Describing Experience: Working Actively with Fieldnote Genres in Anthropological Fieldwork

Lars Nørr Mikkelsen

Aarhus University (Denmark)


Unlike historians, anthropologists create their own documents. We call them fieldnotes, but we speak little about them to each other (Sanjek 1990).

Figure 1. Entering the field. Photo credit: Lea Trier Krøll (2011)

When we are engaged in ethnographic fieldwork in nightlife environments, like all practitioners of fieldwork we use ourselves as methodological tools. For most ethnographers this involves acknowledging that we perceive the field subjectively, and that, to some extent, we ourselves become part of the field as we study it. This is of course also significant in that it impacts how we write our basic research document: the fieldnote.[1] The fieldnote is one of the essential elements of fieldwork, as its composition is the moment in which our more-or-less intangible experiences are transformed into analysable data upon which we can build our published ethnographies. The subject of fieldnotes, however, remains mostly a ‘black box’ of the ethnographic craft. The tendency among fieldwork practitioners to hide their fieldnotes and seldom discuss them probably has much to do with their rather personal character as well as with researchers’ insecurities about whether such writings are sufficiently “scientific”, as Jean Jackson concludes from interviews with a number of anthropologists about their relationship with their own fieldnotes (1990).

It is clear from the vast body of literature on ethnographic methodology that there is a significant on-going effort on the part of its practitioners to develop the practice. This literature addresses such issues as what constitutes a “field” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Hine 2006), the political implications of studying and representing others (Pels 2000; Mason 2006), and the expansion of fieldwork documentation to, for example, recorded soundscapes or photography (Harper 2005; Spencer 2011). The desire to critically examine and develop ethnographic practice is a consistent theme in the anthropological community. But fieldnotes, as essential as they may be, remain by and large in the dark, which not only hinders the development of this aspect of ethnographic practice, but also presents an obstacle to new practitioners’ gaining a foothold in the field. Although fieldnote-writing is generally underrepresented in the methodological canon, there are some exceptions. One of these is Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fretz and Shaw (2011 [1995]), in which the authors offer several useful examples of how to make and arrange one’s fieldnotes. Roger Sanjek’s 1990 anthology Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology is another commendable book-length contribution to the effort to pry open the black box of fieldnotes. It is thus not impossible to find literature on the subject, but relative to other methodological considerations debated among anthropologists, such literature remains scarce. Furthermore, many other potential modes of fieldnote-writing remain unacknowledged and unaddressed in the academic community.

More has been written on ethnographies as texts, that is, how anthropologists represent their findings in the final published text. In this area we find several inspiring and sometimes very creative forms of representation, a classic in this regard being John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988), in which the author comments upon his own uses of “realist”, “confessional” and “impressionist” genres. We have subsequently seen even more experimental endeavours in the quest for representations that are considered more authentic, closer to the interviewee’s perspective or better able to highlight the subjective and contingent character of the text itself. In her article, “How Much Subjectivity is Needed to Understand Our Lives Objectively?” (2002), Shelly Carter uses parallel texts in which she splits the page into two columns, placing a “hard science” representation of the “facts” of spousal violence in the left-hand column, side-by-side with diary-like extracts of her own personal experiences in the right-hand column. In another example, Norman K. Denzin presents extensive interview quotes as prose poetry, using these to explore new ways of sharing authorship with interviewees (2001). I believe that we can allow ourselves to be inspired by these ways of working with text much earlier in the research process, not least when working with our fieldnotes.

Figure 2. Doing fieldwork. Photo credit: Lea Trier Krøll (2011)

Noting the Notes

Between the autumn of 2011 and the summer of 2012 I worked as a research assistant for the project ‘Safer Bars and Nightclubs’ at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University in Denmark. One of the primary aims of this ongoing project is not only to identify key risk factors in bars and nightclubs across Denmark (Tutenges et al. 2011; see also Tutenges 2009), but also to understand the attractions of different nightscapes for the people who use them. As part of the project, I undertook extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Danish nightlife alongside ten other researchers. Throughout this project, all fieldnotes were shared within the research group. In addition to reading each other’s notes, the researchers also discussed and analysed them together, attempting to develop our technique and focus as a group. In this article, I therefore not only use my own fieldnotes, but also those of several of my colleagues from the project, as I find their notes in many cases more compelling and better suited to this article than my own.

