Angrosino’s Projects in Ethnographic Research Ch. 4 and 5 [Jessica]

Ch. 4 – Ethnographic Observation

Ethnography is a process by which a researcher inserts himself or herself into the everyday lives of those whose beliefs and behaviors are to be studied.

In deciding what to study, you are using formative theory. Formative Theory – the explanatory framework that guides one in the initial approach to a new setting. It may be modified as the research progresses, but it is a useful way to begin sorting through the mass of observed detail.  The exampled used in the book is as follows: If you think that modern American culture is defined by its enthusiasm for pop culture, then you would probably not select an Amish farming village as the site for your study.  Once you have narrowed your observational focus by means of formative theory, you can begin the actual process of observation.

Observation – first key technique – it may be assumed that this type of fieldwork is easy, however, determining What should be observed and How to conduct useful observations are key in the use and value of this technique.  In order to properly observe, we must use all senses, not just sight.

Things to remember when conducting observations:

  •      Do not rely on memory
  •      Assume that what you are observing is exotic; document everything
  •      For each situation, answer the following: Who, What, Where, When
  •      Whenever possible, supplement with visual aids (photos, sketches)
  •      Try to keep your field notes free of interpretation. Record your interpretations in your journal.
  •      Try to record EXACT quotes
  •      Use pseudonyms or codes to identify participants while conducting the field.
  •      Follow sequence of events
  •      Great care in dating and categorizing each notation

Ch. 5 – Types of Observation

Unobtrusive Observation – those made with a minimum of research participation. Examples use in text: Researchers stationed themselves in some busy public place (hospital emergency room) and took notes on behaviors of interest without interacting with anyone. Unobtrusive Observation is often structured observation – a very precise format for recording data which allows for comparable data. Other researchers can use the same exact practices for observing and recording data and compile the data for interpretation.

Participant Observation – This is a more typical type of observation. In these cases, the researcher is already someone familiar to the people in the study group. The researcher’s purposes are generally known and the researcher is not simply sitting in a corner taking notes. This method leads to tricky situations since taking notes in the midst of an activity is not possible. The researcher would have to rely on memory. Participant Observation is usually unstructured observation since the researchers is immersed in the flow of events as they are unfolding. Each piece of unstructured observation will be unique.


13 thoughts on “Angrosino’s Projects in Ethnographic Research Ch. 4 and 5 [Jessica]

  1. Jessica, thanks for the summary of your chapter. When I was much younger I thought that this type of research was primarily participant observation where people entered into the daily lives of those with whom they were studying. I remember actually meeting some of these types of researchers who had left their comfortable lives to go live in places like Papua New Guinea to study a particular tribe of people. I remember noticing that these researchers were a bit odd in personality, but to me, that did not matter because I admired their unbelievable courage. These researchers had committed their lives to learning the language, customs, and ways of these people groups. They had actually become a part of those with whom they were studying. When they spoke to us, they spoke with the authority of truly understanding the people in these tribes. Obviously I have never experienced this type of observation.

    However, when I was taking a statistics class in graduate school, I had the opportunity to take part in an unobtrusive participation observation. For this assignment I went to the Marketplace here in Bakersfield and just began to observe with no agenda. Soon I began noticing that nobody was eating alone. A few days later I went back and found the same thing; however, an Asian-American man was eating alone. My next observation I also noticed that there were some Asian-Americans sitting alone eating, but no Caucasian Americans, African-Americans, or Hispanic Americans eating alone. This observation technique began to drum up many questions in my mind. Are some Americans embarrassed to eat alone? If so, why? Why were these Asian-Americans eating alone? I then began to ask questions that pertained to culture? Is this a cultural thing? I don’t know if I had continued to observe that I would have continued to see the same phenomena, but it was a fun exercise. I never attempted to answer these questions.

    • Jeremy,
      I also find all the questions that begin popping into our mind after observing others interesting and amazing. Seeing and interpreting actions from our own life experience undoubtedly creates a type of bias. While at Disneyland in March, I was able to observe, for more than a passing moment, the goings-on around me. Many questions came to mind as I just enjoyed the time watching people go by as I fed my then 8-week-old baby. I began counting the number of different languages spoken as people passed me and wondered how long they would spend at Disneyland. Was this a big occasion for them or simply an outing? The next feeding allowed me to count how many kids were walking around with balloons; we never buy one for our son.

      When we returned in June, I noticed how people were passing the time while waiting in line. Human behavior is very interesting to me.

  2. Reading your summary of Ch. 4 and 5 of Angrosino reminded me of how many of us sometimes partake in unobtrusive observations when we “people watch.” Through casual people watching we notice patterns and common themes as Jeremy pointed out.

