This week’s adventure in research involved engaging in an observation and taking notes. This was the challenge:
“Find a public space that interests you and spend a few hours (over a period of a few days, ideally) making some field notes about what you see going on. The following questions might be useful as a guide to your field notes:
- Where are you? – describe the setting in as much detail as you can.
- Why did you choose this setting?
- What activities are people undertaking? What interactions are occurring?
- What sparks your curiosity about where you are and what is going on?
- If you were new to this culture, what might you wonder about?”
My field notes which respond to the questions above are here.
I found this observation challenging in many ways.
The first and key issue for me was that I was observing without purpose. Reflecting on Merriam’s work in this area, Kawulich (2005) suggests, ‘the most important factor in determining what a researcher should observe is the researcher’s purpose for conducting the study in the first place.’ My observation was not focused in this way, and I felt that I was, in the main, recording meaningless minutiae (maybe many ethnographers feel like this, even if they have a clearly defined research focus).
I found the act of observing incredibly labour intensive. Trying to construct a ‘written photograph’ (Erlandson, Harris, Skipper and Allen, 1993) proved to be difficult. I was unsure of the detail required, what to include, what to omit. The richness and busyness of every moment became very apparent as I was trying to ‘capture’ those moments. As the café emptied, I felt an increasing sense of relief that there was less to observe and the opportunity to pay closer attention to fewer interactions.
Another issue was practical. There was only one table available in the café and that was in the middle of the room. This meant that I had my back to half of the interactions which were happening in the space.
There were ethical concerns for me too. I was acting as a ‘complete observer’ (Gold, cited in Kawulich, 2005). I was in ‘plain sight’, but those who I was observing did not know that they were being observed. I live in a small, friendly community, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with observing my own community without gaining their permission.
If I was to pursue an ethnographic study in this space, I would:
- Define a research question, so that my observations were more focused. I think that this, in itself, would be challenging: what would be a meaningful subject for study which could happen within this space?
- Gain consent.
- Use participant observation as part of a wider ethnographic approach which would also use interviews, focus groups and document analysis. These wider activities would support ‘triangulation’.
- Work on my ‘active looking’ (DeWalt and DeWalt, 2002, p.vii) skills through undertaking a number of the exercises recommended by Kawulich (2005) such as memory exercises, sight without sound and sound with sight exercises, and photographic observation.
- Consider using more ways of capturing data: video, photography, audio recording.
- Visit the cafe regularly, on the same days and at the same times. Perhaps target quieter periods so that a more suitable observation position can be selected.
Blum Malley, S. and Hawkins, A. Engaging Communities. http://www.engagingcommunities.org
DeWalt, Kathleen M. & DeWalt, Billie R. (2002). Participant observation: a guide for fieldworkers. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press
Erlandson, David A.; Harris, Edward L.; Skipper, Barbara L. & Allen, Steve D. (1993). Doing naturalistic inquiry: a guide to methods. Newbury Park, CA: Sage
Kawulich, Barbara B. (2005). Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(2), http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/466