Conducting an observation – workshop task


Love Coffee by Ahmed Rabea
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For our next PhD workshop we have several tasks to complete – most are based on readings but some are exploring methods. One of the tasks requires us to carry out an observation in a public space, and the focus of the observation is: what are the social/cultural rules of this space and how do different individuals perform them?

My first thought was to observe children in a school playground. The number of bodies, variety of activities and energy levels would allow for plenty of material. As a final year student in Edinburgh I lived in a flat perched high above the Grassmarket on Johnstone Terrace, which had a spectacular view  extending across the city to the Meadows and beyond. Heriots’ school was part of this vista and I’d  often looked out on the children who exploded out of the building at breaktimes, then spent a frenetic 10 minutes buzzing around in a confined space like flies in a jar, or particles colliding, then disappeared again.

This would be interesting observational material, I could do it at our local school which I know, it’s convenient; I knew where I could sit and could get the job done. However, ethical issues  began to unsettle me – I was sure the school would give me permission but what about the children I was observing? PVG is an obvious first hurdle to clear, but could I assume their consent in the task? And if they did consent would they be collaborators  in the task with me or would I sit outside of their group, objectively recording their behaviours? Reading Angrosino and Rosenberg (2011) I realised that I’d need to take much more consideration of my own role and my situation in this context. Although this is a practice task for us, and a far cry from ethnographic observation, we still need to understand the ontological ideas behind it  and as such, objective observation carried out by  a detached, silent observer ignores too many of the problems around perspective, context and bias for the exercise to have value. This is expressed neatly by the authors above:  “Social scientific powers  of observation must…be turned on ourselves and the ways in which our experiences interface with those of others in the same context if we are to come to a full understanding of sociocultural processes” (Angrosino and Rosenberg; p 470, 2011).

So I turn to plan B – a coffee shop in my local town, Many people make sociocultural observations in coffee shops but not so many for the purposes of PhD research, I imagine. This may make the exercise a little less obtrusive than it might be elsewhere. I can sit making notes and participate in some of the norms of the place without looking unusual. But the ethical issues still remain unresolved. This is an open public space where it’s difficult to predict who might walk in and therefore unknowingly take part in this exercise. Do I ask for permission to put up a big sign saying observation being conducted here today? Or for those who enter the space can I assume their consented participation, even though they will not be named or identified? If I don’t does this devalue the exercise? If I do, and some refuse, as they would be entitled to do, do I still have enough to work on and will I be able to work around the non-participants? Would declaring my task change any of the dynamics or interactions in the space? And lastly, am I clear enough about the implications of my own experience as the observer as noted by Angrosino and Rosenberg above to be able to engage authentically in the task?

It looked so simple on the list we were given. I should have known – complexity seems to underlie everything in PhD research. Observation notes to follow.

ANGROSINO, M. and ROSENBERG, J., 2011. Observations on Observation: Continuities and Challenges. In: N.K. DENZIN and Y.S. LINCOLN, eds, The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research. 4 edn. USA: SAGE Publications Inc, pp. 467-478.



Just done the observation. I left it until the summer holidays to do which was not a good idea – should have done it sooner. This meant I had to take the children along with me and they had lunch while I observed. It also meant that the place I was conducting the observation was quieter than normal, possibly because most of the clientele are either working or local parents who use the place more often when their children are at school. If the age profile of the clientele today is compared with the more typical age profile during term-time this would appear to be the case, however there was enough for me to be able to observe some social and cultural behaviours. I observed for 25 minutes and stopped then because it really was getting quiet. I was the only person doing anything other than eating, drinking and talking in the place (other than the staff) but no-one asked me what I was doing or why. I had intended to make general observations for the first 15 mins then make observations on up to 3 individuals for the second half, but there wasn’t enough going on for me to do this. So I just made general observations. Here they are:  Observation frame


About catrionao

I'm a PhD student at Stirling University, studying a school based practice of teacher professional learning. I also do online facilitation for various organisations such as SELMAS and the Strategic Leadership Development Programme.
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