Ethnographic fieldwork

From OER in Education

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Introduction to ethnographic fieldwork

Recording informal conversations or actual events is an essential part of ethnographic fieldwork. This is about writing (in some senses, more than about ‘participating’ or ‘observing’): there is no point in observing if the observations remain locked up in the heads of the researchers. Therefore, the session is designed to lead up to a fieldwork exercise in which participants do some observation (in as participatory a way as is possible, given local constraints), to write fieldnotes, to share them with the facilitators and the rest of the group, and to engage in some positive reflection on their own and others’ writing styles. Some time is needed to get participants’ permission and understanding of the benefits of getting and giving constructive feedback in these ways.

Time: Allow for 3 hours (a half-day session)


The basic objective of this session is to help participants develop an understanding of the aims and process of ‘participating in order to write’ as a research tool. They should also be aware of the issues of negotiating access, deciding what to observe, how to record field-notes and what should be included in those notes. They should have reflected on important social and cultural norms that researchers must be sensitive to in the field.

By the end of the section, workshop participants should:

  • be aware of the main methodological issues raised by ethnographic fieldwork
  • be able to reflect on their own conduct in recording informal conversations in everyday life, and be able to assess critically other pieces of research carried out in this tradition
  • be aware of the main ethical and theoretical issues raised by this research method.


  • A Presentation on ethnographic fieldwork handout is available to be used or amended if desired
  • Examples of appropriate fieldnotes from your own research or some other appropriate project should be available (preferably 1-2 pages of two or three different styles of fieldnotes).
  • A Handout on note-taking during fieldwork and interviews handout is available, which outlines the different types of note-taking
  • Flip chart and big markers (OR use someone sitting at a computer and typing in points raised so that they are shown on a projector)


  • Mixture of didactic (PowerPoint) and brainstorming activities, either in small groups or with the whole group. For example, at different points in the session you might want to get people into small groups (2-3 people in each) to:
    • to come up with three things that need to be recorded when carrying out a participant observation exercise (5 minutes), followed by feed-back sessions in which issues are listed and areas of agreement and disagreement are explored (10 minutes)
    • to discuss the ethical issues that arise in ethnographic fieldwork: brainstorm first in small groups on what they might be and how they might be resolved and then run a collective discussion
  • Consider distributing some handouts at the beginning or in the course of this session

Key Issues

  • During this workshop, participants’ writings will be available to the rest of the group: but usually, fieldnotes remain private to the researcher. This raises the more general issues of ‘for whom’ fieldnotes are written.
  • The ethical issues raised by fieldwork will also inevitably be raised by participants: decide whether you want to go into these in detail during this session, or address them in a dedicated session on ethics.

Topics to be covered (not necessarily in this order):

  • The fieldworker is the research instrument: what does this mean for issues of replicability and reliability? Are issues of validity central?
  • Roles in fieldwork: What do people actually do when they are doing ‘fieldwork’?
  • Planning access to field-sites, negotiating with gate-keepers, thinking through the implications of different kinds of roles in the field.
  • Negotiating ethical issues: privacy of field notes, anonymising individuals, what to do about people whose positions make them immediately identifiable?
  • Different kinds of field-notes: from jottings to field-notes.
  • Discussion of experience of diary-keeping; differences between research diaries and other kinds of field-notes.
  • Issues raised by emotions.
  • What to do with analytic thoughts.
  • Problems of doing research in different cultures: trying to understand and interpret other people’s behaviour
  • Problems of doing research in one’s own culture: how to make ‘the familiar’ seem ‘strange’, in order to understand and explain the ‘strange’.
  • Learning to describe cultural and body languages.
  • Basic issues in ‘talking with a purpose’: Where? When? How? What to do about reactivity, leading questions, the use of background information, confidentiality.
  • What to do about encouraging informal ‘focus groups’ in the field: how and what to record.
  • Feedback to the community at the end: who can see what? Who should see what?

Useful Reading

The following books include discussions about doing ethnographic fieldwork that you and workshop participants might find useful.

  • Sarangapani, P (2003) Constructing School Knowledge : An Ethnography of Learning in an Indian Village New Delhi, Sage Publications
  • Thapan, M (ed.)(1998) Anthropological Journeys : Reflections on Fieldwork New Delhi, Orient Longman
  • Abu-Lughod, L. (1988) 'Fieldwork of a 'Dutiful' Daughter' in S. Altorki and C.F. El-Solh (eds) Arab Women in the Field. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Preparation for field visit

Time: 30 minutes


By the end of the field visit and follow-up period to write fieldnotes, participants should

  • understand what is involved in ‘participating in order to write’ and how this differs from everyday life
  • have experience of writing quick ‘head notes’ to use as memory jogs for writing fieldnotes
  • have begun to apply the lessons from the previous session about what kinds of things to record and how to record them
  • have begun to reflect on the choices they have made in their writing styles
  • be ready to contribute to a discussion of their own and other people’s fieldnotes.


