Observational research is “successful” to the extent that it satisfies the research objectives by capturing relevant events and participants along with the constructs of interest. Fortunately, there are two tools – the observation guide and the observation grid – that serve to keep the observer on track towards these objectives and generally facilitate the ethnographic data gathering process.
Not unlike the outlines interviewers and moderators use to help steer the course of their in-depth interviews and group discussions, the observation guide serves two important purposes: 1) It reminds the observer of the key points of observation as well as the topics of interest associated with each, and 2) It acts as the impetus for a reflexive exercise in which the observer can reflect on his/her own relationship and contribution to the observed at any moment in time (e.g., how the observer was affected by the observations). An observation guide is an important tool regardless of the observer’s role. For each of the five observer roles* – nonparticipant (off-site or on-site) and participant (passive, participant-observer, or complete) observation – the observation guide helps to maintain the observer’s focus while also giving the observer leeway to reflect on the particular context associated with each site.
As an adjunct to the observation guide, it is recommended that ethnographic researchers also utilize an observation grid. The grid is similar to the guide in that it helps remind the observer of the events and issues of most import; however, unlike the guide, the observation grid is a spreadsheet or log of sorts that enables the observer to actually record (and record his/her own reflections of) observable events in relationship to the constructs of interest. The grid might show, for instance, the relevant constructs or research issues as column headings and the specific foci of observation as rows. In an observational study of train travel, for example, the three key research issues related to activity at the train station might be: waiting for departures, delays in departures, and boarding; and the key areas of observation would pertain to behavior, conversations heard, and contextual information such as the weather and the general mood. Like the guide, the observation grid not only ensures that the principal issues and components are captured but also encourages the observer to reflect on each aspect of his/her observations and identify the particular ways the observer is influencing (or is being influenced by) the recorded observations.
Transparency plays a pivotal role in the final product of any research study. It is by revealing the study’s intricacies and details in the final document that the ultimate consumers of the research gain the understanding they need to (a) fully comprehend the people, phenomena, and context under investigation; (b) assign value to the interpretations and recommendations; and/or (c) transfer some aspect of the study to other contexts. Transparency, and its importance to the research process, has been discussed often in this blog, with articles in November 2009 and December 2012 devoted to the topic.
At the core of transparency is the notion of “thick description.” The use of the term here goes beyond its traditional meaning of
“describing and interpreting observed social action (or behavior) within its particular context…[along with] the thoughts and feelings of participants as well as the often complex web of relationships among them. Thick meaning of findings leads readers to a sense of verisimilitude, wherein they can cognitively and emotively ‘place’ themselves within the research context” (Ponterotto, 2006, p. 543).
to also include detailed information pertaining to data collection and analysis. Ethnography, for example, is greatly enriched (“thickened”) by the reporting of specifics in 25 areas related to the: Read Full Text
With a lot of discussion about new methods of observation among qualitative researchers – in-the-moment mobile research and the like – it is terrific to witness an increasing appreciation of broader contexts. This perspective embraces the idea that individual behavior and thought are not so easily and singularly confined to any one moment in time. One could argue that it is because of this new-found obsession with observation that many researchers have come to discover – as if for the first time – the essential role that context plays in our qualitative studies. In this way, observational research – a method often bypassed for focus groups and other qualitative methods in the past – has led the research community into what is becoming a growing and healthy dialogue concerning the contextual nature of being human. Here are just four contributors to the dialogue that have recently come my attention: