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Part four: Administrative work

By Miriam van den Berg & Tamar Oderwald

This article is also available to read in our ebook "Ethnographic Fieldwork: An anthropology student's toolkit". Click here to download.

Fieldwork is exciting, eye-opening, and intriguing. Each experience and conversation is one you would otherwise never have. But fieldwork is also mellow, tame, and tedious. The administrative side to it all is one that many students underestimate – ourselves included. During your research, you’ll often find yourself at a desk (perhaps in a nice café with some coffee and a sweet treat), sitting behind your laptop to send emails, write reports, formalize your notes, and so on and so forth. Let’s explore the nitty-gritty of this often underemphasized and underestimated component of ethnographic fieldwork.

Keeping tabs on your inbox

You would be surprised how much time you’ll be spending on just communicating with (potential) interlocutors, outside of your regular small talk and interviews. Calling, texting, emailing, it’s all part of the package when you do ethnographic fieldwork. We’ve already mentioned it may be helpful to have a separate fieldwork phone, but we’d also recommend a separate email address dedicated to your research. That way, you keep all relevant information in one place, and you don’t clog up your personal inbox with these important emails that might otherwise be overlooked. You will likely also have to send a lot of reminders to possible interlocutors, and it’s completely normal not to get an overwhelming amount of responses. Don’t stress if your inbox seems to stay empty for a while.

There is no need to be constantly checking your messages. We’d advise you to set aside a couple of hours once every two to three days for you to perform some secretarial tasks. That should be enough to keep your inbox tidy and your interlocutors well-informed.

Figure 1: A regular day at the office

Writing field notes

Your memory is one of your best research tools. But that doesn’t mean you have to rely on it entirely. Therefore, it’s important to write extensive and clear field notes during the course of your research. You generally won’t have time for this when you are actually in the field, which is why you’ll use this time to make jot notes: short phrases and sentences that will help aid your memory and that will be expanded into field notes at a later stage. For jot notes, we always like to make sure that we capture the feel of a space, perhaps accompanied by some quick sketches. What sounds do you hear? What smells are present? What people are present? A short chronological overview of events also comes in handy , accompanied by some distinct quotes spoken by the attendees. So generally, your jot notes just need to contain enough information for you to remember as much as possible about that day.

Figure 2: Miriam's jot notes

We recommend taking an hour or two at the end of each day to expand these jot notes into field notes. The idea is to write down as much as you remember from the event, even if it seems trivial at the time. Sometimes we prefer to do this with a pen and paper, but digitizing them is much quicker and easier, also because those files can be uploaded into NVivo or other coding software as soon as you are done. This will also help you save some time in the long run, as I (Miriam) had to spend hours digitizing my written notes to be able to code them at the end of my research. You may think that two hours per day is a bit excessive, but please learn from our mistakes and keep up with this task on a relatively regular basis. Having to write all your notes in one swoop is no fun, nor is it helpful for your research. Spending regular time engaging with your data will help you to further develop ideas and theories that guide you for the remainder of your research.

Transcribing interviews

The bane of our existence: transcribing interviews. It might top the list of most-disliked fieldwork activities for anthropology students. Unfortunately, though, it’s also one of the most important activities. Without your transcripts, writing your thesis will be an almost impossible task. The most important tip we can give you is to be consistent! Reserve an afternoon at the end of every week to transcribe your interviews. You don’t want to end up with ten to twenty audio files in need of transcribing at the end of your ten weeks in the field. So spread out your workload and work on typing them up during the course of your fieldwork, instead. But how does transcribing actually work? Let’s dive into that.

