C. George Boeree
Shippensburg University


        It is so convenient that we have language:  We can ask people what they see, think, feel..., and they�ll tell us!  It is, of course, not the only way in which we can get to know about others.  Much can be gained by simple observation.

        For this exercise, I would like you to describe the structure of a television show in as much detail as you can.  There are two steps to doing this, which require that you view the show (at least) twice:

        First, describe the "physical" structure of the show, that is, what happens in space and time, the characters, the scenes, the plot.

        Second, describe the "meaningful" structure of the show, i.e. the themes, motifs, images, metaphors, the emotional movement, the way in which it involves you.  The first is like writing down the music; the second is like recording how the music feels.

        It might be preferable to all do the same show, in class, so that you can compare descriptions and improve them.

        We can do research on such nicely available and reviewable things as films, works of art or literature, theatrical presentations, dance, and (of course) television shows.  We can also do research on social rituals in real life:  a marriage ceremony, a religious ritual, a job interview, how we greet a friend, how we behave in restaurants, what happens in an elevator, water cooler behavior....  These are subtler, more slippery, less easy to "rewind" for review.  But the same processes apply.

        An example of such a description follows.



The introduction:  Establishes characters and the centrality of Pooh.  Prepares me emotionally for something light, "cute."

Part I

1.  Pooh sits thinking, when Tigger surprisingly enters and "bounces" Pooh.  Bouncing established as the focal behavior.  Pooh is established as very sympathetic, but Tigger is introduced as obnoxious.

2.  A reprise of 1, wherein Tigger bounces Piglet.  Establishes Rabbit as the "antagonist" ("I'm savin' my best bounce for old longears").

3.  Tigger bounces Rabbit, and causes general destruction, which he doesn't even recognize as the result of his behavior.  Tigger is characterized as insensitive to others.  Bouncing is firmly established as something "bad."

4.  A meeting is held.  It emphasizes Rabbit's perspective (Pooh sleeps), and begins to establish Rabbit as an "anal" personality and less than sympathetic (vs. Pooh's attractive detachment, and Piglet's role as "follower").  Rabbit develops the "big explore" idea to humiliate Tigger out of bouncing.  But the idea of retribution is unpleasant.

Summary:  The conflict established in part I is between childishness (and irresponsibility, represented by Tigger) and adulthood (with a hint of self-righteousness, portrayed by Rabbit).  We are left with a degree of tension and uncertainty.

Part II

1.  The big explore begins, during which Pooh's incessant need for honey is pointed out.  Rabbit, Piglet, and Pooh "lose" Tigger (through Tigger's own enthusiasm -- he bounds ahead of them).  Their cold-heartedness is emphasized when they hide in the log to make sure Tigger remains lost.  Our sympathy for Tigger is at a high point, and for Rabbit at a low point.

2.  Rabbit, Piglet, and Pooh attempt to return home but discover they are lost (as dramatically represented by the walking-in-circles gag).  There is a strong sense that Rabbit is not "in touch" (vs. Pooh who is).  Rabbit comes off as pompous.  Yet we do feel some sympathy:  It is clear that Rabbit can only see things his way.

3.  Piglet and Pooh return home through Pooh's tummy homing device.  Rabbit's inability to deal with things on a more immediate basis is explained by Pooh:  "I didn't hear them (the honey pots) before because Rabbit would talk."

4.  They are bounced by Tigger, who is not at all lost (the splendid idea has failed).  So, paradoxically, the dumb one "can't get lost," while the smart one can.  Tigger goes off to find Rabbit.

5.  Rabbit is thoroughly lost, and in a high tension segment, his mind begins to play tricks on him, until he too is found and bounced.  He is dragged home in complete humiliation.

Summary:  The contrast between "adult" and "child" is further explored, with the pluses of childlike instinct and the minuses of adult thinking/talking/scheming emphasized.

Part III

1.  Roo and Tigger go off to play.  Establishes bouncing as fun, emphasized by Kanga's adult overconcern.  Tigger seen in a clear new light.

2.  Skating scene:  Rabbit enjoys himself skating.  Tigger, in a typical display of bravado, imitates Rabbit only to cause, once again, a disaster for poor Rabbit.  A reminder of Tigger's negative side:  the braggado and the excuse "Tiggers don't like ice-skating."  Legitimacy of Rabbit's perspective maintained.

3.  Roo and Tiger continue their search for "what Tiggers do best," resulting in the reckless climbing of the tree.  Tigger is terrified by the results of his actions.  In light of his recklessness, this terror seems like "just desserts."