    I think most of the observations I have helped conduct so far in the doctoral program have been participant observations. While we just sat in a corner and took notes, which might seem like unobtrusive observations, those we were coming in to observe already knew about our team and were somewhat informed about the purpose of our presence, making the type of observation a participant observation.

    I would like to someday just be immersed in some culture, maybe one I am familiar with, and just do some unobtrusive observations, similar to the people watching I mentioned earlier, and see what things I notice that I might not have known or realized.

    • I think we all are already engaged in cultural immersion and participant observation (people watching) in class. Although we are touted as being a bonded cohort, there are clearly cliques and affinities that naturally form. On a larger scale, education is a peculiar microcosm that for me is like listening to the same piece of music over and over, each time focusing in on a particular instrument. You hear melodies, counter-melodies, and chords that a particular instrument is playing and it is fascinating to follow how it adds to the overall composition. Similarly, at a university, you can focus on just the faculty or just the custodial staff or just the people in a particular union and it is fascinating to observe how they view the world and engage with it to create the overall university tapestry.

  3. It’s interesting to think that “people watching” is actually a basis for research. I am interested in conducting an Unobtrusive Observation. I am curious as to the differences in focus between all group members actively observing during a given time. What would I see that others did not catch? What does someone else find different or important that I took for granted? My only concern here is: If a person chooses to speak to me while in the middle of observation, what is the proper protocol to dismiss them without missing something or appearing rude?

  4. Last semester, I was involved in a research study pertaining to Lindsay Unified and the Performance-based system they had implemented into their curriculum. My team went into a Lindsay elementary school and the high school to visit. I really was just hoping to get an overall picture of what performance-based looked like, so I did not prepare to take notes or collect data. I walked around the classrooms given the liberty to talk to students and teachers, and ask questions pertaining to the process and the curriculum. I was engaged in a participant observation. Later while writing up my research report, I realized I wanted to use some of the anecdotal unstructured data I had observed. I had to use my memory for this process, and the information was andecdotal and loosely interpreted. I would now like to go into a set of classrooms and engage in an unobtrusive and structured manner as I would like to see specific details of the system in a more precise format. I think as an unobtrusive observer, I would see many things that I was not able to see before because I was actively participating with the students and teachers. This would also give me data that I could compare and quantify more completely.

    • Becky,
      Sometimes active participation seems like a dilemma. On the one hand, you are correct. We would miss out on observations because we are in the midst of the activity. But, as simply an observer, we would miss out on the feeling created when participating. I believe that an ideal situation would be to be able to use both methods to ensure that we get the most out of the experience.

  5. In one of our previous classes of a quantitative design a group of us went to Arvin to observe a series of math classes. We set up the protocol ahead of time and had our tools in hand. We stationed ourselves in various math classrooms observing student and teacher interactions related to time on task. It was classified as an unobtrusive observation by the definition listed above. I learned a great deal from the observation. It was interesting to compare notes with my colleagues and find that many of the same things I witnessed in one classroom was taking place in the other classrooms. One challenge of the unobtrusive observer, if you are recording documents, is that sometimes you are so busy recording you are not able to observe in a pure sense.

    • After completing the observations, do you think that you would change your recording documents for further use so that you could observe in a pure sense and record data? If so, what changes would you make?

  6. As an master teacher in the BTSA program as well as an academic coach, I participated in many classroom observations. For the most part these were unobtrusive and structured observations. I would usually sit in the back and take notes as I observed. I tried to keep my notes as free as possible from interpretation. I did this by writing down as many direct quotes as possible and avoiding making judgements but rather write down what I saw and heard. It is more difficult than one might think. I’m glad that I had that practice because I think it will serve me well as I prepare to do some ethnographic research for my dissertation project.

    • Your work as a BTSA master teacher and academic coach will be invaluable as you conduct ethnographic research. I find that when observing teacher practices it is often difficult to avoid making judgements and interpretations. I like your idea of writing down direct quotes. That ensures that there is no interpretation or judgement.

  7. In my position as a special education teacher, I am required to observe my students on IEPs in their general education classrooms during unobtrusive observations. These observations are both structured and unstructured to identify how students with disabilities react during different types of lessons. During these observations, I often sit in the pod area to observe so that I do not interfere with any of the academic instruction and so that my students would not turn to me for assistance. During my observations I have to take extensive notes and exclude any interpretation. This is done through writing down and recording the events as they occurred in the classroom. After doing these observations for a few years they have become easier to complete. However, when I first started completing these observations I had to go through my notes and cross out anything that was subjective or interpretive.

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