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date: 07 December 2023

Writing and Managing Multimodal Field Notesfree

Writing and Managing Multimodal Field Notesfree

  • Fernando Hernández-HernándezFernando Hernández-HernándezUniversity of Barcelona
  •  and Juana M. Sancho-GilJuana M. Sancho-GilUniversity of Barcelona


Researchers from various disciplines collect and generate field notes as a strategy to describe and reflect (through texts, photos, drawings, diagrams, or recordings) the complexity they face when addressing entangled and many-faceted phenomena. Field notes are as common research strategy not only to capture and amass instantly what researchers listen to, observe, think, and feel, but also to make explicit their reflexivity process, based on their observations and experiences. Field notes are not only a method for generating evidence, but a reflection of the ontological, epistemological, methodological, and ethical positionality that guide the researcher’s gaze. Paradoxically, although field notes are something most researchers use and are fundamental in their reports and publications, they are generally the hidden and idiosyncratic side of academic field work.

The preparation of field notes is an extremely intricate issue, as the very same meaning, purposes, and roles of field notes heavily rely on the ethnographer’s onto-epistemological positioning. It is useful, then to contextualize field notes within the tradition of ethnography, without ignoring the fact that they are used in a wide range of disciplines (including anthropology, deology, architecture, geography, ethology, archaeology, and biology). It is also important to problematize the practice of taking, collecting, and generating field notes by taking into account the fact that the traditional vision of field notes as written (alphabetic) notes is being challenged by the availability of mobile applications that enable researchers to create and organize multimodal information. It is important to note the relevance of the so-called “headnotes,” as there are many impressions, scenes, and experiences that cannot be written down or can be difficult or impossible to document. In addition, the text goes beyond the reflection of interaction by introducing the notion of intra-action to overcome the metaphysics of individualism underlying conventional understandings of “interactions.” The growing multiplicity of languages, modes, and means of expression and communication must be examined alongside the strengths and limitations of multimodal field notes. Finally, the practice of keeping field notes requires a recognition of the reflexivity imbedded in this process. Field diaries can be seen as the first step toward ethnographic reporting, and here reflexivity becomes a fundamental part of the analyses involved.


  • Educational Systems
  • Education and Society

Introduction: Exploring a Slippery Issue

What happens in the field is much more than data collection.

(Rappaport, 2008, p. 7)

In 2015, we began doing ethnographical research with young people on their learning transitions inside and outside five secondary schools (Hernández-Hernández, 2017). During the fieldwork, we took multimodal field notes, in the form of text, sketches, photos, and videos, and made observations and carried out conversations, with both students and teachers. This allowed us to write descriptive and analytical ethnographic reports. Using different software, we converted these sources into multimodal field diaries. These diaries, composed of the insights garnered during our research meetings, and the ethnographic accounts of the youth we interviewed, plus our headnotes (Ottenberg, 1990), were the bases which allowed us to write five interpretative ethnographic reports (Hernández-Hernández & Sancho-Gil, 2017). What we have not explained in these reports is, as Wolfinger (2002) summarizes, what and how we choose to annotate, photograph, or observe. When in the field, had we already decided what to write about and photograph? What did we notice? What did we choose to focus our attention on? What did we subsequently recall? Of what we remembered, what did we choose to document in our notes and photos? And in how much detail? (pp. 85–86). Responses to these questions are relevant because decisions made at this stage of the research process have an impact on and are driven by our ontological, epistemological, methodological, and ethical positionalities, culminating in a vision that is reflected in the ethnographic reports. Based on the relevance of these questions, this article pays attention to assumptions, debates, suggestions, and tensions involved in the recording and compilation of field notes (whether by writing, drawing, photographing, or video recording), drawing on both our own research experience and the academic literature on this pertinent issue. This collage of references has been organized in a way that makes clear that the process of taking field notes is not merely a method, but rather an entangled progression where ontological, epistemological, methodological, and ethical positionalities converge in the ethnographical research.

