Field Method Fieldwork Assignment

GEOGRAPHY 5722 : Field Methods in Human Geography

Spring 2005


This seminar will explore qualitative methodologies in human geography research.We will draw from other disciplines such as anthropology and sociology for methodological insights, but my goal is to focus our attention on approaches that are particularly appropriate to human geography.Thus, one of our goals will be to explore how to translate abstract concepts like scale, region, place, spatial interaction, and mobility into viable field methods.In addition, there will be a significant focus on the role of writing during various phases of the research process.As writing is one of the most important things we do as scholars, it is important that we explore the nature of narrative as a methodological strategy, and a process through which our findings and ideas are communicated to others.Toward that end, we will attempt to run the seminar as a kind of writing workshop, conducting frequent writing exercises and sharing these with each other for inspiration and criticism.In such an environment mutual trust and respect is crucial to everyone’s success.

and requirements:


Four complete books are required for the course:

·         Writing the New Ethnography by H.L. Goodall ()

·         Qualitative Methods for Geographers, eds. M. Limb and C. Dwyer ()

·         The Age of Wild Ghosts by E. Mueggler ()

·         At Home in the World, by M. Jackson (Duke)

All other required readings will be available on Norlin e-reserve.It is your responsibility to access, download, and/or print all required readings in a timely manner so that required readings have been completed prior to seminar meetings.Optional readings have not been placed on reserve and are primarily provided for your future reference.


Participation in seminar discussions (20%):full participation in all seminar discussions goes without saying.This seminar is really more of a workshop; its success will depend upon how much we can learn from each other.

Completion of writing experiments in Goodall (20%):There are numerous writing exercises in Goodall’s text.We will complete most of these, and share them with each other for further reflection and discussion.

Presentation on fieldwork method (10%):During one of the three sessions on “doing fieldwork,” you are responsible for giving an informal presentation on a fieldwork method of your choice.You will need to consult with me well in advance so that an appropriate variety of methods is covered in the presentations.

Completion of two writing assignments on Cannibal Tours (10%):We will view this film twice in one session.Two brief assignments focus on this film; see 2/22 for details.

Critique/reviews of Mueggler and Jackson (10%):These are brief critiques of the two major ethnographic texts we’ll be reading for the class.

Experimental field project ethnography (30%):Your major “product” for the class will be an ethnographic narrative based on your field project.During the semester you will develop an experimental qualitative field research project that involves one or more of the field methods discussed in the class.You are required to submit a written narrative (an ethnography) of this project.This will not be a research design or a proposal, nor is it necessarily an account of how you did the research or the problems encountered therein (these being topics of discussion in class).However, the extent of reflexivity you wish to employ in your ethnography is up to you and thus a certain amount of discussion concerning the “how” of your research is always welcome.


1/11Introduction; discussion of research projects and fieldwork implications

1/18The epistemology of qualitative research – debates over the legitimacy of method


·         Goodall, Chapter 1

·         Limb and Dwyer, Chapter 1

·         Howard Becker, “The epistemology of qualitative research” – unpublished paper.

·         Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln, “Introduction: the discipline and practice of qualitative research” – Handbook of Qualitiative Research, 2nd Edition, edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (: Sage, 2000), pp. 1-29.

Optional / Additional resources:

·         John Creswell, Research Design: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, 1994).

·         Special Issue on “Doing Fieldwork” The Geographical Review 91:1-2 (2001).

·         John Eyles, “Interpreting the geographical world” – Qualitative Methods in Human Geography (London: Polity, 1988), pp. 1-16.

·         Martin Hammersley and Paul Atkinson, Ethnography; principles and practice (London: Tavistock, 1983), pp. 1-26, “What is ethnography?”

·         Michael Jackson, “On ethnographic truth.” In Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1989), pp. 170-187.

·         Valerie Janesick, “The choreography of qualitative research design” – Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition (: Sage, 2000), pp. 379-400.

·         Heidi Nast, “Women in the field” – Professional Geographer 46:1 (1994), 54-66.

Resources on writing proposals, getting funded

·         Charles Lidz and Edmund Ricci, “Funding large-scale qualitative sociology.” Qualitative Sociology 13:2 (1990), pp. 113-125.

