A couple of weeks ago, on the East Asian Anthropology Listserve, there was a brief flurry of emails in response to a query about what software works best for taking fieldnotes. Apologies for the double-posting, but I thought sharing some of the suggestions with the Savage Minds community would be useful. In terms of fieldnote taking, everyone, like opinions, seems to have their own method. Following the Lifehacker mode of “talk among yourselves,” I’ll list some of the suggestions with some comments and URL’s to check out.
First, there is the method that no one (including me) on the EASIANTH listserve brought up – pen and notebooks. While I recommend digitized note-taking to my students, I still tell them that they should always carry around a pen and notebook, for those impromptu jottings and diagrams; old school still works!
Good old MS Word was also recommended by a number of anthropologists, largely because of its wide compatibility. Word documents can always be imported into other analytical software packages, and as David Slater from Sophia University Tokyo pointed out, has a “fields” command that can be used to code fieldnotes.
Fieldnotes 1.0 programs
One up on old school, these programs were made specifically to help organize and analyze qualitative data. I think all these programs (except for Filemaker Pro) can only be run on PC’s.
Filemaker Pro. From John McCreery.
Easy to get started with, dead simple to use, available for both Macs and Windows PCs, and now an extraordinary powerful relational database. You can literally start as simple as creating a new database (just like opening a new file in a world processor), adding the fields you want, and start inputting data. Discover that you need a new field, no problem; just add it to the existing fields.
Then, moreover, the sky’s the limit. The program has been evolving since its introduction about the same time as MSWord on Macs, has tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of users worldwide, and highly robust and helpful user community.
QSR’s nVivo: From Joe Bosco, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
There are many ways to use a program like NVivo, but for me, the main advantage is help in organizing the mass of data we can now collect electronically, and then structuring my work with the texts. The program helps you sort and keep track of files and information, and helps you organize your thoughts and ideas.
The files. NVivo now allows you to import documents in Microsoft Word, RTF, or TXT formats. You can also write note or transcribe interviews directly into NVivo, and it can handle photos and video and websites as external data, with a hyperlink in your NVivo data.
Organizing the data. NVivo allows you to give “attributes” to each case. For example, you can define the attributes of interviewees as male or female, or specify their age, and then later retrieve data based on these attributes (are there any old men who talked about using hair conditioner?). You can think of this as coding the entire case according to attributes of the speaker, if they are interviews.
Coding, or Working With the Data. NVivo offers many ways to code. It is designed primarily to allow you to code as you read along. Ideas come to you, and you can create a code. You can make it a “free code”, which stands alone, or a “tree code” which has relationships to other codes (such as a code for “buys shampoo” under which might be “buys name brands” and “buys cheap brands” as two branches off the trunk.) The program allows you to see all the possible codes in a box off to the side, and you can also see “coding stripes” next to your text, to see how text is coded (though you cannot see all the stripes at once–you probably would not want to since you are likely to have a lot of codes). It is very easy to rename, merge and move codes around. The program can autocode if your data is structured with common headings (e.g. if you asked everyone the same question). It cannot autocode for specific words, though it can easily search for certain words or combinations.
The program has a query function that allows you to search for patterns and test ideas through text searches, word frequency, and “matrix coding”, i.e. comparing results across several groups. All query results can be stored. The program can also produce “reports” which can be as simple as all the text coded for a particular code, or the code that comes from informants with certain attributes. It also gives a “coding summary” which lists the files and codes used, showing your progress in coding.
Each project is saved as one file, making it easy to back up or to move from one computer to another. The program comes with training materials and videos, but I found an introductory class quite helpful in getting jump-started in using the program, though the class was relatively expensive. The program is also not cheap, but it is quite robust and the company does give a lot of support. They even helped upgrade a project file when I could not get it to work with the new version. NVivo 7 works well with Chinese; earlier versions were hit and go, but now you can also enter data in Chinese.
askSam From me.
I myself use this program. AskSam is a free-form database that you can use to organize, code, and search fieldnotes. Although you can import Word documents into askSam, I usually type fieldnotes directly into askSam. I first learned of askSam (and received a free copy) as a participant in a NSF summer methods camp, and have upgraded it each time since then. What makes askSam a good way to manage fieldnotes is that you can both code as you type fieldnotes, or you can later do pretty powerful searches on a large set of material. I also use askSam to manage news clippings – when combined with Surfsaver (a sister program, made by the same company), it is an easy way to save webpages while using Internet Explorer. If I was not already accustomed to askSam, I would consider starting with something like nVivo instead.
Fieldnotes 2.0 programs
These programs are newer programs not really built as analytical tools for social science research, but as general note-taking programs that have the ability to combine different kinds of materials. They have great flexibility (in terms of data input and searching) and can be used to keep track of everything from web clippings to recipes. They also have cool and hip names like Voodoo Pad and Evernote! One very useful compilation of these newer software packages can be found on a website by Allison Alexy; she lists software for both Mac and PC users. The following summaries and links are shamefully (but with her permission) lifted from her website. Do yourself a service, though, and check out her full entry on fieldnoting software.
From Allison Alexy:
Voodoo Pad, by Flying Meat, looks really interesting and if I wasn’t already in the middle of my own system, I think I could be convinced to switch. What I like about it is that it is based on a wiki model — similar to the way that Wikipedia enables users to change it while it keeps a record of what changes were made when and by whom. Down side: it’s only available for macs. Up side: if you’re using a mac, then Voodoo Pad can link very easily with your other programs (address book, iCal, etc.).
This idea — making fieldnotes into the form of an editable website — reminds me a lot of Joseph Hill’s website. Joe is an anthropology grad student who had done fieldwork on religion in Senegal (that’s the short version). As you can see from his website, he used the site as a way to organize his fieldnotes. It’s not just that he posted his notes on a website, but that his notes are the website. His homepage is here, and his page about his dissertation research is here.
For macs there are also:
AquaMind’s NoteTaker — here is a review from MacWorld about version 1.9.4
Hog Bay’s Notebook — I couldn’t stand the layout of this program, but maybe you’ll like it better. I don’t like typing notes on computer screens that are made to look like legal pads.
Circus Ponies NoteBook – a review is here
PersonalWiki — another, less refined, Wiki option
Other favorites or most hated programs?
One final thought — one of the reasons I decided to contiue using Word was I don’t want to be stuck with a mess of a unopenable files if the little software company that designed my program goes belly up. As evil as Microsoft is, the good news about MS programs is that you will probably always be able to open the files.
UPDATE: Sara wrote me saying that a friend uses a program called Soho Notes but she hasn’t yet tried it.
What do you use? Talk among yourselves.