Research Writing

What is a field journal/Functions/writing observations/4 characteristics

The field journal is one of the most important companions when conducting a study in a particular setting for a considerable time, since it constitutes a rich source of both descriptive and interpretive information.

To help you learn a little more about this tool, in this article we will introduce you to what it consists of and how you can develop it correctly.

What is a field journal?

The field journal is a research tool that contains all the data collected in the field in a field investigation .

Generally, the researcher uses a field journal to record his observations and thoughts in an orderly manner, since this record allows collecting clues about the functioning of a social system.

A field journal should help the researcher understand the physical and social environment of a given system. Therefore, it should be used to describe who, what, why, where, when and how the events, activities or processes that you want to answer as part of the research question happen 

The “who” refers to the people or the system being studied. The “what” refers to the information collected. The “why”, the “where”, the “when” and the “how” provide important details about the observation.

There are two common types of note recording in a field journal:

  • Take notes on the spot
  • Write a detailed journal.

Functions of a field journal

During the conduct of an ethnographic study , a field journal is generally used to fulfill the following functions:

Record of descriptions

It can be used to record and detail the time and date of specific activities, settings, behavior, and conversations in the field to help the researcher keep track of observations that people often forget over time. 

They also complement the research data, since the field journal notes help to keep a record of observations made during interviews and documentation of the place. 

Record of performances

Interpretations allow the researcher to examine aspects loaded with subjective values ​​during field work . In this way, they help to explain what was observed and to highlight why the observations made were relevant to the research.

Interpretations include introspective reflections and comments about what the researcher observes and experiences, and what it all means to him. 

How to write a field journal correctly?

Here are some important tips for successful field journal writing:

  • The field journal notes should be written daily in chronological order so that the information is not forgotten or changed due to forgetfulness. 
  • The essential thing is that the observations are recorded in the field journal regularly .
  • The content of the journal should be organized into two categories: Observations and impressions, which should be written separately.
  • Conversations should be recorded without modifying the colloquial use of language.

How to write observations in a field journal?

It is important to note that the observations must be objective and must only contain what the investigator has actually seen or heard. 

The observations include descriptions of the physical environment (climate, geographic area, and resources), of the demographic environment (concentration, movement, and general characteristics of people), and of the organizational environment (the different social levels of the system, the communication network, and the degree of complexity of the social system).

Observations of human situations and actions can also be made, as the researcher also observes individuals, small groups, families, ethnic groups, towns, and government organizations. 

How to write impressions in a field journal?

The subjective impressions of the researcher must be clearly differentiated from the observations. If, for example, the researcher observes a strong discussion between two farmers about the distribution of water in a canal, he should record what he has actually seen and then record his own impressions of the relief. 

Impressions are important because they help the researcher to evaluate and make sense of the observations . Therefore, impressions of all observations should be recorded. As a result of recording impressions, new ideas may emerge that can lead to a better understanding of a social phenomenon.

The researcher is the instrument for collecting and interpreting data. Therefore, reflective content can include anything that is intended to contextualize what you have observed based on your perspective and your own personal, cultural, and situational experiences.

4 characteristics of a good field journal

Some characteristics that you should consider in order to create a field journal that is useful for the development of your research are:

1. Accuracy in writing

You only have one chance to observe a specific moment, so before making your observations, you should practice taking notes in an environment similar to that of the observation site in terms of the number of people, the environment, and the social dynamics. 

This will help you develop your own style for quickly and accurately transcribing observations.

2. Previous organization

Taking accurate notes while actively observing can be difficult. Therefore, it is important that you plan in advance how you will document your observational study, as disorganized notes will make data interpretation more difficult.

3. Descriptive content

Use descriptive words to document what you observe. For example, instead of pointing out that a classroom looks “comfortable,” you could write that the classroom has soft lighting and cushioned chairs that study participants can move. 

Being descriptive means carrying enough factual evidence so that you don’t end up making assumptions about what is meant when the final report is written.

4. Centralization in the research problem

Since it is impossible to document everything you observe, include as much detail as possible about the aspects of the research problem and the theoretical constructs that support your research. Above all, avoid cluttering your notes with irrelevant information.

How to analyze the content of a field journal?

The field journal analysis should be done as you write and while you make your observations. 

This is important for at least two reasons:

  • First, preliminary analysis encourages self-reflection, which is crucial to facilitating deep understanding and creating meaning in any research study. 
  • Second, the preliminary analysis reveals emerging themes. 

Identifying emerging themes while observing allows for shifting attention so that more developed investigation can be fostered.


The field journal is one of the best tools for a researcher who is staying in an environment other than his own, so it is important that he can allocate a good amount of time to develop it and be able to get the most out of it to when performing the data analysis .

However, it is important that you can complement your study with the use of various tools that help you obtain the greatest amount of data, both qualitative and quantitative, to increase the validity and reliability of your research .

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