Chapter 9: Ethnography

When you are next in a restaurant, make observations about how the staff interact with customers. Using Whyte’s findings as a guide, examine:

  1. Who originates action?
  2. For whom?
  3. How often?
  4. With what consequences?

If you had an audio or video recording of what you heard and saw, how might that have improved the quality of your analysis?

This is a research exercise to improve your observational skills in the public realm. These are your instructions:

  1. Select a setting in which you regularly participate – good examples would be a student cafeteria, a bus or train or a supermarket checkout queue.
  2. Make a sketch map of the site. What sort of activities does the physical layout encourage, discourage or is neutral towards? (Refer to Section 9.2.5 for Stimson’s comparison of the room for medical hearings and McDonald’s.)
  3. How do people use the space you are studying? What do they show they are attending to? How do they communicate with one another or avoid communication? Do they look at one another or avoid it? What distance do they keep between one another?
  4. In what ways are people using the space to co-operate with one another to define themselves (e.g. as a restaurant crowd but not bus passengers)?
  5. Is there any difference between how people organize their activities when they are on their own, in pairs or in a crowd?
  6. How do people use the setting as a resource for engaging in activities not specifically intended (but not necessarily inappropriate) in that setting (e.g. displaying particular personal characteristics such as wanting to communicate or not wanting to communicate)?

Return to your field notes in the two previous Exercises and answer the following questions:

  1. How were your notes organized (did you just write down verbatim what you saw or heard or did you use some organizing principle, e.g. ‘frames’)?
  2. If there was an organizing principle, which one was it? Why did you choose it? And how did it help or hinder you?
  3. If there was no organizing principle, how did you move from description of what you observed to its analysis?
  4. In what ways were your notes dependent on your common-sense knowledge of what was going on?
  5. How can that dependence be treated as a problem but also as a help?

This exercise encourages you to use the ‘alternative’ version of describing family life proposed by Gubrium and Holstein.

Imagine that you wish to do an observational study of the family. Now consider the following questions:

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of obtaining access to the family household?
  2. In what ways may families be studied outside the household setting? What methodology might you use and what questions could you ask?
  3. What might observation tell you about the ‘family’ in each of the following settings:
  • law courts
  • doctor–patient consultations
  • TV soap operas?

(Either do a study of one of these settings or write hypothetically about all three.)

  1. What does it mean to say you are studying the ‘family’ (i.e. within inverted commas)?