Field Notes in the Context of Ethnographical Research

Geographers, ethologists, archaeologists, geologists, biologists, and other researchers from different areas of academic research collect and generate field notes in their work as a strategy for capturing (by writing, photographing, drawing, or filming) part of the complexity they face when studying entangled and many-faceted phenomena. Field notes are a common research strategy, not only to capture and collect instantly what researchers observe, listen to, think, and feel, but also to make explicit their reflexivity process, based on their approach to, or their means of immersion in, the phenomenon being studied. Paradoxically, although field notes are something most researchers use to produce evidence and information and are fundamental in their reports and publications, they are usually overlooked as a focus of research, and assumed to be widely personal and wildly divergent in their applications.

In the case of ethnography literature on the foundations of this research approach, authors dedicate a great deal of attention to issues such as writing the ethnographic research report (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983; Van Maanen, 1988; Amit, 2000; Emerson, 2001; Pyrczak & Randall, 2005; Kahn, 2011). However, questions related to the process of taking ethnographic field notes by different means have received less consideration, not only as a methodological matter, but as an arena that allows exploration of researchers’ ontological, epistemological, and ethical positionalities. In the early 21st century, ethnographers have not only started to look more carefully at the epistemological and methodological “value” of field notes in their research, but also to make visible their note-taking process (Condel, 2008; Kahn, 2011; Taussing, 2011; Eriksson, Henttonen, & Meriläinen, 2012; Phillippi & Lauderdale, 2017). Even so, what Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw pointed out in 1995 still holds true: field notes remain “invisible work” in the greater context of ethnographic literature. This may be due to the fact that field notes are considered private documents for the most part, and somewhat disorganized, unfinished, and personal as a result. Therefore, the transition from field notes to research reports and research findings, and the attendant affirmations or conclusions, remains an arena left unexplored. Although there is no consensus about how ethnographic field notes should be written, collected, or produced, given that they are assumed to be personal and individual tools, and there is little agreement about their overall value in ethnographic research, most ethnographers (and many other qualitative researchers) produce field notes (both as written text and visual notes), particularly when they are in the field doing observations. Nevertheless, as Eriksson, Henttonen, and Meriläinen (2012) have pointed out,

field notes are important because they involve the critical acts of sense making and interpretation, which inevitably have some kind of bearing on the research findings and results. To be able to understand what kind of bearing the field notes can have on your research, it is necessary to practice reflexivity in respect to one’s own field notes and their analysis. (p. 1)

In this regard, Rachel Fendler’s field notes, which were part of the research on the learning transitions among young people mentioned previously (Giró-Gracia & Fendler, 2017), can be considered as an example of that entanglement of description, reflection, and interpretation in the field notes:

This classroom, the students’ classroom, became our private space in the school. Being apart from the other classrooms allowed us to have privacy, even though we were inside the high school and during school hours. It also introduced certain challenges, especially of a technical nature. The lack of computers in the classroom made us trust that the young people would bring theirs or, when necessary, as in the film-observation session, bring a laptop and a projector of our own to make sure that the activity could run smoothly. Even so, we value the independence that our own space gave us, and to be able to organize it in the way that best suits us at every moment. (p. 53)

Wolfinger (2002) points out that generating field notes seems like simply the result of going to a research site, seeing what happens, talking to people, and then writing everything down, taking photos, making drawings, or shooting a video. However, this straightforward account does not address the choices and dilemmas researchers face in the field, when they are surrounded and affected by multiple and diverse stimuli, which are processed via the ethnographer’s tacit knowledge and previous experiences. Van Maanen (1988) provides a clear and pertinent summary of this issue:

To put it bluntly, fieldnotes are gnomic, shorthand reconstructions of events, observations, and conversations that took place in the field. They are composed well after the fact as inexact notes to oneself and represent simply one of many levels of textualization set off by experience. To disentangle the interpretive procedures at work as one moves across levels is problematic to say the least … Little wonder that fieldnotes are the secret papers of social research. (pp. 223–224)

