The Importance of Analytical Sensibilities to Observation in Ethnography

Ethnography is a multi-method approach in qualitative research with observation at its core.  Prolonged onsite observations in the participants’ natural material world are what make ethnography a unique and important research approach.  Needless to say, the ASobserver plays a central role in the success of an ethnographic study and there are few more important skills for the observer than those associated with the concept of analytical sensibility.  It is the observer’s skills in sensibilities that can compensate for weaknesses in other aspects of the study design, such as the unavoidable pairing of an older male observer with a group of school-age girls.  The observer’s analytical sensibilities include the capacity to be aware of and to reflect on his or her surroundings, the actions of the participants, and how the observer may be influencing the outcomes from the observation.  This sensibility is analytical in nature because the focus is on the observer’s ability to apply analytical skills while in the field that deepen the researcher’s understanding of the culture and events from the participants’ point of view.

The facet of sensibility that is imperative among all ethnographic observers is, what Stacey and Eckert called, “dual perspective” or the ability to derive meaning from participants’  activities (as well as the study environment) by internalizing the viewpoint of the research participants while maintaining an “outsider’s” objectivity.  In this way, the observer is mentally placing him or herself among the participants while at the same time looking out to the connections that give meaning to the group.  A dual perspective demands that observers have the ability to actually put themselves into the “shoes” of unfamiliar cultures and social groups, sensing and recording events from the participants’ vantage point while also reflecting on its meaning as well as the observer’s own values and possible biases.  This ability distinguishes the untrained observer from the ethnographer.

The observer’s job is made particularly difficult because a dual way of thinking is only one of the analytical sensibilities required from an ethnographic observer.  An observer’s sensibility skills also include the ability to:

  • Notice and record participants’ body movements (e.g., posture, gestures, eye contact), language and word choices, seating or standing positions, relative interaction with others, as well as the physical setting (including a map of the physical space and the participants positions within it).
  • Gain participants trust by managing assumptions and expectations (e.g., patients in a drug detox facility might alter their behavior under the assumption that the observer is an undercover agent, or students-in-training may believe that the observer is there to offer expert advice rather than just observe).
  • Focus attention on what is happening now in the study environment rather than trying to anticipate what will happen next.  That is, being in the moment.
  • Reflect back on observations during the field period, construct hypotheses or begin to identify patterns, and investigate nascent theories with participants by way of IDIs and/or activities.
  • Maintain naivety when immersed in the role of a complete participant (e.g., an observer who is an experienced seaman needs to make a conscious effort to consider what he or she knows about the subject matter when studying the daily lives of fishermen, and continually reflect on the degree to which this know-how may be biasing the observer’s ability to conduct the observation from the participants’ point of view).

To simply observe a social group, an individual, an act, or an event (on- or off-line) is not research.  Observation requires the analytical sensibilities of a trained ethnographer who can bring back from the field credible, analyzable, and ultimately useful data that takes the researcher to the next step.


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