Notes About Observation

It’s Friday and I’m headed to the zoo with my daughters.  At the risk of being deemed a bad parent, I will say that I will no doubt be engaged in observation of the people and the activities with an anthropological perspective in mind – a hazard of the trade, no doubt.  But it has me thinking that there are elements of observation that we often forget and it can be harder than we think.

When I’m sent to a setting, be it a country I’ve never visited before, a dinner party with a group I’ve never met, or even the zoo, one of the first things I do is some informal observation.  It is grounding and primes the mind for the fieldwork to come. In this sense, observation means watching and listening to people and trying to form some ideas about their beliefs, behavior, knowledge, and interactions.

This requires an attitude of openness to experience.  It means not taking anything for granted, no matter how seemingly mundane. It sounds trite, but it’s often useful to imagine that you are a visitor from another planet, and that you are visiting Earth for the first time. What do you notice about the humans? The buildings? The structure of a setting? Even the most trivial details are revealing if you forget, or try to forget, some of what you know. Of course, this isn’t entirely possible, so keep in mind that what you think and feel are as much part of the data set as the observations themselves – self-reflexivity is a marvelous tool.

With informal observation, you are always looking for something that might make a community different from others. Perhaps the difference is in products they can buy, not only what they have and how they use them.  Perhaps it is the way they talk to their children or spouses.  Perhaps it is their structuring of power. Remember that nothing is certain and notice anything that makes a community unusual to your own worldview.

But observation means nothing if you don’t recall what you experience. It’s not enough simply to observe people.  Recording is essential. I have found that the best way to do informal observation is to always carry a small notebook and pen. Yes, the camcorder and the camera are important, but writing things down and mapping an environment have a way of helping organize what is important as well as having the benefit of making you think about what you have missed. When you see or hear something interesting, I write it down.

It is also at this stage that models and theories begin to take shape. As I form theories, I write these down too, in the same notebook – usually in the form of questions. Whenever you start to form a theory about some possibility, look for evidence that will either confirm or oppose the theory. This will in turn lead to more questions and better observation.

That being said, there is a fine balance that must be struck. It’s very important not to jump to conclusions straight away, and to look for evidence on both sides of the question. Many people will form a theory without searching for opposing evidence, or they will head down a path that substantiates what they want to believe. The main difference between observation in normal life, and informal observation for research is that the researcher is always trying to seek the truth, such as it is, and to find out how far that truth can be extended.  Remember, this is the first stage in the research, not the end. This is exploration.

With that in mind, remember that for observation to be successful and useful, you have to go beyond observation, and ask people “Why do you do that?” You are not observing purely for the sake of observing, but to find out why people act as they do. It’s certainly something I’ll keep in mind at the zoo as I watch all the critters – human and nonhuman alike.

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