Fieldnotes refer to qualitative notes recorded by scientists or researchers in the course of field research, during or after their observation of a specific phenomenon they are studying. The notes are intended to be read as evidence that gives meaning and aids in the understanding of the phenomenon. Fieldnotes allow the researcher to access the subject and record what they observe in an unobtrusive manner.
One major disadvantage of taking fieldnotes is that they are recorded by an observer and are thus subject to (a) memory and (b) possibly, the conscious or unconscious bias of the observer. It is best to record fieldnotes immediately after leaving the site to avoid forgetting important details.
There are two components of fieldnotes: descriptive information and reflective information.
Descriptive information is factual data that is being recorded. Factual data includes time and date, the state of the physical setting, social environment, descriptions of the subjects being studied and their roles in the setting, and the impact that the observer may have had on the environment.
Reflective information is the observer's reflections about the observation being conducted. These reflections are ideas, questions, concerns, and other related thoughts.
Fieldnotes can also include sketches, diagrams, and other drawings. Visually capturing a phenomenon requires the observer to pay more attention to every detail as to not overlook anything.
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Fieldnotes are an excellent example of the "researcher as an instrument". Decisions about what is recorded and how can have a significant impact on the ultimate findings derived from the research. As such, creating and adhering to a systematic method for recording fieldnotes is an important consideration for a qualitative researcher. Robert K. Yin, an eminent American social scientist, recommends the following considerations as best practices when recording qualitative field notes.
Create vivid images: focusing on recording vivid descriptions of actions that take place in the field, instead of recording your interpretation of them. This is particularly important early in the research process. Immediately trying to interpret events can lead to premature conclusions that can prevent later insight when more observation has occurred. Focusing on the actions taking place in the field, instead of trying to describe people or scenes, can be a useful tool to minimize personal stereotyping of the situation.
The verbatim principle: similar to the vivid images, the goal is to accurately record what is happening in the field, not your paraphrasing (and likely unconscious stereotyping) of those events. Additionally, in social science research that involves studying culture, it is important to faithfully capture the language and habits in that culture as a first step towards full understanding.
Include drawings and sketches: these can quickly and accurately capture important aspects of field activity that are difficult to record in words, and can be very helpful for recall when you are reviewing your fieldnotes.
Develop your own transcribing language: while no one technique of transcribing (or "jotting") is perfect, most qualitative researchers develop a systematic approach to their own note taking. Considering the multiple competing demands on your attention (the simultaneous observation, processing, and recording of rich qualitative data in an unfamiliar environment), perfecting a system that you can automatically use and know will be interpretable later allows you to allocate your full attention to observation. The ability to distinguish notes about events themselves from notes to yourself is a key feature of your personal language. Prior to engaging in qualitative research for the first time, practicing a transcribing format beforehand can improve the likelihood of successful observation.
Convert field notes to full notes daily: prior to discussion of your observations with anyone else, you should set aside time each day to convert your field notes. At the very least, any unclear abbreviations, illegible words, or unfinished thoughts should be completed that would be uninterpretable later. In addition, the opportunity to collect one's thoughts and reflect on that days events can lead to recall of additional details, uncover emerging themes, lead to new understanding and help you plan for future observations. This is also a good time to add the day's notes to your total collection in an organized manner.
Verify notes during collection: converting your fieldnotes as described above will likely lead you to discover key points and themes that can then be verified while you are still present in the field. If conflicting themes are emerging, further data collection can be directed in a manner to help resolve the discrepancy.
Obtain permission to record: while electronic devices and audiovisual recording can be a useful tool in performing field research, there are some common pitfalls to avoid. Ensure that permission is obtained for the use of these devices beforehand, and ensure that the devices to be used for recording have been previously tested and can be used inconspicuously.
Keep a personal journal in addition to your field notes: as you, the researcher, are likely the main instrument, insight into your own reactions to and initial interpretations of events can help identify any undesired personal biases that might have influenced your research. This is useful for reflexivity.
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