The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 2: Handling Qualitative Data

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Get hands-on guidance for working with qualitative data: discover how to transcribe, organize, code, and analyze.
Jörg Hecker
Neringa Kalpokas
Director, Training & Partnership Development
  1. Handling qualitative data
  2. Transcripts
  3. Field notes
    1. Introduction
    2. What are field notes?
    3. Understanding field notes
    4. Constructing field notes
    5. How to approach writing field notes
    6. Considerations for qualitative data analysis
  4. Memos
  5. Survey data and responses
  6. Visual and audio data
  7. Data organization
  8. Data coding
  9. Coding frame
  10. Auto and smart coding
  11. Organizing codes
  12. Qualitative data analysis
  13. Content analysis
  14. Thematic analysis
  15. Thematic analysis vs. content analysis
  16. Narrative research
  17. Phenomenological research
  18. Discourse analysis
  19. Grounded theory
  20. Deductive reasoning
  21. Inductive reasoning
  22. Inductive vs. deductive reasoning
  23. Qualitative data interpretation
  24. Qualitative analysis software

Field notes in research

Field notes are the centerpiece of observational research. Transcripts can document what was said in interviews, focus groups, or recorded observations. Still, to turn social practices, cultural rituals, and non-verbal communication into qualitative data, researchers typically turn to field notes to provide a detailed description of what they see.

Note-taking is the primary source of qualitative data from observations.

Let's look at how field notes figure into qualitative research as well as some challenges and considerations when incorporating field notes into research.

What are field notes?

Field notes are an integral part of many types of research, especially within the realm of qualitative inquiry. Essentially, field notes are the researcher's written record of observations made, experiences had, and insights gleaned while in the field conducting research.

Whereas qualitative interviewing seeks out perspectives and beliefs from research participants, notes are useful for documenting what research participants do and how they behave in social practice. Notes from observations serve as the first point of contact with the data to be analyzed. They are a fundamental resource for understanding the context, nuances, and complexities of the research setting.

Field notes are not objective descriptions, nor is the primary goal always to completely and accurately document factual data; they also contain the researcher's interpretations and reflections on what has been observed. This gives field notes their dual nature - they are both descriptive and reflective, painting a comprehensive picture of the phenomena under study.

At their core, field notes seek to capture the rich and complex world of human experience in a form that can be communicated to others and used for qualitative data analysis. They provide the essential raw material from which researchers can develop an understanding of the people, practices, and cultures they are studying.

Understanding field notes

What do you write in your field notes?

Field notes should capture a broad array of information, including what was seen, heard, felt, and thought during the course of research. In essence, they are a record of your sensory and intellectual experiences in the field. The information can include descriptions of people, actions, and interactions. You can also mention your own thoughts, questions, and ideas as they arise in response to what you're observing in our field notes.

Field notes are essential to qualitative data analysis. Photo by lilartsy.

Field notes may also include sketches, diagrams, or other visual materials that aid in capturing the research setting. Furthermore, they may detail any particular incidents, events, or situations that you find noteworthy or that illustrate the phenomena you're investigating.

What is the purpose of a field note?

The primary purpose of a field note is to create a comprehensive and nuanced record of the research setting and the phenomena being investigated. Field notes serve as the raw material for analysis, allowing researchers to revisit their observations, reflect upon them, and derive meaningful insights and interpretations. They also help in providing a level of detail and context about the setting and participants that would be difficult to recall accurately from memory alone.

Moreover, field notes also serve an important role in grounding the research in the lived experiences and realities of the people being studied. By capturing not just what is said but also the ways in which it is said, the interactions between individuals, and the context in which these interactions take place, field notes help ensure that the resulting analysis and conclusions are rooted in the real-world experiences of the research subjects.

The value of field notes in qualitative research

In qualitative research methods for data collection, field notes play a critical role as they capture the rich, complex, and nuanced data that characterize this form of inquiry. They are instrumental in helping researchers understand and interpret the social world from the perspective of the individuals being studied.

Through field notes, researchers can capture the subtleties and complexities of human behavior, social interactions, and cultural practices, making them an indispensable tool in qualitative research.
As a result, many research disciplines employ field notes in data collection. In communication research, methods for documenting observations through notes focus on how information is conveyed and negotiated between different speakers. Field notes serve an important purpose in analyzing social settings for research in anthropology and sociology, as well. In general, descriptive notes from qualitative observation can aid a qualitative researcher in identifying emergent themes about behaviors and actions seen during the course of a research study.

Constructing field notes

What should field notes include?

These notes should be comprehensive, capturing a range of information that covers both descriptive and reflective aspects of the field research experience.

The more detailed the notes, the broader the data collection. Photo by Aaron Burden.

Descriptive content includes detailed accounts of the physical setting, the people involved, the activities and interactions observed, and the nonverbal cues and behaviors noticed. Researchers might also note down direct quotations from participants that seem significant or representative of common themes.

Reflective content, on the other hand, includes the researcher's thoughts, feelings, reactions, and initial interpretations related to what's being observed. This might encompass speculations, feelings, problems, ideas, hunches, impressions, and prejudices.

Beyond these, researchers often find it helpful to include methodological notes (information about the research process) and demographic information about the people being observed.

Elements of a comprehensive field note

A comprehensive field note typically includes these elements:

1. Headnotes: These include the date, time, location, and other context-setting details of the observation period.

2. Descriptive observations: A detailed description of the physical setting, the participants, activities, and conversations.

3. Reflective notes: Personal reflections that reveal thoughts, ideas, concerns, or preliminary analysis about what is being observed.

4. Sketches and diagrams: Visual representations can be useful for depicting spatial relationships, layouts, or intricate details of observed objects.

5. Analytical insights: Early propositions or interpretations based on what is being observed.

6. Methodological notes: Information about any changes in research plans, the rationale for decisions, and lessons learned for future fieldwork.

The intersection of observation and note-taking

The process of taking notes goes hand-in-hand with observation in qualitative research. The researcher, while being a keen observer, should also be a diligent note-taker, translating observations into detailed and comprehensive notes. This dual role requires practice and skill. Balancing observation and note-taking can maximize the richness of the data collected, allowing for a deep and nuanced understanding of the phenomena under study.

How to approach writing field notes

Field note writing is not a task that is undertaken only after fieldwork. Rather, it is an ongoing process that spans the duration of the research project. From the preparation stage to time spent in the field, and finally, reflecting upon and refining your notes, there are different aspects to consider at each stage.

Preparation before field visits

Before you start your fieldwork, it is important to get familiar with the note-taking process. This could require you to practice taking notes in everyday situations. Taking accurate notes is not necessarily the main goal as long as these notes reflect your thinking about what you see. Still, note-taking should be guided by the research question or theoretical constructs underpinning your research study.

Taking notes for analyzing social settings requires constant practice. Photo by Eye for Ebony.

Considerations for qualitative data analysis

There are few strict prescriptions for taking notes while in the field; the advice presented here is aimed at giving the researcher guidance about how to collect useful data for later analysis. Rather than present some hard and fast rules about field note writing, let's close this section with two particular considerations that can guide your research.

Triangulation is an important component of qualitative research. In the context of observation data, it is especially useful to contextualize themes uncovered during observations with analysis from other research methods. A more developed investigation, for example, might incorporate observations with interview research in order to triangulate research participants' beliefs with actions.

Finally, while you may be tempted to try and document every particular event that occurs during an observation, it is unreasonable to expect the researcher to notice the smallest details or to argue that every particular detail is salient to a given research inquiry. As with interview and focus group research, all research methods should focus on collecting data that is relevant to the study and the research questions you are looking to address.