Observation and ethnography: what to observe?

Before moving on to the proper observation, researcher should have prevously selected the setting (where and when) as well as the actions to be documented (e.g. buying process) and a carefully description of the field, concentrating on aspects relevant to research question. Subsequently, researcher or observers hired for such reason will start the fieldwork, i.e. the observation properly. Now the question is what to observe in the observation process? The dimensions to be observed may vary from more structured to less structured observations. However, according to Spradley, social situations generally may be described along nine dimensions for observational purposes.

1. Space: the physical place or places

2. Actors: the people involved

3. Activity: a set of related acts people do. Who originates actions? How often? With which consequences? For whom?

4. Object: the physical things that are present

5. Act: single actions that people do

6. Event: a set of related activities that people carry out

7. Time: the sequencing that takes place over time

8. Goal: the things people are trying to accomplish

9. Feeling: the emotions felt and expressed (1980, p.78)

On the other hand the more structured observations normally use a so called “off-the-shelf” coding schedule (Lewis, 2008). What is it? It is a number of questions to be tested during the observation time. Lewis et al (2008) provides with very illustrating example. The bellow table shows the items tested by a group or observers in a study that aimed to measure a fastfoodchain service quality:

behaviour

Reference

Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.

Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited

Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. In Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited
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6 essentials of observational studies

The development of observation and ethnography may strongly depend on the variety applied. How far observation is revealed to those who are observed, how far researcher participates or how systematic the collection of data is, gives way to the different varieties to be applied. Regardless such differences that may be looked up in the references, this post aims to highlight the essentials of a good observation.

  1. Case study design. One shop, one office, one street or restaurant; observation is commonly applied in a specific case, always giving more importance to the depth of analysis than to how representative this case is.
  2. Location in place and time of everydaylife (Flick, 2009)
  3. Interpretation and understanding. Although the information might be systematically collected by a “off-the-shelf” coding schedule (Lewis et al), usually called structured observation, the truth is that it is commonly applied as a method to interpretate rather than quantifying pleople behaviour.
  4. Besides the competencies of speaking and listening used in interviews, observing is another everyday skill that is relevant for qualitative studies. Almost all sense; seeing, hearing, feeling and smelling are required for a good observation.
  5. Interest in human meaning and interaction. In social sciences we cannot hope to adequately explain the behaviour of social actors unless we at least try to understand their meanings (Delbridge and Kickpatrick) Remember the meaning of DC Metro for passer-by during rush hour on the Washington post´s violinist experiment.
  6. Flexible, oportunistic and open ended inquiries (Flick, 2009) are an essential part of observation, except for the varieties that don´t require the researcher participant where there is no interaction with actors and consequently no question is formulated (non-participant observation)

References

Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited

Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.

How to use observation method

This post aims to explain how to use observation or related methods such as ethnography in social research. Hence the post is divided in three sections. First one aims to answer what does this method mean and come from, second one, what does it make observation different from other methods as in-depth interview or focus group and last but not least what a researcher is supposed to observe in such studies.

1. What is the observation method and what does it come from?

Whenever your research question deals with people behavior an obvious form to understand it is just watch how they behave. This is essentially what observation and ethnography are all about, a systematically observation of people behavior.  Although there are differences between them (Atkinson and Hammersley, 1998) both observation and ethnography will be treated as equivalent techniques in this and following posts.

It is important to add that both are originally rooted into social science. It was a polish anthropologist, Bronisław Malinowski, who first applied it, at the beginning of XX century, what is considered the oldest qualitative method. By mean this method; he conducted several fieldworks in order to analyze patterns of exchange in aboriginal communities, mainly in Africa and Australia. It was also Chicago School of social research that first encouraged its students to study by observation the constantly changing social phenomena of Chicago in the 1920´s and 1930´s.280px-Bronisław_Malinowski_among_Trobriand_tribe_3

Its importance has considerably grown over the last decades as a way to understand buying process. Observing customers both in naturally occurring actions like in a shop, bar or at home is now a common method in market research industry. On the other hand, with the advent of Internet, such techniques as online ethnography (Martinez and Rodríguez, 2008) or nethnography (Kozinets, 2002), among other; are already an essential part of today’s market research. On top of that, emergence of new social media such as twitter or Facebook give way to a new way to understand purchase and consumption decision. Besides pursuing conventional advertising, consumers are using Facebook groups, blogs, chat rooms, email, twitters to share ideas, build community and contact fellow consumers who are seem as more objective information source. Actually, several studies have confirmed that in the “buyer´s decision journey”, traditional marketing communications just aren´t relevant, or such as an article in Harvard Business journal has recently suggested, “Marketing is dead” (2012) Although this assertion may be seen as controversial, the truth is that every researcher shouldn´t nowadays underestimate the importance of new social media to gather market information. Such as the sociologist Manuel Castells sustained, we don´t live in a virtual reality but in a real virtually. Finally, despite the distance in time between first studies on aboriginal communities and current online studies, as well as between the different varieties that have emerged throughout the time, the essence is still the same, understanding human existence by mean observing people.

