Research memos

The general notion of research memos is that somewhere between the research per se and the writing of a dissertation or book about it, there’s a need for short writings (500-1000 words) on specific topics. Memos are widely used in ethnographic and case study approaches. They can serve several important functions:

  • Save key insights or connections among ideas;
  • Record data, and especially the parameters (where, when, how) about the data needed to make ene of it later;
  • Help with collaboration (as between a doctoral student and committee) or across research projects;
  • Begin shaping the overall argument for a report on the study.

You should choose the categories that make sense for your study. Note that these might correspond to the chapters, or sections, that you want to write. Or, they could reflect aspects of the study, such as particular sites. A typical set might be

  • [TM] Theoretical memo–thoughts on the theories you’re using; new questions; ideas for linking theories
  • [BM] Bibliographic memo–similar to the TM, but more of a response to or analysis of a specific text
  • [MM] Methodological memo–comments on the methodology, e.g., why you choose to shorten/lengthen the interviews
  • [DM] Data memo–notes about what data you have, where it’s located and in what format; data memos could include key bits of data, such as quotes, or vignettes
  • [AM] Analytic memo–analysis of (usually) one aspect of the data, e.g., an interesting connection you make between two interviews
  • [IM] Implications memo–thoughts for the introduction & conclusion
  • [WM] Writing memo–general idea about your own text, i.e., some overall metaphor you want to develop, or ideas about tone and voice

It’s helpful if the memos are tied to the data in some systematic way, e.g., “pertains to Interviewee #7, second interview, part 3”. But seek a balance on the categories and structure. Having too little will make it difficult to make sense of and use the memos months later; having too much may discourage you from writing the memos at all. It’s like a fitness program: Some structure can help you to keep going and to build systematically, but don’t do so much that memo-writing becomes a major chore.

You could organize the memos with tags, post blog entries or send email messages with the categories in the subject line, e..g.,

     [TM] why the suggestion about Bildung needs more work

or create a Community Inquiry Lab and in the doc center have folders for each category. The point is to make it easy for others to respond to specific ideas without getting lost in a lot of text as well as for you to recover the ideas when they’re needed later.


Atkinson, Paul A., Coffey, Amanda, Delamont, Sara, Lofland, John, & Lofland, Lyn (2001). Handbook of ethnography. London: Sage.

Charmaz, Kathy (2102, October). The power and potential of grounded theoryMedical Sociology online, 6(3).

Hammersley, Martyn, & Atkinson, Paul A. (1995). Ethnography: Principles in practice, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

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