4.  In a light-hearted side-piece, Pooh and Piglet track themselves and eventually discover Tigger and Roo's dilemma.

5.  Everyone (Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Rabbit, and especially Christopher Robin) come to Tigger and Roo's aid.  In his fear, Tigger makes a promise never to bounce again, and Rabbit insists they take him up on it.  In a bizarre side gag, the narrator saves Tigger.

6.  In the last moments of the story, we go through Tigger's ultimate humiliation.  Note how annoying the continued smirk on Rabbit's face becomes, and the effect of Tigger's true sadess.  Significantly, the child (Roo) is the one who brings up the value of the "old Tigger."  An outpouring of sympathy from the other characters (and the audience) puts pressure on Rabbit to rescind his demands.  Tigger bounces Rabbit and encourages all to bounce with him.

Summary:  The child's perspective wins over the adult.  But both Tigger and Rabbit are forgiven their excesses.  We have a happy ending and complete closure.


        Structural analysis gives us the social meanings of a kinship system, for example, but not the meanings that structure has to the participant as a person.   The descriptions tend to be "cold:"  ceremonies without celebrants.  We want something "warmer"  --  to  understand  the experiences of others, to put ourselves in their place.

        Immersing oneself in an alien way of life in order to gain knowledge, an understanding, of that way of life is called participant observation:  "intense social interaction between researcher and the subjects, in the milieu of the latter" (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975. p. 5).  Although some knowledge can be acquired by observation, it is difficult to get the depth we are looking for from that detached a perspective.  Involvement is the price for getting at the meanings people give their social environment and behavor.

        Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of fieldwork is the unstructured nature of it, especially at first!  "Unlike controlled studies, such as surveys and experiments, field studies avoid prejudgement of the nature of the problem and hence the use of rigid data-gathering devices and hypotheses based upon a-priori beliefs or hunches concerning the research setting and its participants" (Shaffir et al., 1980, p. 17).


        The pitfalls of participant observation are not that different from the pitfalls of experimental research.  Here, too, we look for validity -- the accuracy of our description -- and reliability -- the replicability of our description by other observers.  And we find subject (or reactive) effects, researcher (or demand) effects, and sampling effects, just like in the laboratory.  But these are technical terms that, in fact, overlap and interact like gangbusters.  Instead, let me just list some of the problems:

        1.  People try to "look good," to give good impressions.
        2.  People often try to please you, to give you what they think you want.
        3.  People sometimes try to screw you, mislead you, or put you on.
        4.  People try to figure things out, look for what you are after.
        5.  People often try to play an "appropriate" part (role selection), rather than being fully themselves.
        6.  People may suddenly come to see the researcher as a researcher (loss of trust), which can feel like suddenly realizing you have no clothes on.
        7.  People sometimes like to be looked at, and will act to retain that attention (the Hawthorne effect).
        8.  People have prejudices about the researcher, the psychologist, the sociologist, the academician, the college student....
        9.  Emotional involvement on the part of the researcher alters subjects' behaviors.
        10.  On the other hand, cool rationality on the part of the researcher does the same.
        11.  Feelings (love, hate) towards particular people can "blinker" us towards or away from their perceptions.
        12.  Researchers sometimes "go native," and total involvement means no more researcher.
        13.  We can alienate some subjects while mediating conflicts or giving advice.
        14.  We can turn off some subjects by associating with authorities.
        15.  Different cultures have different rules of exclusiveness regarding sex, age, and so on.

I very much doubt that this is a full list!


        But there are more problems:  One of the most persistent and difficult is the problem of ethics.  First, generally, do you or do you not participate in activities that are illegal, or that you consider immoral or unethical?  My own feeling is that you should not present yourself to the people you are studying as something other than yourself.  You may get carried away and feel like you are becoming one of them, but they rarely see you that way.  Besides which, your goal is to learn about them, not become them.  So your moral and ethical obligations are yours -- and I believe that most groups will respect you for being yourself in this regard.  Whether or not you then engage in illegal activities depends on your moral/ethical judgements and your willingness to risk legal punishment in exchange for the trust of your people.

        If this strikes you as a small problem, consider the situation of someone who is trying to understand a culture or social group that operates outside the law (drug cultures, gangs, prostitutes...), or that practices activities that are abhorent to us (animal sacrifices, torture, infanticide, incest...).  Is the understanding worth the moral conflict?  That has got to be up to you.

        There are other ethical concerns that come with any fieldwork study:  Should we conceal ourselves?  Should we deceive our subjects?  I think these are more easily answered:  Would you like to be spied on or lied to?.