Wolfinger suggest that field notes become a part of the researcher, because they “serve the crucial role of connecting researchers and their subjects in the writing of an ethnographic report… . Therefore, it is important to understand the processes underlying their creation and how these processes can affect ethnographic texts” (2002, p. 92)—particularly because they reflect the ethnographer’s background knowledge and deeply held beliefs. As Erickson (1984) notices, “Fieldwork is heavily inductive, but there are no pure inductions. The ethnographer brings to the field a theoretical point of view and a set of questions, explicit or implicit” (p. 51). In this way, the ethnographer’s positioning affects both the content and the meaning of field notes. By recognizing these assumptions, ethnographers can develop a more thorough understanding of their note-taking, and ultimately of the social worlds they study (Wolfinger, 2002). In the practice of our own research group, we begin our ethnographic projects by writing and sharing autoethnographic accounts to situate how the research topics are affected by our inherent biographical, epistemological, and methodological biases. In developing this strategy, we have come to understand not only the importance of researching our collaborators’ experiences, but also the value of exploring our own personal experiences as related to the topic in question. This step is not only epistemological and methodological, but partly political: we do not ask people to share stories that we ourselves are unable (or unwilling) to share. It is also a useful strategy because, given the impossibility of avoiding the unpredictable, this step helps us to at least foresee the kind of collaboration that we will find in the fieldwork, as well as the final structure of the ethnographic report. It is also a way to be more aware of the implicit biases that may influence our field notes (Hernández, Sancho, Creus, & Montané, 2010; Sancho & Hernández-Hernández, 2013). In addition, these early personal narratives also act as starting points or triggers for the need to (re)learn, reflect, and reconsider research methods, observation strategies, and the initial guidance necessary to produce useful field notes (Hernández-Hernández & Sancho-Gil, 2015).

The Practice of Taking and Collecting Field Notes

Field notes are deeply affected by the meaning we impart to our inquiry process, the site, and the fieldwork. The fieldwork can be situated in a place, a site without limits, in which the researcher decides to lean into his own biography, academic background, and prejudices. For us the field has no limits, and it is multi-sited, entangled, complex, and multifaceted. We agree with Marcus (1995) when he questions the hegemonic conception of an ethnographic site as a “container of a particular set of social relations, which could be studied and possibly compared with the contents of other containers elsewhere” (Falzon, 2009, p. 1), and supports the notion of multi-sited ethnography. Drawing on a preeminent position in ethnography for many years, Marcus argues that the study of social phenomena cannot be explained by focusing on a single isolated site. What is at stake in this assertion is not only the question of the boundaries of any social practice in an interconnected world, but the fantasy of field-workers who still imagine that the limits of the field are defined by what is under their direct scrutiny. To understand others’ experiences we need, as Falzon has mentioned, a strategy that “involves a spatially dispersed field through which the ethnographer moves—actually, via sojourns in two or more places, or conceptually, by means of techniques of juxtaposition of data” (2009, p. 2). In the following notes written by Rachel Fendler during her fieldwork with secondary-school students, we note the importance of thinking about these issues earlier on in an ethnography:

In one of the definitions comes the term “field research,” and we talk about what that means and what the “field” means, what “autoethnography” means, proposing a couple of ways to do it: with a field diary of our activities during the week and documenting something specific, such as their interests. We come back to the idea that documentation or evidence must make sense within the research, and we must see what we mean to collect the most important.

(Giró-Gracia & Fendler, 2017, p. 74)

In our experience, an ethnographic report should: (a) give a detailed description of the interactions between humans, so that the reader can imagine what happened in the field; and (b) display an awareness on the author’s part of writing a story that reveals a network of experiences, objects, and circumstances. This means considering the literary aspects of good writing, namely: (a) pay attention to the researcher’s place in the story, who not only explains what is observed and experienced, but also understands her personal reactions to situations and tensions; and (b) take theory into account throughout the report by establishing a permanent conversation with other authors and a permanent reflexivity process. Finally, we should keep in mind that the notion of naturalism is connected to the fictionality of all ethnographic research (Hernández-Hernández & Sancho-Gil, 2015).

In this interconnected process, “field notes are meant to be read by the ethnographer and to produce meaning through interaction with the ethnographer’s headnotes” (Sanjek, 1990b, p. 92). This is important because, as Ottenberg (1990) notes, there is another set of notes to be considered: “These are the notes of the mind, the memories of my field research. I call them my headnotes. As I collected my written notes, there are many more impressions, scenes, experiences than I wrote down or could possibly have recorded” (p. 144). Field notes are complemented by headnotes. This understanding also enlightens the researchers’ analysis. For this author, “headnotes are the driving forces, albeit subject to correction by the fieldnotes. The written notes have a sacred quality that is also illusion. The process of employing fieldnotes should make them an adjunct to the more primary headnotes” (p. 147).

