Field Observation of a Portland Neighborhood
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 which has been derived from anthropological methods developed at
the turn of the 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.
Pros: it allows the researchers to get a real "hands on" perspective,
becoming aware of phenomena within the observed group that she or he may
not even have noticed if remaining only an outside observer. It may
or may not be easy to take notes as a participant observer. If notetaking
is impossible, the observer will have to transcribe notes from memory later.
Nonparticipant observation similarly
has pros and cons.
Cons: researchers who participate with the group under study
can become too personally involved, thereby missing phenomena that a more
objective outsider might notice. There are also ethical concerns:
is it okay to "pretend" to be a member of a group, when the real purpose
is just to study them? What if the group commits a crime? Does
the researcher participate in the crime, ignore it, or report it to authorities?
Pros: it allows researcher to take notes somewhat more easily.
In the soccer hooliganism example, the researcher sitting over to the sidelines
could be pretending to be writing about anything -- not necessarily the
subjects of her research. On the other hand, the situation may be
such that anyone close by taking notes would stand out like a sore thumb;
in this case, the researcher would also have to rely on memory and transcribe
notes later. Another "pro" is that nonparticipant observation allows
the researcher to retain a level of objectivity that may be compromised
during participant observation.
Cons: the nonparticipant observer can never get as "close"
to the subjects as the participant can. He or she will never know
what it is really like to be a member of the group being studied.
There are also some validity concerns. If the subjects know they
are being observed, they may act differently from how they normally would?
There may also be the same ethical concerns as with participant observation.
Is it okay to observe people and record their behavior, without their permission?
What if the researchers observe a crime? Do they report it, ignore
it, or what?
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.
observe: for example, observe
types of human interactions, types of businesses, types of architecture,
types of status symbols
categorize: for example, categorize
human interactions into familial, romantic, companion, unrelated, stranger,
etc.; categorize types of businesses into grocery, general retail, restaurant,
count: count the number of observations
in each category. For instance, if you're focusing on human interactions,
you might want to count the number of family-related interactions, the
number of romantic ones, the number of "just friends," the number of interactions
among unrelated people and strangers, and maybe the number of hostile relationships
between strangers (like someone giving someone else the "evil eye" because
they bumped into them). You could also break down categories so that
you have positive and negative familial relationships, positive and negative
romantic encounters, and so on.
if possible, try to have some predetermined categories, so you have an
idea of what you're looking for
use symbols and abbreviations to make your notetaking less intensive
try to write things down as you observe them rather than trying
to recollect them later
you may want to record your observations by talking into a tape-recorder;
beware that transcription of tapes is extremely time consuming
if you tape record other people's conversations, you have an ethical dilemma.
Unless you are doing an "oral interview"
of someone, where you can ask their permission to ask them some questions
and tape record them, I'd advise against covert tape recording. Some
students like doing "oral interviews" of people who look like they're really
part of a neighborhood or social scene to get their impression of the place.
you may want to make a video "journal" of your travels through a neighborhood.
Beware that you will record a lot of boring, irrelevant stuff, so unless
you can edit out what you need and don't need, this may not prove to be
very useful. However, in some cases, it's a great tool. If,
for instance, you are trying to document the walk from Point A to Point
B in a certain neighborhood, the videotape version really tells the story.
You can also use videotaping for interviewing people (see above).
There are also ethical considerations involved when you're videotaping
people, but since camcorders are more obvious than small tape recorders,
most people know that they might be in a shot. Use your judgment
Again, try to have some predetermined things you want to take photos of,
like street design, architecture, public spaces, good examples of "typical"
homes in one part of the neighborhood versus those in another.
There is a tendency to take a lot of photos. You should keep a record
of each photo you snap as you take it: what it is, where it is, etc.
If you use the photos in your final report, they should be captioned with
exact location (e.g., corner of NW 23rd and Everett, looking north).
When observing how people interact in social settings, researchers may
draw a social network map. Here
are some sophisticated examples:
map represents an individual's relationships with other important
people in a segment of his or her life. The individual is the "ego"
at the center of the model. Circles A and B represent the two main
individuals with whom this individual interacts, and the smaller circles
represent the social networks of A and B. Notice that A seems to
have a wider network-- more power, perhaps. If the lines connecting
the circles also included arrows, these would indicate the direction of
relationships or conversation.
domain map represents the relationships between three organizations
-- for example, three different governmental agencies, each consisting
of numerous subdivisions or individuals. You can see that one agency
appears to have somewhat more dominance than the other two.
control map shows the organizational system between two groups
of government agencies, with their two central advisory bodies. The
degree of control may be read from the size of the white spheres.
