Monday, 29 May 2017

Observation in Research, lecture by Alysia Grassi, University of Huddersfield, Wednesday 24th of May.

This will particularly useful lecture aimed at discussing alternative ideas in observation and using 'observation in research' practice.

The objective of all academic research in the creative arts is either qualitative or quantitative. Questions that are asked in this domain are:
  • what is the observation?
  • What type of observations is being performed?
Observation is concerned with what people do and how they interact. Consider it as systematic viewing, which should be done as an iterative process, and never in isolation.

When considering observation for either qualitative or quantitative research, one must be able to describe 'what it is' that is being carried out. The documentation and recording should be targeted together with the analysis, in relation to the research question, - which equally has to be adaptable.

The general difference between participant observation and that of structured observation is that participant observation is qualitative, whereas structured observation is generally quantitative.
Concerning 'participant observation', it is possible to use the Internet to mediate and record. Whereas with structured observation videography may be employed. These kinds of observational methods can be considered as both primary and secondary research, particularly for example when a video can be post-analysed.

The ethnographic technique has been used in anthropology studies for many years. It takes place with the informants responding and being observed, within their own natural habitats. In sociology, it is not only about watching human behaviour, but also through 'talking' to the informants to discover their own interpretations, through the use of direct one-to-one interviews, social media and other activities.

Key elements of observation in research include:
  • living within the context that you are studying, for a long time (and in the case of sociology this can mean an immersion for greater than 18 months)
  • as an observer, one needs to have participation in daily routines with the observed
  • by using everyday conversation is a technique to record responses from those being observed.
  • Recording observations contemporaneously, such as through audio-video recording and field notes.
  • Using the tacit and explicit information in the analysis and the writing. (See DeWalt and DeWalt, 2001, and further discussion on tacit and explicit knowledge, see Michael Polyani).
When planning for observation in research, decide the position that you wish to take as an observer. This could be one of four combinations and can be best articulated through a quadrant diagram as follows;

Other things to consider are:
  • observation is time-consuming!
  • Manage and plan time carefully therefore
  • capture and analysis of data takes patience
  • spending lots of time with the subjects is also critical
  • vary the times of observations, with variants through the day, through different weekdays, weekends, months and seasons.
Reasons for observational research:
  • different types of data can be collected.
  • There is less risk of those being observed "acting."
  • it should be a two-way process, and consideration should be given continually to responses, as it helps a researcher form questions.
  • It provides a wider understanding.
  • Sometimes observational research is the only way.
The method of observation can, however, be subjective. The behaviour of the observer may affect what is being observed.

Proper preparation is essential. 
  • It is essential to document the purpose, the role of the observer, any ethical questions and their appropriateness.
  • Make sure that the recording technology is fully working, with plenty of battery time available and even backup methods to ensure a focused and fruitful period of recording.
  • Make sure that any permissions that are required are properly sought and documented from any stakeholders and gatekeepers.
Try a pilot phase of recording first. The final method can then be adapted.
Once in the field, try to think about the big picture/but small detail.
Consider Spradley's nine dimensional of "How to Observe".
The general routine should be;
observe-think and reflect-observe-think and reflect-observe-think and reflect, and so on.
Consider responses concerning goals, feelings, space, actors, activities, objects, acts, events and time.

Furthermore, consider potential errors and biases. Generally speaking, errors occur through:
  •  lack of understanding [usually through not enough time being devoted to the observation].
  • Overfamiliarity [often occurs through having too much time].
  • Drift. [This is a danger when researchers get bored or change points of view].
Biases occur, again quite often, through a lack of time.
  • Preconceptions are incorrectly drawn upon. 
  • There may be subjective results or even influenced.
All in all, make sure one takes detailed notes about the environment.
  • The size and feel of the location, the room or environment in general. 
  • What objects already reside within it? 
  • What are the potential distractions for both the Observer and the observed? 
  • What is the temperature in which the observations are being carried out? 
  • Are there any unusual or intermittent smells or noises or other ambient disruptions?
And finally, when writing up your responses, there are some interesting lessons to be learned from 20th-century creative writers such as John Debbion and Hunter Thompson amongst others, and sources of reference can include books such as "the Rum Diaries", "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", "The Hells Angels" et cetera.

Basically, all of these observational texts are written in the first person.


I found the lecture particularly engaging, but a little bit disappointed that the timing of this talk was rather late on during the schedule of the overall course, as much of its content may have been useful during our own research in previous modules of the MA study. However, I do appreciate that the lecturer may simply have not been available to provide this input at an earlier opportunity, and so I am grateful that we have been able to gain;

  •  a very solid insight into some practical and field-tested methodology. 
  • Much of Alissia's work and presentation showed me different ways of thinking and conducting physical / "in-vivo" research.
  • It is vital to begin to analyse and measure responses, public opinion and hence value. 
  •  It is essential for me to carry out such research as part of my major project.

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