5.6 Diaries and activity logs

Diaries have been used for a long time in qualititaive research. Used historically, they can provide an insight into the experience of individuals living at a particular time or in a particular place.

What might be termed researcher driven diaries are different in that they would not exist without the impetus from the researcher. Used in this context, they enable the participants themselves to identify particular aspects of their lives and activities.

Different types of diary and activity log

Log on activity
As their most basic, diaries can be in the form of a simple log, used to record daily events, such as when a student finds time to study and for how long.

Diary as observation
Diaries can sometimes be used to provide data on activities which are not easy to observe. The level of control over what information is contained within the diary is, to some extent, still in the control of the researcher, but particpants can provide insight into their lives and activities in ways not possible though observation.

Benefits of using diaries and activity logs

The first benefit of diaries is that, in whatever form they take, they have an immediacy which is not possible in interviews or questionnaires. As such, they avoid the problem of participants having to recall events or emotions dating back several days or weeks.

The particular benefit of diaries as a form of remote observation is that they can be used in situations where it would not be easy to observe participants in situ. The Open University is a case in point, given that the majority of our students learn remotely.

An additional benefit of such diaries is that the absence of the researcher within the particular research setting can reduce the observer effect on the behaviour of participants.

Disadvantages of using diaries and activity logs

There is, of course, a potenential for the participant(s) responsible for keeping the diary to A word of caution, however, is that The chief benefit of fieldnotes is that they provide a relatively immeditate response to the research setting. As a researcher you simply record what you see and so you when you look back through your notes you get a picture of not just what was happening but also how you responded to that. Often fieldnotes can be accompanied by initial reactions to what it might mean and so can be helpful in data anlysis.

Guidance on using diaries and activity logs as a research method

Univesity College London(UCL) has produced a brief guide on using personal logs, particularly within research on public engagement.  There is information on the benfits and limitataions of using logs, as well as an example used in UCL's public engagement research.


Examples of research which has used diaries

Mark McGuiness' article, Putting Themselves in the Picture: Using Reflective Diaries in the Teaching of Feminist Geography, is an insightful study into the use of diaries as a means of teaching and assessment, but also, for the purposes of his study, as a means of understanding the student's learning journey. 

It is published in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 339-349, September 2009.

Last modified: Tuesday, 4 Mar 2014, 16:37