According to Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (1995), field notes might include descriptions of the physical environment, people, and their actions, as well as dialogue drawn from interactions. But especially, we should also consider “intra-actions,” per Barad (1996), to get beyond the metaphysics of individualism underlying conventional understandings of “interactions.” Barad emphasizes the “intra-action” between subjects and objects in the world, or rather, “phenomena,” given that the latter in that frame are already interconnected before being agentially separated (Barad, 2003, p. 815). The following excerpt from Fernando’s field notes illustrates some of these characteristics:

Carmen, the teacher of the students, pick us up at 10:00am. With Maria, the other researcher, they guide me through corridors and stairs until I reach the door of what looks like a Natural Sciences classroom. It seems an ironic coincidence that ethnographic research linked to the learning trajectories of this group at their last year of compulsory Secondary School, has its meetings in a Science room. Crossing the door, I find myself in a classroom organized in rows facing a whiteboard where the spotlight of the projector linked to the computer falls. In the background, blinds cover a large window through which the sun sets, and from where we can see the view of Barcelona. From the top of the wardrobe, that covers part of the wall, several stuffed animals look at us.

(Hernández-Hernández & Domingo-Coscollola, 2017, p. 248).

The ethnographic methodological literature (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995; Coffey, 1999; Atkinson et al., 2001; Eriksson & Kovalainen, 2008) provides different guidelines concerning how to collect and report observational data for ethnographic research. Data is most commonly registered by written and visual field notes. Most of the literature on field notes advise the researcher to plan field-work in a detailed manner ahead of time. In terms of what to look for in the field, researchers are guided to pay attention to people (and other actors), and to observe how they talk, behave, interact, and move. In addition, the physical environment and the use of any material artifacts must be recorded. Field notes should be as accurate and detailed as possible, with the aim of capturing people’s language and idiomatic expressions in the field, as well as significant details of their environment. Digital tools can help to produce field notes, as illustrated in this excerpt from Xavi Giró-Gracia’s field notes, in which he gives an account of the moment an audio recorder was introduced in the ethnographic field:

From the second meeting, we began recording the sessions with a professional audio recorder, which Rachel borrowed from her husband to record live music. At first this caused some surprise in the group, not only because of the recording of what was being said, but also because of the dimensions of the device. To allay their doubts, we told them that the recordings would not be made public, but would serve as a source of information specially for our field notes, and to be able to remember what happened in the sessions after a few months. The young people got used to the situation very quickly and did not hesitate, although sporadically in some sessions it was, the commentary “beware, they are recording,” emerged, usually in jest, and the question to Rachel, “Is it on?” Even so, we never noticed that their words were really limited or conditioned by the fact that we were recording them and, on several occasions, reviewing the recording we listened to conversations among the young people that we had not been aware of during the session.

(Giró-Gracia & Fendler, 2017, p. 59)

At the same time, comparing the content of this field note with the one taken by Juana, in another site during the same research project, we see evidence of Barad’s claims (1996) that intra-actions involve the mutual constitution of entangled agencies.

We informed students about our willingness of voice recording all working sessions as a way of keeping track of all decision-making and being able to recall our reflections. Both teachers and students immediately accepted, and I put my cell phone on the table and started recording.

The same action (voice recording) performed with different tools led to two different reactions among participants in this research. In the first case, the lack of knowledge and the size of the device caused anxiety among participants, and more awareness on their part of being recorded. In the second case, the act of voice recording was understood as something “natural,” that is, as something they did not need to pay attention to, as the gadget was already a part of their daily life.

However, there is some controversy over whether it is necessary to make explicit or avoid reporting on the researcher’s reactions, emotions, thoughts, concepts, and conceptions concerning the fieldwork. Even more if considering the dimensions implied in the so-called headnotes that, as argued earlier, they do not only relate to what ethnographers “see” but to the way they see it and to how they feel affected by what they observe, feel, and experience. In this context, ethical, political, and academic tensions can arise if there is a discrepancy between the researcher’s headnotes and current discourses about what is considered as ethically, politically, and academically acceptable.