It is not always easy to think of an appropriate setting in which course participants can be asked to carry out a short observational exercise. If you are running this course on a ‘one day per week’ basis, there would be time to ask participants to select their own site, arrange entry, deal with issues of consent and so on. In a course run over 6-8 consecutive days, it may be unreasonable to ask the participants to set this up. If the facilitators do have access to a site where these minimal requirements can be met, this can be considered. An alternative option is to use an initial visit to the place where research is planned, and to get course participants to write up what they have observed and heard in the visit.

Otherwise, the site for practice observational work must be one where public access is unrestricted, and yet course participants can do more than just observe people from a distance. Ideally, it should be possible to hear conversations, to speak to people at the site without unduly misleading them as to your purposes, and to find a range of activities to observe. There are two options we have used:

  1. Ask all participants to visit a similar kind of setting, not necessarily the same examples. Two relatively successful sites we have used have been busy up-market shopping centres, and local temples. This helps with the feedback session, since all participants can be given the same orientation and research question. You might like to consider the example handout for the shopping-centre fieldwork task (Fieldwork Tasksheet 1 handout) and the example handout for the place of worship fieldwork task (Fieldwork Tasksheet 2 handout).
  2. Allow participants to use their own initiative and select a site they have access to for personal reasons. The advantage of this is that it allows participants to fit the observational exercise into what may be busy personal lives, and makes it more likely that they will have to report on conversations they have been part of. The disadvantage is that you may find it hard to come up with sensible common research questions. Participants often do not realise (until after the event) how different ‘observing in order to write’ is from carrying out one’s routine daily lives – but this is a good lesson to learn!

In either case, participants need clear instructions about what to do, whether you want them to take notes at the time, how long they should spend at the site, and so on. Handouts explaining the task should be adapted to suit your own purposes before being given out, or used as part of a PowerPoint presentation to explain the task.

Feedback after field visit

It is relatively easy to get people to do a piece of fieldwork observation in a public space. It is much harder to get them to write about it in ways that are clear, revealing, and available for themselves (and, in group projects, to others). Good fieldwork writing is essential in order to understand and analyse well after the event. This is a crucial session, and may take quite a lot of planning and quite a long time to run, depending on the number of participants.

Time: 90 minutes


By the end of this session, participants should

  • have discussed real-life examples of different ways of writing fieldnotes
  • have received some feedback on their own efforts, both from other course participants and from the course facilitator
  • have a clear idea of how they might be able to improve their fieldwork techniques through further experience and reflection


It is best if the example fieldnotes are available to the facilitators 3-4 hours before the feedback session. This gives the facilitators time to read through the notes and take extracts for use in the feedback session – as examples of different styles, good practice and so on.

If resources permit, make at least one copy of each set of fieldnotes; facilitators can then keep one complete set. You can use the other copy for discussion in small groups (3-4 participants). The members of each group should pass around the copy of their own notes to the other members to read, and then to have a structured discussion.


If possible, set the fieldwork task immediately before a break (for example, a weekend) and ask participants to write their notes during their day off: it should take 2-3 hours to write (or even better, to type up) notes from a fieldtrip of 1-2 hours. Participants should provide their brief head-notes as well as the written up versions.

It is very important that people do not criticise in a negative way, but focus on the positive aspects. It is also essential that no-one takes part in these discussions unless they have also taken part in the fieldwork exercise and have fieldnotes to share: many participants will feel very vulnerable in sharing their writing in this way, and they are reassured if they know that everyone else is in the same boat. In the same spirit, the facilitators should make available some of their own fieldnotes for comparison.

There is a Presentation on Reporting Back handout that provides an example of how we have worked through the materials that were produced after an exercise in which the course participants visited temples, in pairs, and wrote accounts of what they observed. The first slide is a list of the kinds of things that were generated from the feedback from the small-group discussions, as people reflected on their own and others’ writing; the remaining slides were created at short notice from the examples provided to the facilitators.

There is also a document of notes towards running a feedback session handout that shows the kinds of topics that can be raised in a feedback session on the exercise visiting shopping centres, which uses examples from the fieldnotes produced by the course participants to stimulate discussion.

Cc-by-nc-sa-narrow.png Singal, N., and Jeffery, R. (2008). Qualitative Research Skills Workshop: A Facilitator's Reference Manual,, Cambridge: RECOUP (Research Consortium on Educational Outcomes and Poverty, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. (original page)