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:



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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