The ontological-epistemological positioning of most methodological guides favors the idea that the entire fieldwork must be planned and under strict authorial control. However, something any researcher who has done field-work knows is that this control is not always possible, and that unpredictability is a characteristic (and often, even, a benefit) of research activity in the field. For Wolfinger (2002), writing (and taking visual) field notes seems deceptively straightforward—particularly because, as Keesing and Strathern (1998) have argued, there is a gap between the data described in field notes and the lived experiences, sounds, smells, and scenes that cannot be captured in writing or visualized, but settle into the unconscious. What Keesing and Strathern are sustaining, by using the term “unconscious,” is that the ethnographer, or any researcher generating field notes, brings a deep, unpronounced understanding that is greater than the field notes, and gives the ethnography a richness that could not have been obtained in any way other than through prolonged immersion in the field (Robben & Sluka, 2007, p. 8). Therefore, in our research we consider that our field notes, drawings, maps, recordings, and pictures are textual and visual representations of the observations and interpretations we made in the field. We also assume that our social and academic trajectories and our respective understandings and assumptions influence what knowledge is produced and how it is produced (Eriksson, Henttonen, & Meriläinen, 2012).

Field Notes Beyond the Written Text: The Emergence of Multimodal Field Notes

The 21st century seems to have ushered in the age of multimodal information, a trend that has profoundly transformed the nature of research evidence. In the era of multimodal literacies, and when there are mobile applications that enable researchers to create and organize multimodal information, “Digital technologies open new windows for ethnographic explorations of cultural experiences” (Eisenhart & Allaman, 2017). So, the traditional vision of field notes as written (alphabetic) notes (Walford, 2009) is being challenged by the multimodal turn (Dicks, Soyinka, & Coffey, 2006). This trend is strongly driven by the proliferation of digital media, which is generating new problems relating to the management and interpretation of information. There is an increasing number of ethnographers who, in the digital era, use different approaches to the collection of information such as “participant observation, multimodal field notes … videotaped interactions … collecting participant artefacts … and repeated interviews … about their attitudes” (Knobel & Lankshear, 2016, p. 159).

Authors such as Murthy (2011) talk about “digital ethnography,” which is linked to the use of Apple iTouches with Canon PowerShot digital cameras “to create multimodal fieldnote entries from the field” (p. 164). For this author, the use of “wikis, blogs, or other technological innovations, presents potentialities for new types of field notes that can be inputted online from the field and embedded with video streams, audio transcripts of interviews, digital pictures, and, of course, textual field notes.” Specifically, he examines some specific digital ethnographic applications such as “fieldnotes with blogs/wikis, embedded ethnographic technologies (the “cyborg ethnographer”), digital pens, and CMS groupware” (p. 164). As Sanjek (1990a) argued, and many ethnographers have confirmed over time, a central aspect of a successful ethnography is the “strength” of the researcher’s own field notes.

Multimodal and digital twists and turns have opened up incredible opportunities to collect and manage information. However, the excess and diversity of information is today one of the most important challenges faced by researchers, and has a significant impact on their studies.

On the other hand, in an increasingly visual world, the role of images (photos, video, drawings, and sketches alike) in research has grown, because images can reveal dimensions that are not accessible by other means (Banks, 2008). At the same time, visual methods have experimented a displacement “from an emphasis on realist visual recording methods in the mid-20th century to later incorporate contemporary approaches that engaged with subjectivity, reflexivity and the notion of the visual as knowledge and a critical ‘voice’” (Pink, 2003, p. 180). In the case of ethnography, researchers soon realized that the visual image, whether conveyed by photograph, video, cinema, or drawings, is not an accurate registration of reality, as early practitioners believed, “but that ‘raw’ photos and footage, just like ‘raw’ field notes, are constructions encapsulating the intention, agency, and objectives of the ethnographer, and thus subject to reinterpretation” (Robben, 2007, p. 386).