As a rule of thumb, one hour of audio amounts to approximately four hours of transcribing. A fast, extensive talker, unfamiliar languages or slang, and a heavy accent might prolong this process. Something that will help you to cut the time down a little bit is to make use of a template. You can make one at the beginning of your fieldwork in a style that you prefer and that you can use again and again every time you create a new transcript. We like having a big and bold title stating the nature of the conversation (interview, informal conversation, life history interview, etc.), the name or pseudonym of the interviewee, and the date of the interview. This makes it easy to spot in a crowded folder. Then, you can include some more general information if you prefer, such as the topics that are discussed during the conversation and a time indication of the length of the audio file. Below that, include a long (and we mean: long) list of ‘I’s and ‘P’s alternating each other, each of them on a separate row, and pressing ‘tab’ after each one. The ‘I’ stands for ‘interviewer’ (meaning you), and the ‘P’ stands for participant (meaning your interlocutor). It will look something like this:

I: P: I: P: I: P:

And so on and so forth. We also recommend adding some extra space before and after each paragraph. This makes your transcript much easier to read. In Word, you can do so by clicking ‘design’, ‘paragraph spacing’, and then selecting your desired spacing. In Google Docs, select the text to which you want the spacing to apply, click ‘format’, ‘line and paragraph spacing’, and then ‘add space before paragraph’ as well as ‘add space after paragraph’.

When typing out the interview, look beyond mere words. Write a small paragraph at the top of the document detailing the setting in which the conversation took place, notable things that transpired before pressing ‘record’, and anything else you deem important to mention. Be mindful that a verbal conversation will not come across the same way through text in a Word document. So make note of any non-verbal cues such as laughing or chuckling, notable pauses in speech, and other relevant mannerisms that do not come across in text. You can put them in square brackets. If you notice that a strong emphasis is placed on a word as someone speaks, opt to make that italic. If someone trails off or doesn’t finish a sentence, add an ellipsis (‘...’) or a hyphen (‘-’) to indicate it. In other words: use these tools and more to make the text resemble the spoken conversation as much as possible.

Something else you can do to quicken the transcription process is to strategically skip parts of the conversation. Notice how careful I am with my words here. If I were to tell you to do everything by the book, I would tell you to type out every single word, because you never know what information could be useful for your data interpretation at a later stage. And that would be true. But there are smart ways to work around that a little bit to save you some time. If you notice, for example, that your interlocutor is going off on a perhaps interesting, but not relevant tangent or the conversation turns into more of a personal chit-chat, you can opt not to type that out. Instead, note the timestamps of the audio recording that are missing from the transcript and summarize the content of that missing piece. I like to make the text gray and a slightly smaller font to highlight the interruption. It makes it easy to spot so that you can always come back to it at a later time should you decide that you want to type it out after all.

You can also save a lot of time if you use transcription software. Of course, we recommend that you write everything out yourself, to really engage with your data. But sometimes, this just takes a long time; time that might be better spent elsewhere. Be mindful of what you’re sharing with the software if you use it though, because you are uploading data to a third party. If there is any particularly sensitive data, we strongly advise you to transcribe it yourself. I (Miriam) used the Assembly AI website to help me out a bit [1]. Again, we’re not recommending that you use it, but know that there are some options out there.

Some final tips about transcribing. Upload the audio file to your laptop and open it in a way that ensures you can pause and unpause the recording using your keyboard. Having to switch windows, click to pause, or pause it on your phone can really interrupt your flow and it just adds work to an already intensive task. We’d say to actually try pausing the recording as little as possible, by for example playing it at half or 0.75 speed and typing along at that pace if you can keep up.

Figure 3: Excerpt of an interview transcript

Organizing data

There are many ways to organize your data. So we won’t give you a definitive way of how you should do it. Instead, here are some things to keep in mind while you keep track of all your documents and folders.

  • Store your documents on a dedicated hard drive or in a dedicated folder, preferably on your desktop.

  • Give everything clear titles. Your photos, too. Use dates, names or pseudonyms, and any other information that is relevant to that document.

  • Make a clear distinction between the types of documents you gather. Make it known both in the title of the document as well as in big, bold writing on the first page of the document if it is an interview transcript, an excerpt of field notes, a report of an informal conversation, etcetera.

  • Use folders to keep all your documents separated.

