Workshop and discussion exercises

Practice with these exercises to prepare for your seminars and wider research.

1. This is a field-based exercise in ethnographic methods using observation techniques:
(a) Choose a social setting where you can act as an observer more than a participant. Examples of suitable settings are: council meetings; student union meetings; libraries; interaction between people providing a service (shop workers, doctors’ receptionists and so on) and clients; pubs; launderettes; public transport; waiting rooms.
(b) Record what you see and hear as fully and as neutrally as possible, that is, without making inferences about why people are doing whatever they are doing. Note the sequence of events, the frequency, any patterns you can discern as well as groupings and non-verbal behaviour. Briefly describe the physical setting of the room. You may find it necessary to concentrate on a particular group or person.
(c) Write on-the-spot observations on the left page of a notebook; on the right (opposite) page, write down your own thoughts about what is going on, so that you separate your observation from your interpretation. Write down any difficulties you experience and note any instances of when your observing seems to be affecting the scene you are observing. If you are doing this with a partner, you may find it interesting to compare notes, looking for any similarities and differences in what you recorded.
(d) Then try to interpret what you have seen. You should be concerned with trying to explain what you have been observing and hearing, and to a degree participating in. Your interpretation should try to understand what has been going on from the perspective of those you have been observing.
(e) Consider whether there are any aspects or themes that seem worth exploring further. Discuss what you have learned about the problems and possibilities of participant observation as a method of data collection.

Some advice: People beginning this sort of research often have difficulty in seeing the unusual in situations that initially seem pretty routine. To avoid producing a purely descriptive account of ‘what happened’, try observing two contrasting examples of the setting (e.g. compare an academic library with a public one; compare queuing at a bus stop with queuing in a takeaway restaurant). This can often help you see the underlying rules of interaction that are being used by participants. If you are observing a social situation that is strange to you, see if you can find a person to ‘guide’ you through it; such an informal sponsor can help by explaining the underlying rules of the situation, as well as showing you how to pass successfully as a member.

2. Find the extract from the field notes of a practising ethnographer, Daniel Miller, who did fieldwork in Trinidad in 1988 (1994, 1995), (which can be found in the Data and Resources section ). These sections of the notes contain records of conversations, observations and other techniques relevant to how Trinidadians liked to view and talk about a US-made soap opera, The Young and the Restless, which in Miller’s words concentrated ‘on the domestic life and turmoil of wealthy families in a generalized American city’ (1994: 247–8). In his final research report Miller argues that Trinidadians use their viewing of this programme to express a spirit which they call ‘bacchanal’, which ‘can refer to

[a] general level of excitement and disorder, [but also involves] the emergence into light of things which normally inhabit the dark … directed against the pretensions of various establishment forms, revealing their hollow or false nature (1994: 246–247).

Examine these field notes and answer the following questions:
(a) Which of them describe people’s actions, and which their words?
(b) What details of the context of actions and words are given? Are there any notes that suggest what Miller was doing? For example, is there any evidence of his having questioned people?
(c) Is any counting involved? Where do the numbers appear to come from, and what do they tell us?
(d) Are there any analytic memos, in which Miller reflects on what the observations mean to him?
(e) How objective and representative do these observations appear to be?
(f) How could notes like this be improved?

3. You have been asked to conduct research entitled ‘Everyday life on a university campus: An ethnographic observation’. Spend 15–20 minutes somewhere on the campus (e.g. areas around Halls of Residence, main walkway, library area, bus queue). Observe the people around you (do not speak to them unless they ask what you’re doing). Take notes so that you are prepared to report on what you have observed.

Are people alone or in groups (e.g. what size groups)?
(a) What do you notice about the groups you see (e.g. ethnicity, gender, clothing, what they’re carrying, what direction they’re heading in)?
(b) What are people who are alone doing?
(c) Are people dressed similarly or are there distinct contrasts in fashion?
(d) In what ways do people interact (formally, informally, a mixture?)
(e) What sort of activities does the physical layout of the setting encourage, discourage or is neutral towards?
(f) In what ways are people defining themselves / constructing their social identities or roles (e.g. as students and teachers, as men and women, as older people and younger people, as people with particular characters/personalities/tastes/preferences)?

4. Choose one of the 5 activities below. One of you should do the activity while the other(s) observes unobtrusively and takes notes about what happens.
(a) Outside, or in university buildings (i.e. not the bank, shops, gym, or food outlets), ask random passers-by for their autograph, pretending that they are someone famous.
(b) Outside, or in university buildings (i.e. not the bank, shops, gym, or food outlets), ask for directions to something you are standing in front of, and then insist the person slows down while you take notes.
(c) In the library, on the ground floor or first floor (not in the silent study areas!), treat random customers as if they were employees.
(d) In the middle of the MJ centre, or in the middle of the footpath, or in the middle of the Bannerman foyer, sit down on the floor and start reading a book. If someone asks you to move, do so.
(e) Engage an acquaintance or a friend in an ordinary conversation and, without indicating that you are carrying out an experiment, insist that the person clarifies the sense of his/her commonplace remarks (see Garfinkel’s article, particularly page 230, for examples).

Garfinkel, H. (1964) ‘Studies of the routine grounds of everyday activities’, Social Problems, 11 (3): 225–250. 

5. An exercise in writing a field note:
(a) Consider the setting you have been in for the past half-hour.
(b) Make a sketch map of the site. What sort of activities does the physical lay-out encourage, discourage or is neutral towards?
(c) How have people communicated with one another or avoided communication? Do they look at one another or avoid it? What distance do they keep between one another?
(d) In what ways are people defining themselves (e.g. as students and teachers, as men and women, as older people and younger people, as people with particular characters / personalities / tastes / preferences)?
(e) How have people engaged in activities not formally intended in a teaching setting?