·         Locke, et al. Proposals that Work: A Guide for Planning Dissertations and Grant Proposals. 4th edition (: Sage Publications, 2000).

·         , Berkeley On-line Dissertation Workshop:

Assignment / Exercise

·         Goodall, Chapter 1 – Complete writing experiment #1 on your own prior to class, and bring #2 with you to class to share.Complete #3 on your own after class (you will bring it to class on 1/25).

1/25The “crisis of representation” in the social sciences


·         Limb and Dwyer, Chapters 2-4

·         James Clifford, “Introduction: partial truths” – Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by J. Clifford and G. Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 1-26).

·         George Marcus, “Imagining the whole: ethnography’s contemporary efforts to situate itself” – Critique of Anthropology 9:3 (1990), 7-30.

·         George Marcus and Michael Fischer, “A crisis of representation in the human sciences” – Anthropology as Cultural Critique (: ), pp. 7-16.

Critical Interrogations of Fieldwork

·         Arjun Appadurai, “Putting hierarchy in its place. Cultural Anthropology3:1 (1988): 36-49.

·         Ruth Behar, The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

·         Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon, eds., Women Writing Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

·         John Beverley, “Testimonio, subalternity, and narrative authority.” In Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, edited. by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (: Sage, 2000), pp. 555-566.

·         James Clifford and George Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986)

·         Kim England, “Getting personal: reflexivity, positionality, and feminist research” – Professional Geographer 46:1 (1994), pp. 80-89.

·         Susan Heckman, “Truth and method: feminist standpoint theory revisited.” Signs 22:2 (1997), pp. 341-402 (including commentaries by Hartsock, Collins, Harding, and Smith).

·         Cindy Katz, “All the world is staged: intellectuals and the projects of ethnography.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 10 (1992), pp. 495-510.

·         Joe Kincheloe and Peter McLaren, “Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research.” In Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, edited. by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (: Sage, 2000), pp. 279-314.

·         Audrey Kobayashi, “Coloring the field: gender, ‘race,’ and the politics of fieldwork” – Professional Geographer 46:1 (1994), pp. 73-80.

·         Georgre Marcus and Michael Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique (: Press).

·         Donald McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

·         Sherry Ortner, “Theory in anthropology since the sixties.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1984): 126-166.

·         Sherry Ortner, “Resistance and the problem of ethnographic refusal,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37:1 (1995), pp. 173-93.

·         Maurice Punch, “Politics and ethics in qualitative research.” In Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st Edition, edited. by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994), pp. 83-97.

·         Diane Rocheleau, “Participatory research and the race to save the planet: questions, critique, and lessons from the field.” Agriculture and Human Values Spring/Summer (1994), pp. 4-19.

·         Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (: Press, 2000).

·         Lynn Staeheli and Victoria Lawson, “A discussion of ‘women in the field’: the politics of feminist research” – Professional Geographer 46:1 (1994), pp. 96-102.

·         Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research on Indigenous Peoples (London: Zed, 1999).

·         Diane Wolf, “Situating feminist dilemmas in fieldwork.” In Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork, edited by Diane Wolf (Boulder: Westview, 1996), pp. 1-55.

·         Margery Wolf, A Thrice-Told Tale : Feminism, Postmodernism, and Ethnographic Responsibility (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).

Assignment / Exercise:

·         Bring Goodall Chapter 1 writing experiment #3 with you to class for discussion.

2/1The object of research I – culture and identity


·         Goodall, Chapter 2

·         James Clifford, “Introduction: the pure products go crazy,” “On ethnographic authority,” and “On ethnographic self-fashioning: Conrad and Malinowski” – The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

·         Nigel Thrift. “Afterwords.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18 (2000), 213-56

·         Roy Turner, “Deconstructing the field” – The Politics of Field Research, edited by Jaber Gubrium and David Silverman (London: Sage, 1989), pp. 13-29.

Optional / Additional resources:

·         Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

·         Johaness Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia, 1983).

·         Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, “Beyond ‘culture’: space, identity, and the politics of difference.” In Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, edited by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 34-51.

·         Lila Abu-Lughod, “Writing against culture.” In Recapturing Anthropology, ed. R. Fox (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1991), pp. 137-162.

·         Daniel Mato, “On the theory, epistemology, and politics of the social construction of ‘cultural identities’ in the age of globalization:introductory remarks to ongoing debates.” Identities 3:1-2 (1996): 61-72.