While working on the project with my colleagues, I observed that most of us were using not only a certain repertoire of types of fieldnotes, but also a range of genres. Before describing these genres in more detail (i.e. realist, confessional and poetic), I begin here by providing a brief outline of the “types” I found among our fieldnotes. Some consensus does exist in the methodological literature on a common typology of fieldnotes, identifying at least three principal types in use by fieldworkers:

1) Descriptive fieldnotes. These are what B. Russell Bernard refers to as “the meat and potatoes of fieldwork” (2006: 397). Most fieldnotes are of this type, in which researchers describe their observations, experiences and feelings from the field.

2) Analytical fieldnotes. While observing or writing up notes, researchers almost inevitably begin forming ideas, seeing patterns and reflecting on the data, and this will likely increase as the fieldwork proceeds.

3) Methodological fieldnotes. These notes describe observations or thoughts regarding the fieldwork itself, perhaps addressing issues such as gaining acceptance in the field, finding informants or how and where to write fieldnotes.

Although the latter two types of fieldnotes usually stem from the observations recorded in descriptive fieldnotes, most ethnographers have some system for keeping the various types separate, such as using multiple columns or creating a separate section entitled “Reflections”.

In contrast to these abovementioned “types” of notes, which describe their contents, by “fieldnote genres” I mean to refer to certain modes of writing that may be found across all three types. What defines a mode of writing as a genre is that it can be said to use particular stylistic conventions, which relate to descriptive focus, word-choice, presuppositions about knowledge or social life, and so on. I now turn to the three main genres found in our collected fieldnotes. These genres to some extent mirror those used by Van Maanen in Tales of the Field, but whereas Van Maanen’s focus is the final text, mine is the fieldnote.[2]

Realist Fieldnotes

Virtually every researcher engaged in fieldwork makes use of this genre in their fieldnotes, although its preponderance will vary from individual to individual and from project to project. Fieldnotes written in this genre are often somewhat positivistic in their approach to recording data, as researchers try to describe their surroundings as neutrally as possible while also striving to avoid contaminating the data with personal judgments. The following is an example from my own notes, set outside a music venue in Copenhagen:

A few groups are standing out here even though the temperature is about minus ten degrees Celsius. The odor of pot wafts from two persons standing in the small space between the two buildings flanking the venue. Close to me is a small group of three guys and two girls, all between 18 and 22 years old. They seem to be very intoxicated, judging from their high spirits and unclear speech. Suddenly, one of them throws his beer bottle to the ground one meter from where he and his group are standing, and it shatters (Lars Nørr Mikkelsen, spring 2012).[3]

One of the most notable characteristics of the realist genre is the apparent absence of the author (Van Maanen 1988: 46). In the example cited above, I am clearly focused outside of myself. I vaguely place myself in the scene by describing the small group as “close to me”, but clearly my interest here was not how the scene affected me or how I interacted with it. I describe the situation in a relatively neutral manner, based on immediate perceptions: I see what people do, I hear how they talk, I feel the cold and I smell the pot. I avoid adding “unnecessary” interpretation to the description; and when I do remark on this young group’s presumed intoxication, my assertion is supported by reference to their manner of speech, thus grounding even this interpretation in “immediate” experience.

Many ethnographers are justifiably critical of an exclusive reliance on this genre of writing, arguing that it is impossible to describe anything without doing so through a subjective frame of reference. The “danger” of the realist genre is that it can be seen to implicitly endorse such claims to pure objectivity. In the quotation above, I describe elements of the scene that I believe any other observer would confirm as real, but this does not change the fact that my description is selective. I do not focus on the cars passing by in the street or the band posters on the wall. Instead, I focus on those people that I assume are attending the venue where I am conducting fieldwork—with particular attention to their substance use, since this is one of the main interests of our research project. But I neglect to comment on the playful and friendly atmosphere in which this took place, despite the possibility that such affective impressions may prove to be more useful in understanding and analysing the situation.