2. What makes observation method different

The development of observation and ethnography may strongly depend on the variety applied. How far observation is revealed to those who are observed, how far researcher participates or how systematic the collection of data is, gives way to the different varieties to be applied. Regardless such differences that may be looked up in the references, this post aims to highlight the essentials of a good observation.

  1. Case study design. One shop, one office, one street or restaurant; observation is commonly applied in a specific case, always giving more importance to the depth of analysis than to how representative this case is.
  2. Location in place and time of everyday life (Flick, 2009)
  3. Interpretation and understanding. Although the information might be systematically collected by a “off-the-shelf” coding schedule (Lewis et al, 2009), usually called structured observation, the truth is that it is commonly applied as a method to interpret rather than quantifying people behavior.
  4. Besides the competencies of speaking and listening used in interviews, observing is another everyday skill that is relevant for qualitative studies. Almost all sense; seeing, hearing, feeling and smelling are required for a good observation.
  5. Interest in human meaning and interaction. In social sciences we cannot hope to adequately explain the behavior of social actors unless we at least try to understand their meanings. Remember the meaning of DC Metro for passer-by during rush hour on the Washington post´s violinist experiment.
  6. Flexible, opportunistic and open ended inquiries (Flick, 2009) are an essential part of observation, except for the varieties that don´t require the researcher participant where there is no interaction with actors and consequently no question is formulated (non-participant observation)

3. What to observe

Before moving on to the proper observation, researcher should have previously selected the setting (where and when) as well as the actions to be documented (e.g. buying process) and a carefully description of the field, concentrating on aspects relevant to research question. Subsequently, researcher or observers hired for such reason will start the fieldwork, i.e. the observation properly. Now the question is what to observe in the observation process? The dimensions to be observed may vary from more structured to less structured observations. However, according to Spradley, social situations generally may be described along nine dimensions for observational purposes.

1. Space: the physical place or places.

2. Actors: the people involved.

3. Activity: a set of related acts people do. Who originates actions? How often? Which consequences with? For whom such consequences are?.

4. Object: the physical things that are present.

5. Act: single actions that people do.

6. Event: a set of related activities that people carry out.

7. Time: the sequencing that takes place over time.

8. Goal: the things people are trying to accomplish.

9. Feeling: the emotions felt and expressed.

On the other hand the more structured observations normally use a so called “off-the-shelf” coding schedule (Lewis et al, 2009). What is it? It is a number of questions to be tested during the observation time. For instances, the bellow table shows the items tested by a group or observers in a study that aimed to measure a fastfoodchain service quality:

behaviour

Reference list

Atkinson, P., & Hammersley, M. (1994). Ethnography and participant observation. Handbook of qualitative research, 1, 248-261. In Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited

Castells, Manuel (2012) Interview on BBC: “Viewpoint: Manuel Castells on the rise of alternative economic cultures” Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20027044

Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited

Kozinets, R. V. (2002). The field behind the screen: using netnography for marketing research in online communities. Journal of marketing research, 61-72. In Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.

Lee, B. (2012). Marketing Is Dead. HBR Blog Network. Harvard Business.

Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.

Martínez, P., & Rodríguez, P. M. (2008). Cualitativa-mente. ESIC Editorial.

Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. In Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative researchSage Publications Limited

10-step checklist to conduct a focus group

1. Ice breaking part. “Have you got some problems to find this place

2. Gratefulness. “Thanks you for having agreed to the meeting

3. Research purpose: “This interview is part of a greater research project on…

4. Inform about confidentiality: “Nothing said by the participant will be attributed to them

5. Request to record the interview. “If you´ll excuse me I would like to record the interview to avoid taking notes all the time

6. Explanation of the procedure is given. What moderator expects from participants. Maybe arguing certain topics or solve a problem together. “We would like you openly discuss with each other the experiences you have had with your studies, and what was that made you decide not to continue them any further

7. Short introduction of the members and warming up. Moderator should emphasize the common ground of the members; if possible, in order to reinforce community “I want to know your opinion as students of Gdansk University of Technology”.

8. Starting point. Start with a “discussion stimulus”, a provocative thesis, a short film, a lecture on a text: “the current economic situation in Europe has become more difficult like indicates unemployment rate…

9. Put the rest of the topics

10. Thanks again. “Thanks you for having agreed to the meeting

The role of a focus group moderator

In general, moderator should be “flexible, objective, empathic, persuasive, a good listener” (Fontana and Frey 2000, p. 652) In a ideal focus group, the moderator would just participate to put research topics. It is participants who must dominate the discussion. However, there are a number of situations where moderator should also participate.