·         Daniel Miller (ed.), Worlds Apart: Modernity Through the Prism of the Local (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

Assignment / Exercise:

·         Goodall, Chapter 2 writing experiment #1 (but substitute Professional Geographer for Journal of Contemporary Ethnography).

2/8The object of research II – place and space


·         Michael Burawoy, “Introduction: reaching for the global” – Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World (: ), pp. 1-40.

·         Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, “Culture, power, place: ethnography at the end of an era” – Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, edited by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 1-32.

·         Cindi Katz, “Playing the field: questions of fieldwork in geography,” Professional Geographer 46:1 (1994), 67-72.

·         George Marcus, “Past, present and emergent identities: requirements for ethnographies of late twentieth-century modernity worldwide” – Modernity and Identity, edited by Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 309-330.

Optional / Additional resources:

·         Michael Burawoy et al., Ethnography Unbound: Power and Resistance in the Modern Metropolis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

·         George Marcus, “Contemporary problems of ethnography in the modern world system.” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 165-93.

·         Ann Oberhouser, “The home as ‘field’: households and homework in rural .” In Thresholds in Feminist Geography, edited by John Paul Jones III, Heidi Nast, and Susan Roberts (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), pp. 165-182.

·         Mary Louise Pratt, “Fieldwork in common places.” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, eds. J. Clifford and G. Marcus (Berkeley: California, 1986), pp. 27-50.

·         Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes (London: Routledge, 1992).

Assignment / Exercise:

·         Goodall Chapter 2, writing experiments #2 (i.e. begin collecting relevant scholarship on your experimental field study topic and begin sketching various ways of framing the literature review – bring this sketch to class to share and discuss) and #3 bring to class to share and discuss

2/15Doing fieldwork – writing


·         Goodall, Chapters 3 and 4

·         Limb and Dwyer, Chapters 16 and 17

Optional / Additional resources:

·         Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner, “Autoethnograpy, personal narrative, reflexivity: researcher as subject.” In Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (: Sage, 2000), pp. 733-802.

·         Roger Sanjek (ed.), Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

Assignment / Exercise:

·         Begin Goodall, Chapter 3 writing experiment (keeping a professional journal and a personal diary)

·         Field methods presentations

2/22Ethnographic film – Cannibal

Assignment / Exercise:

·         Watch Cannibal Tours (twice) in seminar.

·         Assignment #1:immediately after viewing the film (and during the second viewing as well), write your observations in a “professional journal” as if you were actually observing the events in the film unmediated (i.e. as if “you were there in the field”).Once you have completed your notes, write a brief “field report” that includes the following:

q       a) description of the social spaces in which the actions/practices in the film take place;

q       b) description of the social groups involved in these actions/practices;

q       c) account of the discourse within and among these groups (here, avoid summaries of discourse, but rather select specific words used);

q       d) description of additional fieldwork that you would pursue to more explicitly address questions of scale and political-economy that would help situate the events in the film.

·         Assignment #2: write a critical “reading” of the film as an ethnographic text.

·         These assignments are due in class on 3/1

3/1Doing fieldwork – being an oxymoron: participant-observation

·         Limb and Dwyer, Chapters 10-12

·         Ian Cook, “Participant observation.”In Methods in Human Geography: A Guide for Students Doing a Research Project, eds. R. Flowerdew and D. Martin (London: Sage, 1997), pp. 127-50.

·         Robin Kearns, “Being there: research through observing and participating.” In Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography, ed. I. Hay (: , 2000), pp. 103-121.

Optional / Additional resources

·                     Mel Evans, “Participant observation: the researcher as research tool.” In Qualitative Methods in Human Geography, eds. J. Eyles and D. Smith (Cambridge: Polity, 1988)

·                     Martin Hammersley and Paul Atkinson, Ethnography; principles and practice (London: Tavistock, 1983).

Assignment / Exercise:

·                     Continue with Goodall, Chapter 3 writing experiment (keeping a professional journal and a personal diary)

·                     Field methods presentations

3/8Doing fieldwork – talking


·         Limb and Dwyer, Chapters 5-9

·         Miranda Miles and Jonathan Crush, “Personal narratives as interactive texts: collecting and interpreting migrant life-histories” – Professional Geographer 45:1 (1993), pp. 84-94.