Although problematic on its own, this genre still has its uses. Fieldnotes of this kind present data in a style that is comprehensible to readers outside of ethnographic disciplines, and they record valuable descriptions that are less likely to be dismissed as overly subjective or biased.

Confessional Fieldnotes

Whereas realist fieldnotes focus primarily on events that are in some sense external to the researcher, confessional fieldnotes move the focus in and into the researcher, highlighting how social phenomena are imbued with meaning through subjective interpretation. Some researchers have chosen to write most of their fieldnotes in this style, often motivated by a desire to understand how a phenomenon is perceived subjectively. But confessional fieldnotes rarely replace realist fieldnotes; instead, they are more likely to complement them. In the following quote, one of my fellow researchers describes her experience of elation while dancing in one of the project’s research sites:

We dance, and I am seduced by the rhythms. I’m swaying with the bass as I bend my knees and slowly throw my torso forwards. I am taken over by the music and just want to be in it (Maj Witte, spring 2012).

This researcher explores how it feels to inhabit this social space, focusing on her subjective experience rather than the surroundings. By describing her own thoughts and feelings, she strives to gain some insight into the experience of participants at this event. This same researcher also found employment as a bartender in one of the mainstream discotheques visited during this study, with the intention of gaining some insight into the experiences of those for whom nightlife is a workplace rather than a leisure-space. In the following passage, she describes her experience with a customer:

He starts putting the coins, one at a time, into the tipping jar while looking at me. “Tell me something about yourself!” he says. I smile, but inside I feel a combination of shy, pleased and uncomfortable. On the one hand it feels good that I’ve caught someone’s attention, but on the other hand the direct relation between the way his hand is floating over the glass with his fingers ready to let go of the coins as soon as I begin to speak also feels uncomfortable—yes of course I want the money, and he does look cute, but the way this is playing out makes me both insecure and uncomfortable—am I really standing here selling information about myself? I can’t say no, ‘cause as you know I am the sweet, smiling, interested bartender (Maj Witte, spring 2012).

Referring back to the earlier typology of fieldnotes, this account is primarily descriptive, and yet it contains striking analytic components—all the while foregrounding the researcher’s thoughts and feelings. She is new on the job at a commercial club where the staff are instructed to smile at all times and encouraged to flirt with the costumers. She describes her ambivalent feelings as she attempts to balance a desire to preserve her dignity and personal privacy with the occupational pressure to perform the role of the “sweet, smiling, interested bartender”. Here, the researcher is still in the process of discovering the unwritten rules and emotional landscapes of the field, and it is precisely this unfamiliarity and discomfort that draws her attention to aspects of the field that “cultural insider” participants may not discuss so readily.

Figure 3. Dancing in the field. Photo credit: Lea Trier Krøll (2011)

Poetic Fieldnotes

Poetic fieldnotes are those that make use of writerly devices normally found in poetry, such as symbolism, metonymy, similes, metaphors and so on, thus creating interpretively-rich but often ambiguous meanings. In general, the poetic genre is employed less frequently in ethnographic fieldnotes, but it nonetheless did appear regularly in the notes of almost all of the researchers in our team. A poetic phrase can often express something complex or otherwise indescribable in a few words. In the following fieldnote, for example, a researcher reflects on a conversation she had with a very intoxicated patron while doing fieldwork:

Apart from paving the way for brief feelings of togetherness, I have sometimes seen such playful conversations with strangers turn to heavier issues, albeit while still striking a playful tone. I sense that this can create a sort of distance or other way of treating cultural—or sometimes personal—taboos and heavy subjects. Sheltered by the night (Lea Trier Krøll, autumn 2011).