Field notes in the form of images gaze on the situation that is being explored, particularly when the methods of generating images are photo documentation and image elicitation (Rose, 2012). These methods address the production of a series of photos or videos taken by researchers and collaborators in a focused manner to document, reflect, and analyze social practices. As Banks (2008) suggests, “the value of visual methods lies on promoting exploration, the accidental discovery and collaboration in social research” (p. 159). Images generated in the field do not only illustrate the written text but are also able to produce additional evidence and modes of reflexivity and knowing through the research. As stated by Gillian Rose, “this body of social science work uses various kinds of images as ways of answering research questions, not by examining images—as do visual culture studies—but by making them” (2012, p. 10). As part of the field notes spectrum, images also serve different functions and are not subordinated to the text, but “might provide their own theories, have their own power, their own say in the structure” (Elkins & McGuire, 2013, p. 1). Images are both part of the ethnographic field work and a discourse or writing mode. At this point, it seems relevant to remember that, according to Rose,

an image may have its own visual effects … these effects, through the ways of seeing mobilized by the image, are crucial in the production and reproduction of visions of social difference, but these effects always intersect with the social context of viewing and with the visualities spectators bring to their viewing. (2012, p. 16)

Images can have an effect not only on the collaborators and readers, but also on the researchers, and on the kinds of epistemological, methodological, ethical and political positionalities they produce. Let us introduce an excerpt from Maria Domingo-Coscollola’s field diary, where it is possible to appreciate how the field notes reflect the introduction of the photos in the research process, and their role, as evidence (field note) at the encounter with youth collaborators.

Carmen (the teacher) introduces me. There’s an atmosphere of expectation … the four boys and two girls are looking at me. I smile and thank them warmly for having accepted to participate, for being there … Then, I asked them whether I was able to take some photos of the meeting and if, in addition, I will be able to record the session (so that I can have evidence of the encounter …). Everyone quickly says yes, without any inconvenience and with a good face. I took a photo of them unexpectedly (I have a backlight, but it does not matter). Then, I tell Carmen (the teacher) if she wants to go out in the picture too. She quickly puts on and I shoot another photo very quickly. Then, I say let’s get started and I start to record.

(Hernández-Hernández & Domingo-Coscollola, 2017, p. 249).

In the research project to which we have been referring, we took as a starting point Deleuze’s notion of image (1983), which posits that we do not make images of things, but the pictures are things in themselves. From this approach, images generated during the fieldwork would expand in their usefulness and beyond their original meanings as they become part of the ethnographic report (Miño, 2017). This approach allows us to pay attention to how these images have the power to fictionalize people, objects, relationships, and even the researchers, by reinforcing and excluding certain aspects and meanings of the Other, the social milieu, and the research process. The images also account for the social life of people reflected in this visual evidence, which are transformed into something else by being photographed, thus creating a new reality independent of their original reference points. The following paragraph, which is drawn from Xavi’s field notes, allows us to reflect on what can happen when a video camera becomes part of the life of a group of young students.

A little more excitement was caused by the video camera (Image 4) that we started using at the end of January. We video recorded all the sessions from this moment until the final presentation at school, placing the video camera on a tripod not far from the table where we worked. The first impression was surprising; Pol says to Esther ‘you have to come with makeup,’ joking. But, in principle, it doesn’t matter much, and sometimes, at the end of the session, it becomes a toy for the youth, who have fun grimacing in front of the camera before going out.

(Giró-Gracia & Fendler, 2017, p. 54)

Because images, like field notes, are not used to fix truths, we can explore, through reflexivity, the kind of realities they, and we, create and make visible. At the same time, they are devices that allow us to confront the unknown, the new and the different, shaping our subjective approaches. In addition, this gaze allows us to explore whether the images presented in the reports alter how we “see” others and ourselves in the ethnographic account.

When we start reflecting on these images as part of the field diary, we bear in mind recent approaches to the interpretation of images in anthropology, cultural studies, and cultural geography, which have emphasized the need to pay attention to four key areas: (a) the context in which the image was produced; (b) the content of the image; (c) the contexts and the subjectivities through which images are viewed; and (d) the materiality and agency of images (Pink, 2003, p. 187). We also question the totalitarian character of images collected in the field notes, by considering them as partial, because they only explore and fix, as mentioned, some aspects of the social and material relations represented.

Field Notes, Field Diaries, and Reflexivity

The field diary is a strategy that allows the researcher to move from the merely observed to its deeper meaning. Field notes are mediated by the researcher’s intuitions, biographical and academic background, and her chosen observation strategy such as (focused, holistic, or floating). Their value depends on the researcher’s capacity and willingness to being open and receptive to the “Other,” and the Other’s personal, social, and material conditions, throughout the course of the fieldwork. The field notes can be based on scenes, vignettes, critical moments, or fluxes of actions and encounters. They can be grounded in what the researcher decides to observe, or on what surprises the researcher during the interactions and intra-actions in the field and beyond.