1. To prevent single participants or small groups from dominating the discussion and encourage reserved members to become involved. You may use such sentences as “what do you think “participant´s name”?, “what do other people think about?“.

2. To reflat the discussion using provocative questions. Whenever the dicussion among participants seems not to be enough dynamic, it is the moderator who should formulate new debate-provoking questions.

3. To steering the discussion toward a deepening. Whenever research topics are covered superficially and with no further details, the moderator you formulate depth-provoking questions such as “what do you mean by…?”

Finally it is recommendable count with the support of an assistant. It allows moderator focus on managing the group and assistant to take notes.

References

Fontana, A., & James, H. Frey.(2000). The interview: From structured questions to negotiated text. The Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd ed., pp. 645–672).
Thousand Oaks, London & Delhi: Sage Publications. Cited in Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited
Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited
Ibáñez, J. (1979). Más allá de la sociología: El Grupo de Discusión: teoría y crítica. Siglo XXI de España Editores.

How to design a Focus Group based research

1. How many groups are required? Organizing several groups enables trends and patterns to be identified when the data collected are analyzed (Saunders et al, 2003).  The figure may vary according to the research questions and, above all, the different population subgroups required (Morgan, 1988). However, if after the fourth group you are receiving new information it means that you have reached saturation (Krueger and Casey, 2000). Actually four or five are generally enough.

2. How many participants each? Between 4 and 8 and exceptionally up to 12. It strongly depends on three factors: skill of moderator, nature of participants, how complex the topic is.

3. How long does it take each session? From one to two hours, although it may vary according to how actives participants are. Actually, it may finish once the group has exhausted the discussion of a topic. How to know when a topic is exhausted? There are no criteria and it is the moderator who has to make his/her own decisions.

4. How to recruit participants? Focus group sampling is non-probabilistic, i.e. it does not aim to do inference afterward but just select participants from the population subgroup under study, normally your target. For instance, students from 20 to 25 years old. The selection process is commonly called “recruitment”. The person in charge of select participants, so called “recruiter” shouldn´t play the role of moderator too. The recruitment should be done by mean dial previous participants or following snowball methodology, i.e. contacting people through social networks who will lead recruiter to more people and subsequently. It is strongly recommendable to work with strangers instead of groups of friends or people who know each other very well, because the level of things taken for granted may lead to leave relevant information out (Morgan, 1988). Finally, institutional networks should be avoided.

5. What is the most appropriate location for a focus group? Neutral setting is required. Avoid noisy and crowded places that may interrupt the discussion ongoing. It is recommendable avoid saturated spaces, i.e. with many objects and staff since it may break the concentration of participants. An oval table is required. It assures that all participants can see each other and facilitate interaction. Some market research agencies count with specialized rooms for focus group. They count with viewing room next door that allows other researchers and sponsor watch the focus group. However, most of the groups are recorded both voices and video.

References

Krueger, R. A., & Casey, M. A. (2008). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. SAGE Publications, Incorporated.
Morgan, D. L. (1988). Focus groups as qualitative research; Focus groups as qualitative research (No. 16). Sage Publications.
Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009

What should a focus group composition be like?

What should a focus group composition be like? Which features participants should meet? The answer of these questions depends basicly on the population group under study and the aims of the research. However, a general rule should be followed. A certain homogeneity among participants is required. What does homogeneity mean? All members share something in common. It may be a common interest (music, sport, consumers of a specific product), origin (from the same city, country or neighboorhood) or whatever other feature. Like in a group of friends or gang, this reinforces participants as a group and, consequently, leads to a greater dialogue.

However, certain heterogeneity is also necessary. If you recruit very similar participants you run the risk that the group is not dynamic enough, i.e. everyone agrees and no dialogue is generated.If you are testing a product, you might recruit both consumers and non-consumers. If homogeneity guarantees group birth, heterogeneity does its growth. In other words, the different participant´s point of view enrich the dialogue. This is not a banal issue. The existence of “conflict” among participants is a key issue to make the best of a focus group. The point is to come across a debate-provoking variable or “turning point”. It is very clear in policy testing or electoral studies. Whenever a group is composed by both right and left participants, the debate is assured.

Finally, the composition of a focus group is normally organized in a table as bellow. There you can see a number of “homogeneity” and “heterogeneity” variables. In this example, the heterogeneity or turning point (breaking point) comes from the different brand consumption variable, while age and sex would reinforce participants as a group.

tabla_grupo

References
Ibáñez, J. (1979). Más allá de la sociología: El Grupo de Discusión: teoría y crítica. Siglo XXI de España Editores.
Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.
Silverman, D. (2011). Interpreting qualitative data. Sage Publications Limited.