This fieldnote reflects analytically on an aspect of nightlife experience that can be difficult to describe, but the last phrase, “Sheltered by the night”, is particularly striking. This phrase is clearly not a realist description, as it conjures up a nonsensical image when understood literally. Instead, the phrase employs a kind of poetic imagery that attributes physical properties (i.e. the ability to provide shelter), to the night, as if it were a physical object rather than a period of time. It expresses a sense that the night is a safe haven of sorts, enabling the occasional discussion of “heavier issues” without the stakes associated with such conversations in the daytime.[4] The phrase also expresses something about the atmosphere in which these exchanges unfold. Feelings and atmospheres are often difficult to capture in words, but poetic imagery can gesture towards these affective experiences and aid in their recollection.

The use of poetic devices prompts an active engagement from the reader, encouraging associative and imaginative thinking that can highlight particularly interesting aspects of the phenomenon under study. Whereas realist fieldnotes try to avoid interpretation, poetic fieldnotes explicitly interpret experience while also inviting further interpretation on the part of the reader. Since the use of one’s own subjective experience to aid understanding is an essential aspect of ethnographic work, it seems sensible to avail oneself of the full range of expressive tools at hand to express that experience—including poetic ones.

Summing Up

In the wake of the postmodern turn in anthropology it has often been stressed that knowledge is always situated, only able to claim truth on its own terms and thus from a particular perspective. Van Maanen, Carter and Denzin acknowledge this insight by presenting their research in ways that not only highlight the narrative conventions and interpretive interventions of the ethnographic text, but also describe lived experience from multiple and contrasting perspectives. We may not have our final analysis in sight when we write our fieldnotes, but we are nonetheless already in the process of building the very foundation upon which this final representation will be erected. The value of fieldnotes as “scientific” data should not depend on the uniformity of its style and form, but rather on its utility for analysis; and a diversified approach to fieldnotes—one sensitive to the strengths and weaknesses of various genres—will surely add to such utility. By opening up the practice of fieldnote-writing to a variety of genres, we also open up our fieldwork to the complex realities of our fields, thereby increasing its capacity to make compelling readings of the lived world.


Thanks to Frida Marie Gade and James Horrox for proofreading and to my former colleagues at Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research,Sébastien Tutenges, Lea Trier Krøll, Ask Greve, Maj Witte and Ida Thyrring, for granting me permission to use their fieldnotes for this article. Thanks also to Lea Trier Krøll for allowing me to use her photographs from the fieldwork. They demonstrate very well how photography can be used just as effectively as fieldnotes as research data, with different genres telling different stories. The research project Safer Bars and Nightclubs is funded by TrygFonden, Familien Hede Nielsens Fond and the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University, Denmark.

Author Biography

Lars Nørr Mikkelsen has worked for several years as a bartender in music venues and nightclubs, both before and during his sociology studies at the University of Copenhagen. Until recently, he worked on the large research project “Safer Bars and Nightclubs” with the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University, in which he carried out extensive fieldwork on Danish nightlife.


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[1] The term “fieldnotes” does not refer here to the kind of notes often termed “jottings” (Emerson, Fretz and Shaw 2011: 21) or “scratchnotes” (Sanjek 1990: 95) written while actually in the field, but rather to the slightly more elaborated notes that most fieldworkers make as they “write up” their notes at home. A fieldworker might occasionally be able to write up their actual fieldnotes while observing in the field. However, as in most fieldwork, this is rarely advisable when studying Electronic Dance Music Culture or nightlife in general, since the act of writing risks getting in the way of “the doing” of fieldwork, that is, of the actual experience and presence in the field (Jackson 1990: 23).

[2] The first two genres—“realist” and “confessional”—are more or less directly derived from Van Maanen’s descriptions. However, I have replaced Van Maanen’s “impressionist” genre (which refers to a method of constructing the entire narrative in a manner similar to “gonzo journalism”) with what I call the “poetic” genre. The latter rarely encompasses the whole text, but rather “pops up” occasionally in fieldnotes.

[3] The original fieldnotes are in Danish. The translations are my own.

[4] The expression “heavier issues” is also metaphorical, but it is not likely to indicate a poetic register in this context, since it is in common use in everyday Danish.