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Ethnographic Fieldwork Methods


The first thing to know about transcription is that it always takes longer than you think it will. Be thoughtful about how you're going to use transcribed recordings before you decide how much to fully transcribe.

Transcription involves transforming the spoken interview, email or chat log into text for archiving and analysis. For recorded speech, you can choose whether to transcribe exactly what was said including “ums” and stutters, or you can clean it up and take out hesitation speech. If your advisor has given you instructions, follow that of course. I generally transcribe verbatim and leave in hesitation speech for my transcript- but I edit that out when I use a quote for a paper. I find it very useful to note the recording time at the beginning of each main topic or question, for ease of finding it again later.

Some researchers attempt to capture the dynamics of the interaction, such as intonation, overlap, speed, volume, gesture, and so forth. One such method is called Jeffersonian transcription.

I recommend using a free open-source software called Express Scribe for recorded interview transcription. It’s very helpful for transcribing quickly, as you can use keystrokes (the F keys) to stop, play, rewind, and slow down.

Check it out here: NCH Express Scribe Transcription Software


There is no perfect translation, ever. Idioms, word puns, and jokes are all culturally-specific. Language is contextual. You may find yourself needing to make difficult decisions about how to translate words or phrases. Use your best judgment and the help of a bilingual native speaker if you are not one yourself.

When sharing interview text, you may choose to have the original and the translated portion side-by-side, just the English translation, or some combination. Some people italicize the original language words and phrases. Some people include the original text in a footnote. You might want to look at relevant fieldwork and bilingual literature to see what others have done.

Citing Your Data

Interviews, emails, social media posts, telephone conversations, letters, and other personal communication should be cited when you quote or summarize them in the text of your thesis or other papers.

AAA Style

In-text citation: John Doe stated that.... (interview with author, December 2, 2014).

References Cited: Do not cite in reference list unless it is a published interview.

APA Style

In-text citation: "Direct quote" (J. Doe, personal communication, December 2, 2014).

References: Do not cite in reference list unless it is a published interview.

ASA Style

In-text citation: In a personal interview, John Doe stated that "direct quote" (December 2, 2014).

Note: John Doe, personal interview, December 2, 2014, Saxby's Cafe, Haverford, PA.

References: Do not cite in reference list unless it is a published interview.

Chicago/Turabian Style

In-text citation: John Doe stated that... (interview with author, Saxby's Cafe, December 2, 2014).

Note: 1. John Doe, interview by [your name], Saxby's Cafe, December 2, 2014.

Bibliography: Do not cite in bibliography unless it is a published interview.

MLA Style

In-text citation: "Direct quote" (Doe).

Works Cited: Doe, John. Personal interview. 2 December 2014.


Need help with citation styles? Check out the Citation Guide.

Considering using citation management software, like Zotero, which is open source and free.

Managing Data

Metadata and Naming Conventions

For your data to be useful, you have to be able to find it and know what it is. It's important to figure out a file naming convention that makes sense to you. For example, you might decide to save digital files with information about the topic and date (Bigfoot_Jones-interview_03142013.doc). For physical material, you might want to keep related material in labeled folders or binders. Logical organization saves you time!

In addition, having raw data with no context will not be helpful in the future when you may not remember what all this stuff is. For photographs, for example, you may want to take notes on the date, subject matter, and photographic format. This is called metadata--data about data--and it helps you and anyone else who might use your data to understand what it is and why it's important.

Backing Up Digital Data

Digital formats are inherently unstable. You need to save your data in more than one place and make sure to back it up regularly. This could be as simple as having it on a thumb drive, on your desktop, and also email it to yourself. Or you might want to invest in an external hard drive and backup every few months.

Storing Physical Material

If you want to keep your data for the long term, you might want to consider keeping it in well-labeled folders, packed carefully into appropriately-sized boxes. Paper lasts a surprisingly long time, but if exposed to moisture, will quickly grow mold. Photographs will warp and become discolored or scratched if stored loose or in albums with sticky plastic sheets.

The Haverford College Libraries have created this useful guide to managing, formatting, and storing research data.


After you transcribe, you'll have a stack of interview texts. Now you go through them and code them. Coding is where you read closely and look for patterns. Some researchers use different colored highlighters or sticky notes to mark different topics. Take note of words, phrases, and concepts that are repeated over and over, within a particular interview or across multiple interviews. These are important. Once you’ve highlighted, you can go through and take notes on each theme to begin broadening your analysis.

See the Online QDA page on coding for more information and practical tips.

The Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) is a convenient system of generic codes for cultural categories that you may find useful. See the Outline of Cultural Materials for a list of codes (scroll down for pdf or a list with descriptions).