  • Keep a detailed overview of your participants and when you spoke to them, as well as a list of your fieldwork activities. In these overviews, provide all information necessary to recount the interactions, as well as what you have learned from them or what questions it has left you.

  • Make regular backups of your data in at least two separate locations.

A note on anonymization and pseudonyms: You’ll notice that our lists with participants include their pseudonyms only. It’s quite standard to do so unless your participants explicitly express they wish for their real name to be used. It’s best to err on the side of caution though. Miriam used people’s initials as pseudonyms, and Tamar used “participant #”, until being provided with a pseudonym by the respective participant. In any case, it might be wise to also keep a list of the real names that are tied to the pseudonyms, which will be for your eyes only.

We recommend you to set aside a few hours once every two weeks or so to (re-)organize your data and your documents, and to expand your list of participants and activities, though it’s of course better to do this on a more regular basis.

Coding data

The coding software NVivo can be the cause of a few mental breakdowns. It’s often slow, laggy, doesn’t work, doesn’t save everything correctly, etcetera. There’s a lot you can do with the program, but it will likely also make you want to throw your laptop out of a window. For example, NVivo decided that I (Miriam) didn’t really need all of my codes during the last week of my fieldwork period, and deleted the entire file that I had been using the whole time. *deep breaths* There’s always a danger of things not saving correctly or getting corrupted or deleted when working with computers. So, try and make sure to copy your project and place it in two different locations. Upload it to your hard drive to ensure you have some kind of backup, and make screenshots of your codes once you’re done with a segment to make it easier for yourself if something goes wrong.

When it does work, though, NVivo is a great tool to point out similarities and other interesting feats of your data. If you want to be proper about it, you will follow the grounded theory to go through the stages of coding. You will hopefully learn about that in the seminars about data analysis before you set off, and luckily there are lots of books and websites to refresh your memory. Though, what might be more important to remember, is that coding should aid you in your data interpretation. And that could mean that the coding process looks different for you. I (Tamar) used the grounded theory as my base, but I also looked at NVivo as a sort of search-and-find tool. If I needed information on a certain topic and its subfields, it was easy to find in the list of nodes I had created. They probably leaned more towards axial nodes, even during the open coding process. But that worked best for me.

We recommend setting aside a few hours once every two to three weeks to code your data. Consider these moments as sort of measuring points. What have you done so far? What have you learned? Where has that gotten you? And where will (or can) it take you next?

A concluding guide

So for us, this would be the ideal guide to consider for your administrative tasks.



Required time per session

Formalizing fieldnotes

At the end of every day

Approx. 1-2 hours

Secretarial work (emails etc.)

Once every two to three days

Approx. 2-4 hours

Transcribing interviews

At the end of every week

Approx. 2-4 hours per interview

Organizing data

Once every two weeks

Approx. 1-2 hours

Coding data

Once every two-three weeks

Approx. 2-3 hours

Note, though, that it will depend on the workload and the stage of your fieldwork whether or not this guide is entirely realistic. In the early stages, you’ll be spending more time on secretarial work, whereas transcribing interviews and coding data will take more shape during the middle- and end stages of the research. Sometimes, you’ll be too busy in the field to type out your jot notes at the end of the day. Or you don’t feel like transcribing interviews that week. That’s totally fine. The most important thing is to keep a relatively consistent schedule, so you don’t fall behind. None of us chose anthropology to be spending hours answering emails and typing out interviews. These tasks are tedious, but they are also immensely important. They keep you on track with the daily operations of your research, and they also aid the process of data interpretation, which can alter the course of your line of thinking if you happen to stumble upon some data that turns out to be more relevant or interesting than initially thought.

What about you?

What do you wish you had known about ethnographic fieldwork before embarking on that journey? Leave us a comment below and share your experiences with fellow students! We always appreciate your insights and stories.

Next up

In our next segment (to be published on 25 October), we’ll explore the importance and the methods behind self-reflection. Stay tuned!

[1] I do have to give credit where credit is due, I did not find this website on my own. So if you do end up using it and saving time, you have Oliver to thank.


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