Headnotes: Using Your Head, Like a Boss

simple vs complex

Fieldnotes: they’re like notes, but notes you take in the wilderness. I bet you’re pumped, modern day Davy Crockett. You once lifted a hundred pounds over your head. Notes can’t even compare to a hundred pounds. That would be like, a million notes.

But wait, compadre! Sometimes, simple things are harder than complex things.



Yeah, that’s right. Fieldnotes may appear simple and really, they are. But the thing is, simple doesn’t mean easy. There are so many things that can go wrong. You might get out there and forget what your game plan is–then, you’re going to freak out and that’s when all those questions start popping into your head: Am I doing this right? Will anyone find this interesting? What am I even taking notes on right now?

Yeah, it’s a big scary world out there, McBroseph, and you’ve got to be prepared. There are a hundred different pitfalls that can lead to poor fieldnotes, and ultimately, a bad inquiry. But today, we’re here to help you out: we’re going to give you the tips necessary to attack those fieldnotes with the vigor of a wild wolverine who just found himself smack dab in an overpopulated chicken coop.


Yeah, that kind of vigor.

The thing is, taking good fieldnotes begins before you take good fieldnotes. Yeah, swallow that pill, Neo.


Sometimes, being good at things begins before you even start them. That’s called preparation, Doge, and people have been doing it for thousands of years. You don’t think they just threw those pyramids together on the first try, did you?

So, stick around and we’ll show you how to prepare for the holiest of holiest taking of fieldnotes known to man. And yeah, it begins with your head.

Headnotes: Using Your Head, Like a Boss Cont.

Okay, so you’re ready to start your training?

First, you must use your head.


Not quite like that.

Really, fieldnotes are about organization. And, like the name implies, part of that organization takes place in your head. You must, once in the wilderness, begin cataloging everything you notice in your head. These notations are your headnotes. What you see, what you notice, what you think about, what you remember–these are the first step of the note tak­ing process.

So, you’ve got to be uber aware. Of everything. Like this cat.


The notes you take in your head before you start writing will help you later. The more you’re aware, the more you will be able to expand on your jottings and notes later. Making these “mental notes” will help you find larger connections within your hand written notes. As you reread them, you will automatically begin linking what you thought about with what you wrote, giving you much more information to work with and expand upon in an inquiry. These connections are crucial for any critical inquiry, and they begin, you guessed it, with your noggin.

But hold on there, one second. Before you go out onto the Oregon trail pre-thinking your way across that river, remember, headnotes have their dangers, too. Headnotes, as a form of memory, are more dynamic than written notes, which are completely static, or unchanging. Headnotes will likely shift with your own perceptions, knowledge, and feelings. What you thought originally may change over time as you learn new things and adopt new opinions. So how do you overcome this constant state of flux?

The key is to be aware of your headnotes and to constantly come back to them. Good headnotes will take up a great deal of mental space throughout your entire inquiry. Yeah, that’s right. You might have to drop some of that space you saved for that time you reached the secret level in Mario Bros. The more you come back to these headnotes, the more you will continue to expand and develop them, along with your inquiry. That’s how knowledge works, bro. Once you get it, you can’t unget it. So, the more headnotes you take, the more you’ll continue to think about your project away from note taking sites–while you’re not even doing research. You might be hunkering down over a bowl of oatmeal, when BAM, a stray headnote catches you off-guard and then BOOM, you have a new thought about your inquiry. That’s called learning something. Upgrade: Achieved.


Bonus Round:

Don’t reach for that hotpocket just yet. Now that you’ve learned something, you’ve got to weld that knowledge straight into your dome. The best way to do that? You ever heard of practice? It makes perfect.

Here’s some simple exercises you can do to improve you newly rekindled relationship with headnotes:

The next time you’re grabbing a triple mocha frappachino with soy and an extra pump of hazlenut, try making some mental observations of the people around you in that soul-sucking-overcrowded-you-only-have-five-minutes-before-class coffee shop. Make quick mental notes of what you see, physical things, what they suggest, what people say, what gestures they make–anything you see. Then, later, try to recall some of what you saw. Think of yourself as a mind-ninja and this is your training. See how much you can recall and see what things you may have noticed you didn’t even realize.