        Finally, there is the ethical question "Who are we serving?"  Who pays us?  Who reads our writings?  Who makes use of the information?  What use is made of it?  What access do my subjects have to this information?  What rights do they have to review the description, criticize it, or even censor it?  Sadly, many of our subject populations are precisely that: subject, dependent, powerless....  Think about the populations in all the social sciences:  people in mental institutions, in prisons, in homes for the elderly; children in the school systems; college freshmen being offered points on their next exam; the poor, the disenfranchised, labor, people on reservations or in ghettos; primitive people, the illiterate, the isolated, and so on.  And who do we work for?  A well-to-do, powerful segment of western civilization.  Make up your own mind.


        I would like you to describe "an evening with friends."  As with the previous exercise, there are two aspects to look at:  One is the "time-space" side  --  a straight forward description of what happened;  The other is the more involved side  --  the personal, emotional, aspect.

        Do not disturb the flow of things by taking notes or playing with a tape recorder.  When the get together is over, go straight to your paper and pencil and write down, from memory, what happened.  This is a technique very familiar to anthropologists and sociologists who are doing ethnographic studies.  Then, at your leisure, convert those scribbles into an organized description.

        Because these are your friends, perhaps we can take a little ethical liberty here:  Don't tell them before hand that you'll be doing this.  Instead, tell them afterwards, and show them your description.  Ask them for their comments and record those as well.

        P.S.:  Always use pseudonyms in your descriptions!



On Thursday, March 9th, 1995, my husband Craig and I were spending the afternoon in Savannah, Georgia, when we had a strange and wonderful experience. I have chosen this experience as my observer-participant assignment as it was unique, spontaneous and alien.

Four days earlier we had travelled south from Pennsylvania on a much needed vacation. We stopped in Durham and Pinehurst and arrived at our friends' home on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina late Tuesday evening. Thursday morning we decided to leave our base on Hilton Head and drive an hour southwest to walk Savannah's waterfront and enjoy the beautiful spring day.

We had been told that Savannah's waterfront had been revitalized in recent years and that it was a fun place to spend an afternoon. We arrived in Savannah around noon, and easily found a parking place. Wearing sneakers and sweaters, and with film in my camera, we headed off towards the river. The streets were bustling with tourists visiting the many antique stores, candy-making shops and interesting restaurant-bars.

Apparently, the historic preservation people have been active in Savannah as most of the waterfront is quaintly alluring with cobblestone streets, original brick exteriors, and ornate iron grill work. The sound of blues and jazz snakes out from dark alleyways and open wooden doors contribute to the 'Old South' flavor of the area.

Craig and I decided to have lunch in a small tavern called the Boar's Head. He had catfish and the crab soup, I had shrimp étouffe. We enjoyed our meal and listened with amusement to the four local women at the next table. To our Yankee ears their southern accents and conversation about 'bein po and widowed' enhanced our dining experience. We left the Boar's Head to walk off our meal and perhaps take some pictures.

I enjoy taking black and white pictures with an old Canon SLR. The camera weighs about three pounds and is totally manual. It takes me a few minutes to adjust the shutter speed and aperature depending on the light. We were standing in front of an old cotton warehouse with an interesting view straight through the builidng to the river beyond. I took one picture and then was readjusting the camera when we were approached by an elderly couple.

The gentleman was wearing tan trousers, a tan courderoy sport coat, a brown fedora and carried a wooden cane with a bulldog handle. The woman had pure white hair and wore tan slacks, a sky blue jacket and had startling blue eyes exactly the same color as her coat.

The man said 'Kin I hep youa?'

'No, we're just admiring the wonderful view. I'm taking a picture of the river framed by the brick walls' I replied.

'Kin we show youa aroun?' he said.

I looked at my husband and not wishing to be rude or disrespectful I said 'That would be nice.' I was expecting that the old man would point out some nearby landmarks and perhaps mention local history. He took the woman's arm and walked towards the door of the building. Craig and I followed. As we got closer to the building I noticed a small ornately painted sign that said Hostettler Realty.

'We kin go inside' the man said to Craig and me. The woman extracted keys from her pockets and pushed her hip against one side of the enormous wooden doors. Without ever deciding to enter, Craig and I were inside the old building. I felt slightly uneasy. I wondered what their motives where. I thought perhaps they were going to try to sell us something, maybe a timeshare. My eyes adjusted to the dim light of the room and I was awed by its simple beauty. The floors, walls and ceiling were paneled in a lovely honey oak that reminded me of an English manor. The large space was divided by a wooden arch that framed a spectacular floor to ceiling solid glass window. The river with its tugs and ships provided an ever-changing picture.

