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
7 Replies to “Observation”
Thanks for this really interesting post Helen. I am with you on completing exercises without purpose. It’s exactly how I felt when trying to write something about surveys and I have created quite a few surveys in the past.
But I think it’s great that you actually went and sat in the cafe (J K Rowling style!) to experience what this might be like.
It also reminded me that the American poet Ron Silliman sat on the San Fransisco Metro (BART) for a day recording all the snippets of conversation he heard and then collated them to create a poem – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1942263.Bart
There’s more to ethnography than social research 🙂
Thanks for reading and commenting, Jenny. And thanks too for sharing the link to Silliman: it’s fascinating.
I’m reading more around sensory ethnography this week: https://monoskop.org/Sensory_ethnography. As an undertaking, this approach seems to offer the possibility of more creative ways of both collecting and presenting data.
Very interesting thoughts on observation Helen – just going through this very process in a school today. At least I have a research question but I also took copious notes, in case I missed something. I did take photos, audio and video as well.
What is your understanding of participant observation? From my reading in Savin-Baden, M. and Major, C.H., 2013. Qualitative research: The essential guide to theory and practice. Routledge.
there were various levels of participation ranging from peripheral to complete participation. I’ve concluded that passive participation is probably the best bet, as it allows a certain level of detachment.
How is your research going, Noreen? And, as an aside, how did you approach getting informed consent? Did you have to get parental, pupil and school consent?
At this stage, my understanding of participant observation is based solely on my reading of Kawulich (2005) who outlines Junker’s four theoretical stances for researchers as related by Gold: complete participant, participant as observer, observer as participant and complete observer. I’m guessing that ‘passive participation’ aligns with ‘observer as participant’. I think that this approach is particularly well suited to the sort of research you’re undertaking: it would be impossible for you to engage as a complete participant. Thanks too for the link: looks like a very useful text.
Kawulich, Barbara B. (2005). Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(2)
This is great, Helen.
I particularly liked how honest and thoughtful you were about some of the challenges (ethical and practical) around this period of observation. The initial sense of uncertainty and awkwardness you describe is a consistent theme within ethnography, going back to the point where Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) pulled his boat ashore on Melanesian New Guinea (in a piece of work which is recognised to have heavily influenced the practice of ethnography).
I would also agree with your point about how your next visit to the field site will be helped by having some research questions in mind. Even if ethnographers don’t always have very clearly defined research questions at the outset, I would point towards the broad consensus that there is an understood purpose to the fieldwork, even if they might change by what is observed!
‘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.’
Again, I think you raise some of the key challenges of undertaking ethnographic fieldwork: how much and what to record. I suppose the value of undertaking fieldwork over an extended period is that the ethnographer will (hopefully) over time come to recognise the phenomena that really matter in answering her emergent research questions. Out of interest, how did you feel at the end of your period of observation? I have been surprised how mentally and physically tiring it is – although in light of your setting maybe you had the benefit of coffee to give you a boost 😉
Great post, Helen – I think others interested in ethnography will really benefit from your experiences and insights here.
Thanks for your kind comments James. Like you say, I think a focus for my observation will – hopefully – help in the future, both with regard to guiding my observations and in relation to starting to identify seams and patterns. And, yes, my first observation was pretty tiring: it must be an exhausting enterprise – at least in the first instance – to be engaged in an ethnographic study ‘full-time’.