Oh, so that was too easy for you? Okay, hot shot, try these jorts on for size. After a mental exercise like the one above, see how much you can remember a week later. Use mental downtime to your advantage–like when you sing in the shower and annoy your roommates.

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Instead of belting out Mariah Carrey, do some mental gymnastics–recall what you saw and what you might be able to infer from those recollections. Begin training yourself to use times like this–showering, riding the train, walking to class–to critically evaluate the mental notes you’ve made. Making this a habit is the number one way to improve your critical consciousness, both for inquiry based projects and for being an all around smart human being. I bet you didn’t think that was possible, did you?

Brain, meet intelligence. Intelligence, brain.

To the notetaking!



Let’s talk about how it’s important to not look and act like a total creeper when you’re out in the field, taking notes. Like Harriet the Spy.

When preparing to visit your ethnographic site and take jottings, you should practice your jotting technique first. The activity below will help you see how easy it is to make assumptions about the people and places you’ll be observing, but how often these assumptions might not be correct. As good ethnographers, we must realize that we bring our own opinions, experiences and tendencies to label others with us when we observe.

This activity will also give you some practice with making jottings. Jottings are not easy to do—you have to pack in as much detail as you can in a short amount of time by just using key words or phrases. You also have to be sure these words and phrases will trigger your memory later so you can expand on your jottings and write full field notes.

Here’s the activity:

Sit down in front of a mirror at home or wherever you can find a full length mirror.

Get out your notebook or composing device and start writing answers to the following questions. ONLY write words or phrases, not complete sentences. You should be able to complete this in 5 minutes or less. The person you’re observing in these questions is you—your reflection in the mirror. Answer these questions as if you are someone else, observing your reflection.

  • What do you smell?
  • What do you hear?
  • What do you see?
  • What do you feel? (temperature, atmosphere, etc.)
  • Describe the person in the mirror (this is you).
  • What is the person wearing?
  • What is the person doing?
  • What does the person have with them?
  • What are your thoughts on the person’s mood?
  • What sort of job do you think the person has?
  • How old is the person?
  • What sort of room or space is this person in?
  • What hints about this person do you see in the items around him or her?
  • Any other observations?


Keep in mind that you don’t want to freak the person in the mirror out by staring for a long period of time.  This is another reason why you want to be able to make quick observations. No one likes a lurker.  Also notice the assumptions you are tempted to make about the person in the mirror. Oh, his shoes are untied and his hair is a mess? He must be lazy, dirty and not care about his appearance. Oh, she’s wearing expensive sneakers so she must be well off. Or, that room she’s in is messy so everyone who lives there must be messy. You have to be careful when observing to not make snap judgments or assumptions based on what you see. This is also the reason why you’re practicing observation-making on yourself, first. So you can see how easy it is to make generalizations and draw unfounded conclusions.

Put your notes away and come back to them in four or five days.  Can you pull together more complete field notes from these jottings? Try writing a few paragraphs on what you observed in the reflection in the mirror. If you’re not able to get anything out of the jottings you took, then you know you did something wrong. (Ideally, you’ll be writing out your field notes a lot sooner than four or five days after taking your jottings.

Now, you should feel more prepared to go out into the world and make observations. Don’t worry if you don’t get everything written down the first time you visit your site. You should plan to go back a couple times to make sure you don’t miss something important.

There are several visual examples of jottings online as well as fully fleshed out field notes derived from those jottings. Take a look here for an example of jottings translated to field notes: Student Center Field Notes: Jottings to Transcriptions.

Here’s another example of someone’s observations at a coffee shop: Observing a Public Space: Dipping Into Ethnography.

And, the best video of all time.