·         Richa Nagar, “Exploring methodological borderlands through oral narratives” – Thresholds in Feminist Geography, edited by John Paul Jones III, Heidi Nast and Susan Roberts (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), pp. 203-224.

·         Muhammad Anisur Rahman, “The theory and practice of participatory action research” – The Challenge of Social Change, edited by Orlanda Fals Borda (London: Sage, 1985), pp. 107-132.

Optional / Additional resources:

·         Andrea Fontana and James Frey, “The interview: from structured questions to negotiated text” –Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (: Sage, 2000), pp. 645-672.

·         Jon Goss, “Introduction to focus groups” – Area 28:2 (1996), pp. 113-123.

·         John Knodel , “The design and analysis of focus group studies: a practical approach” – Successful Focus Groups: Advancing the State of the Art, edited by David Morgan (Newbury Park: Sage, 1993), pp. 35-50.

·         Robin Jarrett, “Focus group interviewing with low-income minority populations.” In Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st Edition, edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994), pp. 184-201.

·         David Morgan (ed.), Successful Focus Groups: Advancing the State of the Art (Newbury Park: Sage, 1993).

·         Erica Schoenberger, “The corporate interview as a research method in economic geography” – Professional Geographer 43:2 (1991), pp. 180-89.

·         William Tierny, “Undaunted courage: life history and the postmodern challenge.” In Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (: Sage, 2000), pp. 537-554.

·         Mareena Wright, “I never did any fieldwork, but I milked an awful lot of cows! Using rural women’s experience to reconceptualize models of work” Gender and Society 9:2 (1995), pp. 216-235.

Assignment / Exercise:

·         Goodall Chapter 3 writing experiment – bring to class to share your journals.

·         Field methods presentations

3/15Doing fieldwork – analyzing


·         Limb and Dwyer, Chapters 13-15

·         M A Crang, A C Hudson, S M Reimer, S J Hinchliffe, “Software for qualitative research: 1. Prospectus and overview.” Environment and Planning A 29:5 (1997), 771-787.

·         S.J. Hinchcliffe, M. Crang, , and A. Hudson, “Software for qualitative research 2: some thoughts on ‘aiding’ analysis.” Environment and Planning A 29:6 (1997), 1109-1124.

·         Gery Ryan and Russell Bernard, “Data management and analysis methods” – Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (: Sage, 2000), pp. 769-802.

·         David Silverman, “Analyzing talk and text” – Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, edited. by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (: Sage, 2000), pp. 821-834.

Optional / Additional resources:

·         David Altheide and John Johnson, “Criteria for assessing interpretive validity in qualitative research” – Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st Edition, edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (: Sage, 2000), pp. 485-99.

·         Catherine Marshall and Gretchen Rossman, Designing Qualitative Research (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999).

·         Thomas Richards and Lyn Richards, “Using computers in qualitative research” In Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st Edition, edited. by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994), pp. 445-62.

·         Eben Weitzman, “Software and qualitative research” – Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, edited. by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (: Sage, 2000), pp. 803-820.

Assignment / Exercise:

·         Come to class prepared to conduct reflexivity exercises from Goodall Chapter 4

·         Field methods presentations

·         Goodall Chapter 4 writing experiments – on your own.

3/29Discussion of on-going work / projects

4/5Writing and reading ethnographic texts – The Age of Wild Ghosts


·         Goodall, Chapter 5

·         Erik Mueggler, The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China (: Press, 2001)

Optional / Additional resources:

·         Paul Atkinson, Understanding Ethnographic Texts (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992).

·         Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. By M. Jolas (New York: Orion, 1964).

·         Howard Becker, "Freshmen English for Graduate Students." In Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 1-25.

·         Ann Robinson, "Thinking Straight and Writing That Way." In Writing Empirical Research Reports. A Basic Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, ed. by F. Pryczak and R. Bruce (Los Angeles: Pryczak Publishing, 1998), pp. 99-104.

Other good ethnographies

·         Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996).

·         Ruth Behar, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).

·         Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

·         Elizabeth Dunn, The Fruits of Change: Privatization, Personhood, and the Transformation of Work in Postsocialist .

·         Steven Feierman, Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).

