When I’m sent to a setting, be it a country I’ve never visited before, be it digging through someone’s cupboard, watching them plan their next vacation, or cooking dinner with a family I’ve never met, one of the first things I do is think through how I will make sense of the environment and how to align what I see and experience with what participants tell me. Unfortunately, a fair amount of what gets sold as ethnography is in fact interviewing in a person’s home, office, or car. We talk, they talk, and then we take those utterances and ascribe a sense of meaning that is often taken as gospel. We may take note of the surrounding, but we frequently overlook applying the same methodological rigor to the observation process that we do the interview.
Observation means watching and listening to people and trying to form some ideas about how the physical environment shapes their actions, beliefs, behavior, knowledge, and interactions. That’s a lot to take in. So it’s not enough simply to observe people, you need a plan for operationalizing what you take in and the patience to let you and your team make sense of what unfolds. We spend a lot of time talking about context in this industry, but we can be lax in using good models and social theories to understand what contexts are really at play. So what does that look like? It varies by project, budget, timeline, and need, of course, but there are some basic rule that apply across the board:
- Set primary focus: It’s easy to be overwhelmed if you’re trying to take in every action and every element of fieldwork, so determining the primary focus of observation up front helps minimize overload. One of the simplest steps is to determine what you hope to get from interviewing and identify gaps. This helps you identify what area of observation is most important to the success of the project. For example, if you’re talking with families about how they handle dinner on busy days, the key point of observational discovery may center on mobile eating, making the car or minivan the focal point.
- Identify key stakeholders: How we make decisions and how we negotiate power are often different from what we believe. Prior to entering the field it helps to identify as many stakeholders as possible and begin thinking about how their actions in context may corroborate or contradict what others have to say. Nurses, for example, often play a much bigger role in medical treatment and patient compliance than doctors. Thinking about the strategies and tactics they employ to get a job done in relation to the broader organizational structure helps pin down observational “must haves” prior to entering the field.
- Thinking through variables: Until you’re actually in the field it can be difficult to speculate about what might take place in a given context, but doing so reduces time and improves collaboration between team members. It’s helpful to think through things like workflow models (present and future), communication patterns, deviations from protocol, and situational awareness as a team. Think about how people shop in a grocery. It is often a shared activity with different members of a household assigned unofficial tasks – thinking through who manages the process, how they communicate when separated, how they use aisles as a means of wayfinding, etc. allows the team to identify reference points before the shopping process begins.
- Develop supporting materials: Most people have a field guide and a plan for capturing interview field notes, but observations often find themselves relegated to the margins Developing a systematic observation sheet in critical to capturing good observational data. There is no set method since each project has specific parameters it must meet, but they should typically include timestamp, pre-defined categories, a section for descriptive notes, space for mapping, a section for artifacts, a section for activities. For example, if you’re mapping how people think about bathrooms in their homes, an observation book might be designed to document cleanliness, location in the home in relation to other rooms, amounts and types of decoration, etc. The point is to have a systematic tool that team members can use to exchange information.