Researchers may also take a symbolic interactionism
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
eyes rolling (suggests student finds comments made by another student
or professor to be ridiculous, stupid, unwarranted, etc.)
head shaking (suggests that student disagrees with comments made
by another student or professor, finds them too simplistic)
head nodding (suggests that student agrees with comments made by
another student or professor; may be a way of indicating approval)
copious notetaking (suggests that student "plays by the rules,"
has a sense of commitment to the class and/or material, wants to get a
litte or no notetaking (suggests student may feel the class has
nothing to offer, s/he already "knows it all"; alternatively, may suggest
student is lost, does not understand topic, does not know what to write
sitting in front (suggests student wants to be an active participant
in the class, is not shy, wants to engage in the material, wants to be
noticed by instructor)
reading book for another class during present class (suggests student
finds present class uninteresting or too simplistic, is pressed for time
and must read for other class whenever possible)
frequent commenting/raising hand to speak or answer question (may
suggest student is engaged in subject matter, finds class interesting,
wants to participate; alternatively, may suggest that student is irritated
by subject matter, resents being in the class, wants to disrupt class)
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 p. 23 of City Lights.
You wll be assigned to a neighborhood based on your mentor session.
At the first meeting, held in your mentor session, you should decide how
to approach your field study of the neighborhood.
A good place to start is by visiting the neighborhood's web pages by going
first to the City of Portland's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, at
and at http://www.neighborhoodlink.com
Decide who is going to do what during
the field study. Here are some suggestions:
one person might want to take photos of different parts of the neighborhood
that seem to reflect the neighborhood's character
one person might want to videotape parts of the neighborhood, likewise
reflecting the neighborhood's character
another person might want to sit in a prominent location (for example,
at a corner cafe) and keep a log of the types of people or cars that pass
by in a half-hour period (this should be done during a relatively busy
someone else may want to walk through the neighborhood and write down impressions
of what is seen; these should be categorized somehow
another team member may want to drive or bike through the neighborhood
to get a sense of impressions from a different mode of transportation (don't
try to write while you drive...!)
The point is: you will want to compare your various impressions of
the neighborhood, based on what you looked at, how you looked (your method
of observation), and who you are (your own background and experience).
Field Observation (Note: you may or may not actually meet as a group
You may want to conduct your field study as a group. That is, you
may all want to meet up somewhere and drive out to the neighborhood in
question together or just meet out at the neighborhood and then take off
from there, agreeing to meet back together at a particular place and time.
Whether you go as a group, two or three partners, or by yourself, you should
spend at least an hour in observation.
Do not make your visit at night, especially if you go alone.
You should try to make your visit during a busy time of the day.
Alternatively, you may want to divide your group up so that some members
conduct the field study during a busy time while others conduct it during
a less busy time.
You will need to regroup after the field study. This will occur during
a mentor session.
The purpose of this meeting is to debrief one another on what you each
observed and your conclusions about your observations.
This meeting will need to take place at some time after the field
observation, because team members may need to compile notes, develop photos,
One of the things each of you wants to get from this meeting is enough
information to write your own Field Study Report that contrasts and compares
the observations of your team members.
Field Study Report
Each team member shall turn in a report of a maximum
of three typed double-spaced pages that includes the following
(be sure to consult the writing
Names of the members of your team
Neighborhood you studied
Date and time of your field study
Method of field study you employed
Method of field study employed by others in your team
Your general conclusions about the various perceptions of your team regarding
the neighborhood: Did everyone observe the same sorts of phenomena,
or did the observations appear to vary according to methodology, specific
location, time of day, or personality of the observer? Are there
commonalities that all observers shared regarding the neighborhood?
What were the primary differences, and how would you account for them?
How did you feel, ethically, doing this assignment? Were you surprised
by anything you learned? Did this assignment help you "see" or "experience"
the city in a way you hadn't before? If so, how?
Questions? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.