·         Robert Hefner, The Political Economy of Mountain Java (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

·         Michael Herzfeld, in History: Social and Monumental Time in a (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).

·         Michael Jackson, Paths Toward a Clearing (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1989).

·         Adriana Petryna, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after (Princeton: Press, 2002).

·         Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).

·         John Western, A Passage to : Barbadian Londoners Speak (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

·         Paul Willis, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (Farnborough: Saxon House, 1977).

·         Edwin Wilmson, Land Filled with Flies; a Political Economy of the Kalahari. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

·         Margery Wolf, Women and the Family in Rural (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972).

Assignment / Exercise:

·         Write a critique of Mueggler’s The Age of Wild Ghosts – Due 4/12

4/12Discussion of on-going work / projects

4/19Writing and reading ethnographic texts – At Home in the World


·         Goodall, Chapter 6

·         Michael Jackson, At Home in the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995)

Optional / Additional resources:

·         John Berger And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (New York: Pantheon, 1984).

·         Melissa Gilbert, “The politics of location: doing feminist research at ‘home’” – Professional Geographer 46:1 (1994), pp. 90-96.

·         David Morley and Kevin Robins, “No place like heimat: images of home(land).” In Space and Place. Theories of Identity and Location, eds. E. Carter, J. Donald, and J. Squires (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1993), pp. 3-31.

·         Elspeth Probyn, Outside Belongings (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).

·         Soile Veijola, “Heimat tourism in the countryside: paradoxical sojourns to self and place.” In Travels in Paradox: Remapping Tourism, eds. C. Minca and T. Oakes (: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).

Assignment / Exercise:

·         Write a critique of Jackson, At Home in the World – Due 4/26

4/26Final discussion / presentation of projects

How to Begin

Field reports are most often assigned in disciplines of the applied social sciences [e.g., social work, anthropology, gerontology, criminal justice, education, law, the health care professions] where it is important to build a bridge of relevancy between the theoretical concepts learned in the classroom and the practice of actually doing the work you are being taught to do. Field reports are also common in certain science disciplines [e.g., geology] but these reports are organized differently and serve a different purpose than what is described below.

Professors will assign a field report with the intention of improving your understanding of key theoretical concepts through a method of careful and structured observation of, and reflection about, people, places, or things existing in their natural settings. Field reports facilitate the development of data collection techniques and observation skills and they help you to understand how theory applies to real world situations. Field reports are also an opportunity to obtain evidence through methods of observing professional practice that contribute to or challenge existing theories.

We are all observers of people, their interactions, places, and events; however, your responsibility when writing a field report is to create a research study based on data generated by the act of designing a specific study, deliberate observation, a synthesis of key findings, and an interpretation of their meaning. When writing a field report you need to:

  • Systematically observe and accurately record the varying aspects of a situation. Always approach your field study with a detailed plan about what you will observe, where you should conduct your observations, and the method by which you will collect and record your data.
  • Continuously analyze your observations. Always look for the meaning underlying the actions you observe. Ask yourself: What's going on here? What does this observed activity mean? What else does this relate to? Note that this is an on-going process of reflection and analysis taking place for the duration of your field research.
  • Keep the report’s aims in mind while you are observing. Recording what you observe should not be done randomly or haphazardly; you must be focused and pay attention to details. Enter the observation site [i.e., "field"] with a clear plan about what you are intending to observe and record while, at the same time, being prepared to adapt to changing circumstances as they may arise.
  • Consciously observe, record, and analyze what you hear and see in the context of a theoretical framework. This is what separates data gatherings from simple reporting. The theoretical framework guiding your field research should determine what, when, and how you observe and act as the foundation from which you interpret your findings.

Techniques to Record Your Observations

Although there is no limit to the type of data gathering technique you can use, these are the most frequently used methods:

Note Taking
This is the most commonly used and easiest method of recording your observations. Tips for taking notes include: organizing some shorthand symbols beforehand so that recording basic or repeated actions does not impede your ability to observe, using many small paragraphs, which reflect changes in activities, who is talking, etc., and, leaving space on the page so you can write down additional thoughts and ideas about what’s being observed, any theoretical insights, and notes to yourself that are set aside for further investigation. See drop-down tab for additional information about note-taking.

