Field Observation of Portland's Neighborhoods


The material below is meant to complement the text by providing additional information about ethnography, a type of field observation.  Chapter 11 of City Lights also provides a discussion of this topic.

Ethnography is the study of people, focusing on their behavior, relationships, and attitudes.  "Ethno" means "people," and "graphy" means "record."  Thus, "ethnography" is, literally, the recording of the behavior of people, or human beings.

Ethnomethodology is a qualitative method that has been derived from anthropological methods developed at the beginning of the 20th century. The method may involve participant observation, whereby the researcher becomes very closely involved with the group under study. So, for example, a researcher interested in hooliganism by soccer fans might decide to attend soccer matches on a regular basis, and as far as possible become accepted by the group of fans under study.  To achieve this acceptance, the researcher may actually participate in the hooliganism himself/herself.   This methodology can also involve nonparticipant observation.  In this example, rather than trying to become part of the group of fans or trying to become accepted by them, the researcher remains on the side, does not participate, but rather records her/his observations.

Participant observation has certain pros and cons.

Nonparticipant observation similarly has pros and cons.

Observational Techniques and Tools

There are many ways to observe behavior or the type of or use of social space through participant or nonparticipant observation.

Researchers generally focus on the following:

There are also a number of ways to record your observations.  Here are the most common.

When observing how people interact in social settings, researchers may draw a social network map.  Here are some sophisticated examples:

Researchers may also take a symbolic interactionism focus, which looks at the meanings people attach to symbols, such as gestures (giving someone "the finger"), words ("fag"), etc.  Some common "symbols" I observe, in front of the class, are as follows:

The study of symbolic interactionism may involve recording gestures whose meanings are well understood or recording gestures and then assigning them meaning, based on the researcher's experience, literature review, and empirical study.


WARNING:  In all cases of observation, it is important to report your findings objectively, without value judgments. 
What you observe is neither good nor bad. 
It just is.

Doing the Assignment

Comparing Perspectives of the City

This assignment is based  on p. 23 of City Lights.


Unlike many cities, Portland has an Office of Neighborhood Involvement, which is actually part of our city government, constituting one of the City Bureaus and overseen by a City Commissioner.

Portland is divided into seven Neighborhood Coalitions (click here for a printable color map), which make up the "top level" of our neighborhood system. You can link to contact information about the coalitions, including web addresses.

The seven coalitions are (try to find which one you live in):

At the level below the coalitions are the individual neighborhood associations themselves. There are 90-95 associations (depending on whether you include five that are "recognized" but not affiliated with any Coalition). You can look at this large map of street and neighborhood detail to see exactly what your neighborhood association is. If you visit this map, please note that it takes a long time to load and will probably appear unreadably small on your screen. You will need to use the zoom in tool, located on the toolbar in Adobe, to click on the general area where you live. Keep clicking until you see your street and neighborhood clearly.

Getting Assigned to a Neighborhood and Team

Because there are so many neighborhoods in Portland, we will be studying only a small sampling.

You will be assigned to a neighborhood in your mentor session after you have completed the exercises in Part I and have voted for your first, second, and third choice of neighborhood cluster for study. You may not get your first-choice cluster.

After you have been assigned to a neighborhood cluster, you will do Part II.

You may work as an individual or as part of a team . Regardless, each person will turn in an individual report.

The project consists of five main elements:

  1. working as a member of a team to engage in ethnographic observation and/or meeting with and debriefing other team/mentor session members
  2. engaging in quantitative, statistical analysis regarding the neighborhood (each person should do this individually)
  3. searching for other relevant information about the neighborhood, such as historical background
  4. writing a report that presents your methods and findings
  5. presenting your findings in class


You will be graded on the following:

First meeting:

FIELD OBSERVATION (Note:  you may or may not actually meet as a group for this)

Guiding Principles for Field Work

During your ethnographic study and background research, the following principles should guide your work: