Observational Methods of Research Content of Field Notes IV

Afza.Malik GDA

Descriptive,Reflective,Theoretical and Personal Notes 

Observational Methods of Research IV  The Content of Field Notes, Field notes descriptive and reflective, Theoretical notes, Personal notes,The Process of Writing  field notes,Evaluation of field notes.

Observational Methods of Research IV  The Content of Field Notes, Field notes descriptive and reflective, Theoretical notes, Personal notes,The Process of Writing  field notes,Evaluation of field notes.

What are Notes 

    Participant observers' field notes contain a narrative account of what is happening in the field; they serve as the data for analysis. Most “field” notes are not written while observers are literally in the field but rather are written after an observational session in the field has been completed. Field notes are usually lengthy and time consuming to prepare.

Observational Notes

     Observers need to discipline themselves to provide a wealth of detail, the meaning and importance of which may not emerge for weeks. Descriptions of what has transpired must include enough contextual information about time, place, and actors to portray the situation fully. The term thick description is often used to characterize the goal of participating observers' field notes.

Descriptive Notes

    Field notes are both descriptive and reflective. Descriptive notes (or observational notes) are objective descriptions of observed events and conversations; information about actions, dialogue, and context are recorded as completely and objectively as possible. Reflective notes, which document the researcher's personal experiences, reflections, and progress while in the field, can serve a number of different purposes.

Methodological Notes

    Methodologic notes are reflections about the strategies and methods used in the observations. Sometimes participant observers do things that do not “work,” and methodologic notes document their thoughts about new strategies and reasons why they might be needed or thoughts about why a strategy that was used was especially effective. Methodologic notes also can provide instructions or reminders about how subsequent observations will be made.

    Theoretical notes (or analytical notes) document researchers' thoughts about how to make sense of what is going on. These notes are the researchers' efforts to attach meaning to observations while in the field, and serve as a starting point for subsequent analysis.

Personal Note

    Personal notes are comments about researchers' own feelings while in the field. Almost inevitably, field experiences give rise to personal emotions, and challenge researchers' assumptions. It is essential to reflect on such feelings because there is no other way to determine whether the feelings are influencing what is being observed or what is being done in the participant role. Personal notes can also contain reflections relating to ethical dilemmas and possible conflicts. 

Reflective Notes

    Reflective notes are typically not integrated into the descriptive notes, but are kept separately as parallel notes; they may be maintained in a journal or series of self-memos. Strauss and Corbin (1990) argue that these reflective memos or journals help researchers to achieve analytic distance from the actual data, and therefore play a critical role in the project's success.

The Process of Writing 

     Field Notes The success of any participant observation study depends heavily on the quality of the field notes. This section describes some techniques for enhancing their quality. A fundamental issue concerns the timing of field note preparation: They should be written as soon as possible after an observation is made because memory is bound to fail if there is too long a delay. 

    The longer the interval between an observation and field note preparation, the greater the risk of losing or distorting the data. If the delay is long, intricate details will be forgotten; moreover, memory of what was observed may be biased by things that happen subsequently.

    Participant observers cannot usually write their field notes while they are in the field observing, in part because this would distract them from their job of being keen observers, and also because it would undermine their role as ordinary group participants. Researchers must develop the skill of making detailed mental notes that can later be committed to a permanent record. 

    In addition, observers usually try to jot down unobtrusively a phrase or sentence that will later serve as a reminder of an event, conversation, or impression. Many experienced field workers use the tactic of frequent trips to the bathroom to record these jottings, either in a small notebook or perhaps into a recording device. With the widespread use of cell phones, researchers can also excuse themselves to make a call, and “phone in” their jottings to an answering machine. 

    Observers use the jottings and mental recordings to develop more extensive field notes. It is important to schedule enough time for properly recording field notes after an observation. An hour of observation may take 3 or 4 hours to record, so advance planning is essential. This also means that observation sessions must be relatively brief.

    Observational field notes obviously need to be as complete and detailed as possible. This in turn means that hundreds of pages of field notes typically will be created, and so systems need to be developed for recording and managing them. For example, each entry should have the date and time the observation was made, the location, and the name of the observer (if several are working together as a team).

     It is useful to give observational sessions a name that will trigger a memory (eg, “Emotional Outburst by a Patient With Ovarian Cancer”). Thought also needs to be given to how to record participants' dialogue. The goal is to record conversations as accurately as possible, but it is not always possible to maintain verbatim records because tape recordings are seldom made if researchers are trying to maintain a stance as regular participants. 

    Systems need to be developed to distinguish different levels of accuracy in recording dialogue (eg, by using quotation marks and italics for true verbatim recordings, and a different designation for paraphrasings ). Observation, participation, and record-keeping are exhausting, labor-intensive activities. It is important to establish the proper pace of these activities to ensure the highest possible quality notes for analysis.

Evaluation of Participant Observation 

    Participant observation can provide a deeper and richer understanding of human behaviors and social situations than is possible with more structured procedures. Participant observation is particularly valuable for its ability to "get inside" a particular situation and lead to a more complete understanding of its complexities. 

    Furthermore, this approach is inherently flexible and therefore gives observers the freedom to reconceptualize problems after becoming more familiar with the situation. Participant observation is the preferred method for answering questions about intangible phenomena that are difficult for insiders to explain or articulate because these phenomena are taken for granted (eg, group norms, cultural patterns, approaches to problem-solving). 

    However, like all research methods, there are potential problems with the approach that need to be considered. The risk of observer bias and observer influence are prominent difficulties. Observers may lose objectivity in viewing and recording actual observations; they may also inappropriately sample events and situations to be observed. 

    Once researchers begin to participate in a group's activities, the possibility of emotional involvement becomes a salient concern. Researchers in their member role may fail to attend to many scientifically relevant aspects of the situation or may develop a myopic view on issues of importance to the group. 

    Participant observation may thus be an unsuitable approach when the risk of identification is strong. Another important issue concerns the ethical dilemmas that often arise in participant observation studies. Finally, participant observation depends more on the observational and interpersonal skills of the observer than do highly structured techniques skills that may be difficult to cultivate. 

    On the whole, observation participant and other unstructured observational methods are extremely profitable for in-depth research in which researchers wish to develop a comprehensive conceptualization of phenomena within a social setting or culture. The more structured observational methods discussed next are better suited to the formal testing of research hypotheses.

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