With the advent of smart phones, high quality photographs can be taken of the objects, events, and people observed during a field study. Photographs can help capture an important moment in time as well as document details about the space where your observation takes place. Taking a photograph can save you time in documenting the details of a space that would otherwise require extensive note taking. However, be aware that flash photography could undermine your ability to observe unobtrusively so assess the lighting in your observation space; if it's too dark, you may need to rely on taking notes. Also, you should reject the idea that photographs are some sort of "window into the world" because this assumption creates the risk of over-interpreting what they show. As with any product of data gathering, you are the sole instrument of interpretation and meaning-making, not the object itself.

Video and Audio Recordings
Video or audio recording your observations has the positive effect of giving you an unfiltered record of the observation event. It also facilitates repeated analysis of your observations. This can be particularly helpful as you gather additional information or insights during your research. However, these techniques have the negative effect of increasing how intrusive you are as an observer and will often not be practical or even allowed under certain circumstances [e.g., interaction between a doctor and a patient] and in certain organizational settings [e.g., a courtroom].

This does not refer to an artistic endeavor but, rather, refers to the possible need, for example, to draw a map of the observation setting or illustrating objects in relation to people's behavior. This can also take the form of rough tables or graphs documenting the frequency and type of activities observed. These can be subsequently placed in a more readable format when you write your field report. To save time, draft a table [i.e., columns and rows] on a separate piece of paper before an observation if you know you will be entering data in that way.

NOTE:  You may consider using a laptop or other electronic device to record your notes as you observe, but keep in mind the possibility that the clicking of keys while you type or noises from your device can be obtrusive, whereas writing your notes on paper is relatively quiet and unobtrusive. Always assess your presence in the setting where you're gathering the data so as to minimize your impact on the subject or phenomenon being studied.

ANOTHER NOTE:  Techniques of observation and data gathering are not innate skills; they are skills that must be learned and practiced in order to achieve proficiency. Before your first observation, practice the technique you plan to use in a setting similar to your study site [e.g., take notes about how people choose to enter checkout lines at a grocery store if your research involves examining the choice patterns of unrelated people forced to queue in busy social settings]. When the act of data gathering counts, you'll be glad you practiced beforehand.

Examples of Things to Document While Observing

  • Physical setting. The characteristics of an occupied space and the human use of the place where the observation(s) are being conducted.
  • Objects and material culture. This refers to the presence, placement, and arrangement of objects that impact the behavior or actions of those being observed. If applicable, describe the cultural artifacts representing the beliefs--values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions--used by the individuals you are observing.
  • Use of language. Don't just observe but listen to what is being said, how is it being said, and, the tone of conversation among participants.
  • Behavior cycles. This refers to documenting when and who performs what behavior or task and how often they occur. Record at which stage is this behavior occurring within the setting.
  • The order in which events unfold. Note sequential patterns of behavior or the moment when actions or events take place and their significance.
  • Physical characteristics of subjects. If relevant, note age, gender, clothing, etc. of individuals being observed.
  • Expressive body movements. This would include things like body posture or facial expressions. Note that it may be relevant to also assess whether expressive body movements support or contradict the language used in conversation [e.g., detecting sarcasm].

Brief notes about all of these examples contextualize your observations; however, your observation notes will be guided primarily by your theoretical framework, keeping in mind that your observations will feed into and potentially modify or alter these frameworks.

Sampling Techniques

Sampling refers to the process used to select a portion of the population for study. Qualitative research, of which observation is one method, is generally based on non-probability and purposive sampling rather than probability or random approaches characteristic of quantitatively-driven studies. Sampling in observational research is flexible and often continues until no new themes emerge from the data, a point referred to as data saturation.

All sampling decisions are made for the explicit purpose of obtaining the richest possible source of information to answer the research questions. Decisions about sampling assumes you know what you want to observe, what behaviors are important to record, and what research problem you are addressing before you begin the study. These questions determine what sampling technique you should use, so be sure you have adequately answered them before selecting a sampling method.

