the Gathering/Language codes above. When all is said and done, having less than a dozen or so key codes that speak to major themes will be helpful in drawing conclusions as you look to write up your findings.

Get Participatory! Draw from the knowledge and expertise of your research participants while writing and analyzing fieldnotes. Get them involved by contributing their own notes and by helping to develop codes for analysis. If you have different interpretations about what is going on in the moment, use that as an opportunity to explore the realities of the situation through discussion. 

As mentioned, it can also be quite useful to conduct some interviews and collect other data like documents in order to supplement your participant observation. You can analyze these data sources in much the same way as your fieldnotes, using the constant comparative method and coding transcripts or documents in order to arrive at major themes. One of the things to look for when you expand your analysis to this areas are differences between your participant observation and these other data sources – does something someone said in an interview or wrote in a document seem to contradict something you noticed in your participant observation? Why? What are the implications of this difference? This can be a fruitful area to explore in your analysis.

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