The Importance of Learning Participant Observation

Teaching and learning is interactive. Despite the fact that learning is all-pervasive in our life, there is no single, universal theory of how people learn. There are two major schools of thought concerning the learning process: one consists of behavior theories, the other of cognitive theories. Cognitive theorists view learning as a function of purely mental process, whereas behavioral theorists focus almost exclusively on observable behaviors (responses) that occur as the result of exposure to stimuli. 

It is suggested that good marketing strategy often be based upon a defined set of consumer behaviors. Yet, we can forget this truism when they discuss sometimes esoteric and often complex findings of consumer research studies and their corresponding models. The truths and power of ethnography and the subsequent analysis become real when people directly observed a variety of consumers in different shopping situations. Observation is the principal method in anthropological marketing research. However, most first-time researchers, meaning anyone in the organization not trained in anthropology, often won’t automatically make the connections between the study of consumer behavior and the practice of anthropological marketing research. They are more easily drawn to the statistical or psychological approaches to the study of consumer behavior given the fact that most people learned that approach in college, it requires less time in planning, and requires minimal effort in execution. In other words, it’s easy.

As an example, let’s look at how one professor structured an assignment for his undergraduates. To help the students understand the principles of consumer behavior, the instructor designed two assignments that strengthened the linkages between anthropology and marketing: a mini-report and a comprehensive research project. For the mini-report assignment, students were required to write up an analysis of consumer behaviors based on their own observations/experiences at any food service site. They were encouraged to use one or two concepts and methods that they had learned from the course to record and analyze consumer behaviors in a real business situation. Each student was also directed to discuss with the instructor individually the progress and problems pertaining to the fieldwork and observations at least once during the period when the research was conducted. By doing so the instructor would have the opportunity to make some comments and suggestions on their individual fieldwork and observations. 

The instructor read and graded the students’ mini-report with the individual student present. The instructor would praise the individual students for what they had done correctly and made comments on what they did not do properly. Then he would let the individual students tell him how they could improve their work if they were asked to re-do the assignment. Through the mini-report practice and the interaction with the instructor, the students learned more about how to observe and how to record the data. Moreover, the students were trained how to analyze the rural data and how to write the research report based on primary data they collected. The mini-report training helped build a solid foundation for the students to conduct their final comprehensive research project. 

For the comprehensive research project, the students were directed to study the consumers at any food service business through participant observation and other methods, such as interviews and questionnaire survey. The students were requested to properly record and keep their original fieldwork notes, which would be graded together with their final reports. By the time the comprehensive research project was started, the great majority of the students had already mastered the basic skills in doing fieldwork, conducting observations, taking notes, which they had learned and practiced from their previous mini report projects. However, to help the students and to provide advice on site, the instructor also accompanied individual students to lunches or dinners in their selected food service sites from time to time during the period when they were doing the fieldwork. Students were encouraged to do some interviews while the instructor was present, so that they could get the advice immediately if they needed. They were also encouraged to exchange information as much as they could but they had to give each other credit if they did such an exchange in their final reports.

This project had a number of benefits for students. For instance, it acquainted them with observational research techniques and the subjectivity inherent in pure observation. Moreover, it made them realize that trends or patterns are revealed by consumer analysis while reinforcing many of the age, gender, ethnic-based or other consumer findings presented in textbooks. Next, it was a real-life illustration of the differences between non-probability and probability sampling. Finally, it invariably caused the students to become more aware of their own consumer behavior. The results of their comprehensive projects turned out to be significantly richer and the quality of the research reports was much improved from their mini reports. 

The students learned concrete skills and knowledge through their hands-on experiences, certainly more than they did through the textbook and in-class lectures because the anthropological approach directly involved them with the consumer and gave them a better understanding about consumer behavior. By using participant observation, the students realized that they themselves could be used as research instruments, which helped them understand all other types of research instruments, such as interviews and questionnaire surveys. More importantly, the students learned how to collect first-hand research data in their everyday life. These skills and course concepts would be abstract to them if the students had not been guided in their hands-on work.

Whether you’re a designer, a strategist, or anything else, learning how to conduct systematic participant observation is central getting to those breakthrough insights. As an observer you need to look at the body language of the customer, facial expressions, and listen to what they are saying. You need to examine why these thing occur. It takes a while to get used to doing this, but after you get the hang of it you pick up on many things that you normally would miss. Your eyes and ears are the best tools that I used when conducting this research.

The food service sector is perhaps one of the best places to study consumer behavior. In these settings consumers are not only consuming tangible goods (food and drink), but also intangible service. It is in restaurants that consumers will interact with the waiters/waitresses and with other consumers. Additionally, many consumer behavior related concepts and theories can be tested in the food service sector, such as consumption motivation, family/friends influences on consumer behavior, cultural influences on consumer behavior. In other words, food service sites provide a wide range of cultural behaviors in a fixed space, making the process of learning more efficient. In food service sites, people training in the basics of participant observation learn that culture as a concept is can be used to describe and analyze both the varieties and generalities of human behavior, values, choices, preferences, practices, beliefs, attitudes, and so forth throughout the world.

These sites also help people to learn firsthand the complexities and interconnectedness of food and culture. There are numerous factors that influence food choices, including but not limited to: environment, tradition, familiarity, social status, and perceived properties. Environmental factors influence the choices consumers make by the process of availability within a market. The ability to produce the products necessary for specific foods is the key to assimilating them into a society’s culture. Without the required ingredients, the foods of different cultures cannot be experienced or accepted. Tradition within specific regions dictates the level and type of consumption. What identifies familiarity is that which has become long accustomed and is considered the norm for the specific region. All of these points emerge when conducting fieldwork.

And ultimately, this is the crux of it all – being in the moment allows the researcher to identify which levers will have the most resonance. We become more creative, we become more aware, and we can design strategies that can break through the noise of traditional marketing.

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Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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