Ways to sample when conducting an observation include:

Ad Libitum Sampling -- this approach is not that different from what people do at the zoo--observing whatever seems interesting at the moment. There is no organized system of recording the observations; you just note whatever seems relevant at the time. The advantage of this method is that you are often able to observe relatively rare or unusual behaviors that might be missed by more deliberate sampling methods. This method is also useful for obtaining preliminary observations that can be used to develop your final field study. Problems using this method include the possibility of inherent bias toward conspicuous behaviors or individuals and that you may miss brief interactions in social settings.

Behavior Sampling -- this involves watching the entire group of subjects and recording each occurrence of a specific behavior of interest and with reference to which individuals were involved. The method is useful in recording rare behaviors missed by other sampling methods and is often used in conjunction with focal or scan methods. However, sampling can be biased towards particular conspicuous behaviors.

Continuous Recording -- provides a faithful record of behavior including frequencies, durations, and latencies [the time that elapses between a stimulus and the response to it]. This is a very demanding method because you are trying to record everything within the setting and, thus, measuring reliability may be sacrificed. In addition, durations and latencies are only reliable if subjects remain present throughout the collection of data. However, this method facilitates analyzing sequences of behaviors and ensures obtaining a wealth of data about the observation site and the people within it. The use of audio or video recording is most useful with this type of sampling.

Focal Sampling -- this involves observing one individual for a specified amount of time and recording all instances of that individual's behavior. Usually you have a set of predetermined categories or types of behaviors that you are interested in observing [e.g., when a teacher walks around the classroom] and you keep track of the duration of those behaviors. This approach doesn't tend to bias one behavior over another and provides significant detail about a individual's behavior. However, with this method, you likely have to conduct a lot of focal samples before you have a good idea about how group members interact. It can also be difficult within certain settings to keep one individual in sight for the entire period of the observation.

Instantaneous Sampling -- this is where observation sessions are divided into short intervals divided by sample points. At each sample point the observer records if predetermined behaviors of interest are taking place. This method is not effective for recording discrete events of short duration and, frequently, observers will want to record novel behaviors that occur slightly before or after the point of sampling, creating a sampling error. Though not exact, this method does give you an idea of durations and is relatively easy to do. It is also good for recording behavior patterns occurring at a specific instant, such as, movement or body positions.

One-Zero Sampling -- this is very similar to instantaneous sampling, only the observer records if the behaviors of interest have occurred at any time during an interval instead of at the instant of the sampling point. The method is useful for capturing data on behavior patterns that start and stop repeatedly and rapidly, but that last only for a brief period of time. The disadvantage of this approach is that you get a dimensionless score for an entire recording session, so you only get one one data point for each recording session.

Scan Sampling -- this method involves taking a census of the entire observed group at predetermined time periods and recording what each individual is doing at that moment. This is useful for obtaining group behavioral data and allows for data that are evenly representative across individuals and periods of time. On the other hand, this method may be biased towards more conspicuous behaviors and you may miss a lot of what is going on between observations, especially rare or unusual behaviors. It is also difficult to record more than a few individuals in a group setting without missing what each individual is doing at each predetermined moment in time [e.g., children sitting at a table during lunch at school].

Alderks, Peter. Data Collection. Psychology 330 Course Documents. Animal Behavior Lab. University of Washington; Emerson, Robert M. Contemporary Field Research: Perspectives and Formulations. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2001; Emerson, Robert M. et al. “Participant Observation and Fieldnotes.” In Handbook of Ethnography. Paul Atkinson et al., eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001), 352-368; Emerson, Robert M. et al. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Ethnography, Observational Research, and Narrative Inquiry. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Hazel, Spencer. "The Paradox from Within: Research Participants Doing-Being-Observed." Qualitative Research 16 (August 2016): 446-457; Pace, Tonio. Writing Field Reports. Scribd Online Library; Presser, Jon and Dona Schwartz. “Photographs within the Sociological Research Process.” In Image-based Research: A Sourcebook for Qualitative Researchers. Jon Prosser, editor (London: Falmer Press, 1998), pp. 115-130; Pyrczak, Fred and Randall R. Bruce. Writing Empirical Research Reports: A Basic Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. 5th ed. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing, 2005; Report Writing. UniLearning. University of Wollongong, Australia; Wolfinger, Nicholas H. "On Writing Fieldnotes: Collection Strategies and Background Expectancies.” Qualitative Research 2 (April 2002): 85-95; Writing Reports. Anonymous. The Higher Education Academy.

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