The field diary is a reflective elaboration of the field notes and it is the foundation of the research report. The diary is a place, analog or virtual (there are a large number of software programs available for managing multimodal information), that allows the researcher to rescue what has been collected in the field notes (textually or visually) and reconsider what has been observed or gathered in light of the relevant “theoretical” references (ontological, epistemological, methodological, and ethical) with which the researcher dialogues, and which guides his gaze.

The practice of keeping a field diary, as a mode of field notes analysis, relates to the notion of reflexivity. This concept, its genealogy, and the diversity of approaches to it in social research (Macbeth, 2001; Stronach et al., 2007) can be found in epistemological and methodological discussions about the way researchers (should) acknowledge their own subjectivity and its effects on the production of scientific knowledge. Reflexivity refers to an ontological and epistemological social-scientific praxis closely associated with (post-)modern sensibilities (Zienkowski, 2017). Reflexivity also refers to the relationship between the researcher, the empirical field, and the theoretical and methodological bias orienting observation practices and field notes. This could allow the researcher to question the realities studied, the ways knowledge is generated, and the researcher’s own interpretations and theorizations. According to Eriksson, Henttonen, and Meriläinen (2012, p. 11), the basic argument in recent discussions on reflexivity is that authors should explicitly position themselves in relation to the objects (conceptual, human, and material) of study. This would allow potential readers to evaluate the knowledge produced, taking into account the social values and assumptions of the authors. This development has led to different forms and uses of reflexivity, to the extent that Lynch (2000) recommends speaking about “reflexivities.”

Certainly, the researcher should bear in mind the praxis of reflexivity when generating the field notes and translating them into the field diary and the ethnographic report. For this reason, the field notes cannot be only descriptive; they must also be analytical and interpretative. The following extract from Maria’s field diary is an example of how we introduced the students, who were doing an ethnography about their learning transitions inside and outside the secondary school using digital technology, to the difference between the field notes and the field diary.

Then, the importance of field notes is discussed. The question arises about the difference between field notes and field diary. While Fernando explains it, I look for my two collections of field notes that are in the Moodle and show them to the students. Afterwards, Fernando talks about the hours of work it takes to transform each field note sheet into a field diary, and explains the question that arises about the difference between the notes (as evidences …) and field diary (as research …).

If an ethnographer is reluctant to use to a poststructural ethnographic approach to disrupt the relationship between the fieldwork, the field notes, the field diary, and the ethnographic report, a position of reflexivity could support the writing of ethnography as a practice of narration, not as focused on “capturing the real already out there. It is about constructing particular versions of truth” (Britzman, 2000, p. 30). In a similar direction, Wolfinger (2002) remembers that due to the ongoing nature of sense-making and interpretation of the ethnography, both in the notes and field diary, as well as in the writing of the ethnographic report, fieldworkers can lend coherence to their research by practicing reflexivity throughout their research process.

Inconclusive Remarks

Field notes are common resources for collecting, recalling, and producing information in many disciplinary domains, including anthropology, geology, architecture, geography, ethology, archaeology, biology, the arts, and education. Researchers compile and generate field notes (whether by writing, photographing, drawing, or filming) as a strategy for coping with the complexity they face when trying to understand social and material phenomena that are interwoven and multifaceted. Each of these realms has its specific ends, methods, and contextual processes. However, they all share problems and dilemmas such as:


the relationship between the ontological-epistemological positioning and the role and meaning of field notes in the research or documentation process;


the need to consider field notes not as a method but as an event of confluences, entanglements, and intra-actions between the researcher’s imaginaries, tacit knowledge, and communities of thinking and practice;


the viewing of field notes as an assembly operation, performing the same function that the storyboard plays in a comic or in a film, because they make visible the researcher’s gaze, thoughts, and feelings, in a semi-structured manner;


the fact that field notes confront researchers and possible readers with the fantasy of naturalism and representationalism associated with fieldwork, due to the impossibility of collecting the full complexity of what flows in a field characterized as multisited, entangled, multifaceted, and borderless;


the unprecedented development of digital technology, which makes the world increasingly multimodal and visually oriented, confronts researchers with even more complex social phenomena and the need to be able to understand, use, read, and write not only text but also images capable of accounting for new realities; and


field notes are a productive strategy full of possibilities that confronts and allows researchers to give an account of how the unknown, the new, and the different affect us.

