Memo writing as a way of being a researcher

In teaching qualitative data analysis, I’ve found that students are frequently surprised at the value of “memo writing.” This is perhaps because memo writing is frequently seen as an additional step in the process off data analysis that takes time out from the work of analyzing data. Yet, memo writing can serve an important role throughout the life of a qualitative research project – while conducting fieldwork and through data analysis. To quote Richardson and St. Pierre, “Writing is a method of inquiry” (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005), and memo writing can play a part in that.

If one looks at descriptions of memo writing in methodological literature, it is noticeable that memo writing is inextricably linked to writing fieldnotes in doing ethnography. Schatzman and Strauss (1973) talk about three different kinds of “notes” that one might take when observing: observational notes (ON), theoretical notes (TN), and methodological notes (MN). They distinguish these three forms of notes as follows (Schatzman & Strauss, 1973, pp. 100-101):

Observational notes are statements bearing upon events experienced principally through watching and listening. They contain as little interpretation as possible, and are as reliable as the observer can construct them. Each ON represents an event deemed important enough to include in the fund of recorded experience, as a piece of evidence for some proposition yet unborn or as a property of context or situation. An ON is the Who, What, When, Where, and How of human activity. It tells who said or did what, under stated circumstances (p. 100).

Theoretical notes represent self-conscious, controlled attempts to derive meaning from any one or several observation notes. The observer as recorder thinks about what he has experienced, and makes whatever private declaration of meaning he feels will bear conceptual fruit. He interprets, infers, hypothesizes, conjectures; he develops new concepts, links these to older ones, or relates any observation to any other in this presently private effort to create social science (p. 101).

A methodological note is a statement that reflects an operational act completed or planned: an instruction to oneself, a reminder, a critique of one’s own tactics. It notes timing, sequencing, stationing, stage setting, or maneuvering. Methodological notes might be thought of as observational notes on the researcher himself and upon the methodological process itself; as complete a chronicle as the recorder finds necessary or fruitful. Were he to plan on writing for later publication about his research tactics, he would take detailed notes; otherwise his MN consists mainly of reminders and instructions to [the researcher] (p. 101).

Later, these authors assert that “in the process of developing a TN, the recorder finds that he [or she] can elaborate upon the inference, or tie up several inferences in a more abstract statement” (Schatzman & Strauss, 1973, p. 104). Schatzman and Strauss recommend that the researcher go ahead and prepare a “separate analytic memo” in which ideas are clarified further (p. 104). These analytic memos then become the “heart” of the author’s argument and the “core” of publications. What these authors are talking about is how researchers use memo writing as a means to link what has been observed in a setting (the data of fieldnotes) to the interpretations that result from systematic data analysis.

Ethnographers Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (1995) elaborate on this idea further, noting how memo writing serves a function in doing fieldwork of connecting the data that one is generating through writing fieldnotes of observations and interpreting what is going on, and exploring emergent ideas (p. 103):

In-process memos are products of more sustained analytic writing and require a more extended time-out from actively composing fieldnotes. Often they are written after completing the day’s fieldnotes. Although perhaps touched off by thoughts generated by writing up a day’s fieldnote entries, such memos address incidents across several sets of fieldnotes. In writing in-process memos, the fieldworker clearly envisions outside audiences and frames his thoughts and experiences in ways likely to interest them.

In-process memos can profitably address practical, methodological questions that include: Where should I observe next? What questions should I ask to follow up on this event? These questions help direct the ethnographer’s attention, focusing and guiding future observations and analysis.

Early grounded theorists such as Anselm Strauss and Barney Glaser (1967) used multiple sources of data, including observations and interviews. Increasingly, researchers have used interviews as primary sources, with less emphasis on observations. Yet, the practice of memo writing has continued to be described as a crucial step in the development of analyses. For example, Charmaz (2000, p. 518) writes that memo writing helps researchers to:

  1. grapple with ideas about the data
  2. to set an analytic course
  3. to refine categories
  4. to define the relationships among various categories, and
  5. to gain a sense of confidence and competence in their ability to analyze data.

Charmaz (1983, 2014) and Lempert have outlined the steps involved in analytic memo writing in some detail and provided examples.

I am not certain why some of my students have been initially reluctant to engage in memo-writing. Possibly this could be related to the mechanical devices that we rely on to record interviews – having spent many hours transcribing data, perhaps the utility of writing about that data is not immediately recognized. When revisiting some of the older literature on writing fieldnotes, however, I have been struck by how the strategy of “analytic memo writing” is integral to the work of doing participant observation. For those researchers working with others sorts of data – whether documents, artifacts, visual data, transcripts of of naturally occurring data or interviews, it seems that there is great value in analytic memo writing too.

Try it and see!

Happy Researching… Kathy Roulston


Charmaz, K. (1983). The grounded theory method: An explication and interpretation. In R. M. Emerson (Ed.), Contemporary field research (pp. 109-126). Boston: Little Brown.

Charmaz, K. (2000). Grounded theory: Objectivist and constructivist methods. In N. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 509-535). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Richardson, L., & St. Pierre, E. A. (2005). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 959-978). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Schatzman, L., & Strauss, A. (1973). Field research: Strategise for a natural sociology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


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