Observational Methods of Research and Gathering Observational Data (III)

Afza.Malik GDA

Types and Recording of Observations

Observational Methods of Research and Gathering  Observational Data Spradley (1980) Recording Observations, Types of Observational Records.

Observational Methods of Research and Gathering  Observational Data Spradley (1980) Recording Observations, Types of Observational Records.

    Participant observers typically place few restrictions on the nature of the data collected, in keeping with the goal of minimizing observer-imposed meanings and structure. Nevertheless, participant observers often have a broad plan for the types of information to be gathered. Among the aspects likely to be considered relevant are the following:

    1. The physical setting. What are the main features of the physical setting? What is the context within which human behavior unfolds? What types of behaviors and characteristics are promoted (or constrained) by the physical environment? How does the environment contribute to what is happening? 

    2. The participants. What are the characteristics of the people being observed? How many people are there? What are their roles? Who is given free access to the setting who “belongs”? What brings these people together? 

    3. Activities and interactions. What is going on what are people doing and saying, and how are they behaving? Is there a discernible progression of activities? How do people interact with one another? What methods do they use to communicate, and how frequently do they do so? What is the tone of their communications? What type of emotions do they show during their interactions? How are participants interconnected to one another or to activities underground? 

    4. Frequency and duration. When did the activity or event begin, and when is it scheduled to end? How much time has elapsed? Is the activity a recurring one, and if so, how regularly does it recur? How typical of such activities is the one that is under observation? 

    5. Precipitating factors. Why is the event or interaction happening? What contributes to how the event or interaction unfolds? 

   6. Organization. How is the event or interaction organized? How are relationships structured? What norms or rules are in operation? 

    7. Intangible factors. What did not happen (especially if it ought to have happened)? Are participants saying one thing verbally but communicating other messages nonverbally? What types of things were disruptive to the activity or situation? Clearly, this is far more information than can be absorbed in a single session (and not all categories may be relevant to the research question). 

    However, this framework provides a starting point for thinking about observational possibilities while in the field. Spradley (1980) distinguishes three levels of observation that typically occur during fieldwork. The first level is descriptive observation, which tends to be broad and is used to help observers figure out what is going on. 

    During these descriptive observations, researchers make every attempt to observe as much as possible. Later in the inquiry, observers do focused observations on more carefully selected events and interactions. 

    Based on the research aims and on what has been learned from the descriptive observations, participant observers begin to focus more sharply on key aspects of the setting. From these focused observations, they may develop a system for organizing observations, such as a taxonomy or category system. 

    Finally, selective observations are the most highly focused, and are undertaken to facilitate comparisons between categories or activities. Spradley describes these levels as analogous to a funnel, with an increasingly narrow and more systematic focus. 

    While in the field, participant observers have to make decisions about how to sample observations and to select observational locations. Single positioning means staying in a single location for a period to observe behaviors and transactions in that location. 

    Multiple positioning involves moving around the site to observe behaviors from different locations. Mobile positioning involves following a person throughout a given activity or period. It is usually useful to use a combination of positioning approaches in selecting observational locations. 

    Because participant observers cannot spend a lifetime in one site and because they cannot be in more than one place at a time, observation is almost always supplemented with information obtained in unstructured interviews or conversations. For example, informants may be asked to describe what went on in a meeting that the observer was unable to attend, or to describe events that occurred before the observer entered the field. In such a case, the informant functions as the observer's observer.

Recording Observations

    Participant observers may find it tempting to put more emphasis on the participation and observation parts of their research than on the recording of those activities. Without systematic daily recording of the observational data, however, the project will flounder. Observational information cannot be trusted to memory; it must be diligently recorded as soon after the observations as possible.

Types of Observational Records

    The most common forms of record-keeping in participant observation are logs and field notes, but photographs and videotapes may also be used. A log (or field diary) is a daily record of events and conversations in the field. A log is a historical listing of how researchers have spent their time and can be used for planning purposes, for keeping track of expenses, and for reviewing what work has already been completed.

     Field notes are much broader, more analytical, and more interpretive than a simple listing of occurrences. Field notes represent the participant observer's efforts to record information and also to synthesize and understand the data. The next sections discuss the content of field notes and the process of writing them.

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