A key issue underpinning this article is the analysis of field notes, and the foundation, possibilities, and limitations of that analysis. This is important, not only as part of the research process, but also because of its influence in the academic sphere as an indicator of professionalism. Fendler (2015) reflects on the tensions of this process:

Codification. The tacit knowledge that you need to acquire in the path toward academic professionalization is abundant, like in most professional arenas. Attempting to codify that knowledge, make it explicit, is an attempt to make sense of it all … But it’s impossible to do so, such knowledge always exceeds our representational capacities. You have to commit to picking up what you can, as you go along: you learn on the move. (p. 121)

In our case, we situate our field notes in conversation with the thoughts that emerge as we read them carefully, in a process of interrogation and searching for what is explicit and what remains invisible. During this activity, we make clear the underlying decisions that help us choose what to annotate, photograph, or observe in the field, and the connection this choice has with our ontological, epistemological, methodological, and ethical positionality. This is a research process, part of the creation of the field diary, and later of the research report, which we then link to concepts and readings also guiding both the fieldwork and our analysis. This is an undertaking that requires openness, flexibility, and rigor. There are other possibilities that give more security to the researcher, such as, for example, a coding system, whether manual or through a computer program. In this way, an operation is set in motion in which the field notes are filtered, sifted, sorted, and coded so that themes, concepts, regularities, and differences emerge. Rachel Fendler, in her doctoral dissertation, reflects on the possibilities, doubts, tensions, and dilemmas arising during the coding process of field notes, particularly as they relate to the question of meaning:

Returning (again) to the doubts that coding introduces, I am struck by the fact that the code word sifting has evolved in meaning. This illustrates an issue I ran into while coding, and which is not frequently discussed in the literature: even when working within specific parameters, meaning is not fixed. A single code can be interpreted in different ways, and its meaning is subject to change over time. (2015, p. 121)

As she notes, a coding system can obscure the possible meanings and connections of field notes and the relationships we can generate from them. This is because the research, by means of field notes, needs to cope with something similar to what Nathaniel Hawthorne (2012) calls the theory of “a glimpse light,” which refers to the impossibility of fully grasping the precise contours of reality. He considers that the author’s gaze always clashes with the hazy nature of reality. Only by taking advantage of the dim light that reality offers can we delve deeper into this almost incommunicable area that always rests upon what we see on the surface.

In the end, with field notes, something similar to what Hawthorne describes does happen. Field notes allow researchers to approach a reality that escapes them, from which they can collect fragments of conversations, encounters, images, impressions, feelings, or evocations, but which always confront researchers with the incompleteness. We can find guidelines that give us security, that tell us how to organize ourselves. But we will always find ourselves grappling with the doubt of the unseen, the unthought—what is left on the margins. Recognizing these limitations is one way of approaching ethnographic research, and by doing so we can weave the moments we collect in the field notes, while remaining aware that another researcher will gather other insights in the same field. Nevertheless, that is why we do research: to make sense of a fragmented reality, and to explore and understand some of its underpinning interactions and relationships.

Links to Ethnographic Writing Resources

Seth Kahn, “Putting Ethnographic Writing in Context”:

The author explains the different kinds of writing that are involved in the creation of field notes, up to and including the final product.

Jens Gerken, Stefan Dierdorf, Patric Schmid, Alexandra Sautner, & Harald Reiterer: “Pocket Bee—A multi-modal diary for field research”:

The authors present an overview of Pocket Bee, a multimodal diary tool that allows researchers to remotely collect rich and in-depth data in the field. Based on the Android smart phone platform, they especially focus on an easy-to-use interface. They introduce the notion of core questions that serve as cognitive triggers for predefined events. Multiple modalities allow participants to compose notes in the most appropriate and convenient way.

EthnoAlly is a mobile application that enables researchers to create and organize multimodal field notes for ethnographic studies. The mobile app produces GNSS-tagged multimodal material which is then archived, organized, and analyzed on a cloud application server. EthnoAlly functions as a personal assistant for ethnographers in their exploration of people and places, as well as a participatory tool that researchers can use with their interlocutors, both in person and remotely—for example, in the form of multimodal diaries.


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