Interviews: Ask the Right Questions

Here are a few types of questions you should avoid asking in your interviews, and how you might revise a “bad” question (adapted from the Purdue Online Writing Lab):

Biased Questions
Biased questions are questions that encourage your participants to respond to the question in a certain way. They may contain biased terminology or are worded in a biased way.

Biased question: Don’t you think fraternities cause problems for colleges?
Revised question: Do fraternities cause problems for colleges?

Double-Barreled Questions

A double-barreled question is a one that has more than one question embedded within it. Participants may answer one but not both, or may disagree with part or all of the question.

Double-barreled question: Do you think fraternities cause problems and should there be stronger rules in place to keep them in check?
Revised question: Do you think fraternities cause problems? (If they say yes, ask) Should there be stronger rules in place to keep them in check?

Confusing or Wordy Questions
Make sure your questions are not confusing or wordy. Confusing questions will only lead to confused participants, which leads to unreliable answers.

Confusing question(s): What do you think about fraternities? Do they cause problems because of excessive partying or hazing or do they keep it under control?
Revised question: How do you feel about the entertainment aspects of fraternity life?

Irrelevant Questions
Be sure that your questions directly relate to what it is you are studying. A good way to do this is to ask someone else to read your questions or even test your survey out on a few people and see if the responses fit what you are looking for.

Following these guidelines and coming up with a solid list of questions before the interview takes place can insure a positive, fruitful interview experience for both interviewer and interviewee, as is not the case for comedian Russell Brand on a televised interview on MSNBC, who quickly becomes frustrated with the show’s hosts (video starts at 4:18):

What’d You Say? Knowing How to Listen.

Okay.  So you’re interviewing someone – maybe a stranger, maybe your mother.  If you’re nervous, relax!  And if you’re completely comfortable, pay attention, because I’m about to let you in on the MOST important part of interviewing:  being an awesome listener.

Take Ray, for instance:

Just like the teacher explains to Raymond, active listening  happens when your interviewee can express themselves without you influencing them with your own preconceived notions or opinions.  This includes talking less than your informant.  If they sense your genuine interest (via active listening), you’ll end up with much more genuine and positive responses – all important for your research!

Follow these important steps when interviewing:

– If possible, use a tape recorder.  You won’t have to take notes during the conversation, so you’ll be free to act more on a personal level.  But, be sure to get their permission before recording.

– Let them take their time to think before they tell their story.  There’s no need to rush!

– If you’re unclear about any stories or answers they’ve given, or if something piques your interest, make sure to ask politely for clarification or additional information.  For example: what did you mean by the particular word X?  Or, I noticed you smiled when you mentioned Y, can you add more to that?

Remember that the interview can be a basic human relationship, so make your informant comfortable.  If you follow these basic guidelines, you’ll gain not only a source of information, but a quality human interaction, unlike Bill Murray’s interview:

Who’s that handsome interviewer in the mirror? It’s you!


So you’ve conducted your interview.  Congratulations!

You’ve let them talk, you’ve listened, clarified, and thanked them for their participation.  Good job.  But your work isn’t over.


I know.  Calm down little turtle.  

Now it’s time to make some pretty big sense of what just happened.  It’s time to reflect!

– Take a listen/look at your notes.  How did it make you feel to ask and hear the answers to these questions?

– How and why did you make specific decisions on what to ask?

– What went well?  What didn’t?  How will you improve your interviewing skills for next time?

Looking over your information, you’ll be able to notice what didn’t get answered, which will help inform your next interview.

Basically, you’re interviewing yourself about your interview.  I know, it’s weird.  It might make you feel a little strange inside.  It’s okay, you’ll get used to it.  You are now a  compassionate, conscientious researcher, and you should pat yourself on the back.

Aw.  Flower.

What else do you gain from reflection?  Well, you might be able to now point to what specifically draws you to your research, which is always a good thing.  Becoming more engaged in what you’re studying will help make your findings and writing more interesting to you AND to your audience.

Plus, it’ll be more fun!

You might even surprise yourself.