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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Aspects
3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.1 Positivism and observation
3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation Observation for theory generation: emergent theory Observation for theory development: a naturalistic perspective Observation as a basis for identifying subjects' meanings Observation as a basis for empathetic interpretation Symbolic interactionism and observation Phenomenological ethnography Observation as the basis for deconstructing everyday life Observation as a process of establishing identity Observation as a means of discovering how communities operate

3.3.3 Critical social research and observation

3.4 Access
3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary


3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation Observation as the basis for deconstructing everyday life
A rather more radical approach to subject's meanings seeks to try and gain insights into subject's meaning that helps reveal how people make sense of interaction with others.

Top Symbolic interactionism and observation
One approach to this can be found in Herbert Blumers' (1969) symbolic interactionist approach. Blumer sees interaction as based on symbolic exchange, that is how people perceive the situation they are in at any given moment. As was noted in Section, Blumer argued that action is based on meanings, which derive from interaction and are modified through a process of interpreting those meanings.

This view of symbolic interaction sees people in a constant process of interpretation and definition as they move from one situation to another. A situation has meaning only through people's interpretations and definitions of it. Their actions, in turn, stem from this meaning. It is the process of interpretation that turns an intention into an action. People define situations in different ways and act accordingly. It is possible, through communication, for a shared perspective to emerge.

The role of observation/ethnography is to reveal this process and to show how shared interpretations of the world develop. Goffman (1955) for example, undertook various studies and showed, among other things, that people, in interacting, make considerable efforts avoid embarrassing situations (see Section In 'On face-work', Goffman (1963) explains how people negotiate face in everyday social interaction. Face is the image that people project of themselves that is compatible with 'approved social attributes'. People act in a way to maintain face because they have an emotional attachment to the face they project. Disruptions of this, or losing face, result in a loss of the internal emotional support that protects people in a social situation. Saving face requires people to be socially perceptive. Furthermore, face saving is a two-way process involving the audience as well as the individual. There are social protocols for helping someone maintain and save face, most notably avoidance mechanisms, overcompensating and apology.

Goffman undertook observational studies in various field settings. For his doctoral study published as The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (Goffman, 1956) he undertook fieldwork in the Shetland Isles (Scotland). He was reputed to be an astute observer with 'a voyeur's interest in the intimate details of other's lives, and a strong eye for the ironic and poignant' (Marx, G., 1984, p. 653). Working from his symbolic interactionist perspective, he looked closely at individual identity, group relations and the meaning of information and environment. The close observation led him:

to develop a framework for seeing social life as a kind of drama. Just like people on a stage, people in everyday life could be seen as actors playing out roles and giving impressions to others that enabled the others to make sense of what is going on' (Macionis and Plummer, 1997, p. 162).

The 'dramaturgical' approach allowed him to show how human beings manipulate or 'stage manage' their interaction with each other.

Goffman also undertook a year's field research in St Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, DC. Goffman did not want people, staff or inmates, to know that he was observing them. The result was his study Asylums (Goffman, 1961) and the birth of the concept 'total institution', to represent places such as prisons and mental hospitals, which Goffman defined as: 'a place of residence and work where large numbers of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society, for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed , formally administered round of life'.

Goffman was not conventional in his approach or analysis but 'Despite an unusual, anecdotal methodology, Goffman's work displays an uncommon analytical rigor in dealing with a comparatively unexplored area of social thought' (Barnhart, undated).

Top Phenomenological ethnography
An alternative take on the empathetic interpretation squarely emphasises the need for empathy with the subjects:

The phenomenologist views human behavior—what people say and do—as a product of how people interpret the world. The task of the to capture this process of interpretation. To do this requires what Weber called Verstehen, empathetic understanding or an ability to reproduce in one's own mind the feelings, motives, and thoughts behind the actions of others. To grasp the meanings of a person's behavior, the phenomenologist attempts to see things from that person's point of view. (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975, pp. 13–14)

This is sometimes called 'phenomenological ethnography' and it not only attempts detailed descriptions of social processes but also aims to get insights into what people think they are doing and why they are doing it. The researcher is required to become acquainted with the meanings that actions have for the members of the group.

In one way or another, the researcher is expected to access 'members' own self-accounting', that is, the way that members of a group make sense of events. This process of accessing members meanings may be by coexisting with the group, that is, participating in one way or another and gradually assimilating their perspective, or it might be 'short-circuited' to some extent, by asking questions (see Section 4).

Bruyn's (1966) development of a phenomenological approach to participant observation focused on exploring intersubjective understanding. Bruyn emphasised intersubjective understanding and empathy. For him, the role of the participant observer is to seek out the meaning of the experiences of the group being studied from each persons' different perspective. This implies that there is no one interpretation but an array of different meanings.

Bruyn outlined four elements in this approach:

1. Awareness of time: record the temporal phases of research according to the sequence of experience of the observer in relation to the milieu (for example, newcomer, provisional member, categorical member, personalised rapport, and imminent migrant, that is, as the researcher is about to leave the community).

2. Awareness of the physical environment: record the relations of people to their physical environment as they perceive it, not as the researcher conceptualises or even experiences it.

3. Awareness of contrasting experiences: record the experiences of people under contrasting social circumstances; meanings cannot be assessed under one set of circumstances because they are relative to the setting.

4. Awareness of social openings and barriers: record the changes in meaning as the participant observer is admitted into narrower social regions, transitioning from stranger to member to insider. Determining vocabulary concepts is a major focus of participant observation, seeking to illuminate the intersubjective meanings of critical terms.


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