The man and the woman stayed close to the door. 'Go on now, git right up to the window and lookee down the rivah.'

I did what I was told and Craig came over to the window, too. I took a picture because that is what I felt they expected me to do. I looked at Craig. He said 'This is really a nice place. Is this your office?'

The old woman spoke for the first time. 'Used to be. He don't do too much now. He's almost as blind as I em and neither of us git aroun too well anymo.'

'We'd like ifin you all'd come up an visit wit us for a while' the old man said edging slowly towards the door. I felt like these courtly old people were the epitome of southern hospitality and that to decline their offer would be rude and ill mannered. Not wishing to be either but still uneasy about the situation, I said 'We don't want to put you out.'

'No bother. We insist, don we' he replied in his southern drawl. I had a fleeting sensation that I was in a Willa Cather novel or a Tennessee Williams play. I felt like the moment was out of my control. I was again suspicious. No one saw us enter this building. Our friends would report our absence and describe our clothing. Police detectives would question the waiter at the Boar's Head. The shopkeeper at the antique store we wandered through would remember us but would not be able to offer any useful information. Our mysterious disappearance would shatter our son's world. I was thinking like a lunatic! I walked toward Craig and the door.

As we approached the door the old woman turned to us as her outstretched hand felt for the door. 'Is the door open?' she asked. Her strange eyes were clear and calm, unseeing and trusting. My suspicion vanished and I felt guilty about my wild imagination.

'Open' Craig said. We all walked into the hall. An ancient two-seater inclinator was on the paneled wall next to the warn burgundy steps.

'Hep on' the old man said to Craig and me.

'Oh no, we'll walk' Craig said as we exchanged astonished looks.

'Hep on. I think you'll like it. It's a ride.' The old woman had already started up the steep steps. She went slowly with both hands on the stair rail. I got in the one seat and Craig got in the other.

'Scrunch close. It'll go. Push that button. OK!' The old man hobbled up the steps after us. I think of the movie 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane' and other sinister movie scenes with inclinators.

We get off the lift at the top of the steps as the old man reaches the landing. The old woman has already opened a massive wooden door with a large key. The old man gestures for me to go in first. Craig follows me and the old man follows Craig. The old woman has turned on some lamps but they are not necessary because the spacious room is filled with light from three enormous arched picture windows. The view is even more incredible than the view from downstairs. The apartment's exterior walls were exposed brick and are very thick. The interior walls that form the room dividers are the same oak paneling as was downstairs. A beautiful and worn oriental carpet is on the floor.

I realize that we haven't introduced ourselves so I do but the old couple doesn't reciprocate which I find odd. I notice that I'm speaking clearly and loudly. 'This is a wonderful apartment.' I say. 'You must be very proud of your home. What a view! You can certainly watch the world from here.'

'We like it. Donna, you sit in the red velvet chair; Craig, you sit in that blue sateen wingback; I'll sit on the left side of the couch' the old man directed us tactfully, cluing his blind wife onto our locations. She sat on the tapestry sofa next to the old man.

I see pictures of children on the fireplace mantle and ask if they are the grandchildren. We make small talk and the woman is directing the conversation now. She asks where we are from and what we do and occasionally has to repeat things for the old man who doesn't seem to hear as well now as he did earlier. Craig asks about the real estate business and the old man tells us he was an appraiser and speculator. 'I did alright, yes sir, alright.'

The woman asks us where we are staying and we tell her Hilton Head. Then the old man starts telling us about the time he had to do an appraisal on the south beach end of Hilton Head and he said 'When I got to the house a big nigger comon outa that house and told me no whiteys allowed. Why I told that boy I could have him arrested for that kinda mouth, yessir Hilton has changed since then.'

Craig and I look at each other. We are uncomfortable with this turn in the conversation. The old woman says to the old man 'You haven't offered our guests any candy.' She picks up a large box of candy from the table in front of her. She carefully removes the lid and the inner wrapping and hands it to Craig saying 'Craig, would you care for some chocolate? Please hep yerself and pass it to Donna.' I notice she uses our names often which makes us feel special but reinforces the fact that we don't know their names.

I take one small piece of candy and again dark thoughts invade my mind. I think maybe there is arsenic in the candy. I feel foolish and eat the small piece anyway. I see Craig eating a piece and think well at least we'll go together. Craig set the candy box down on the table in from of the woman. She reaches towards him for the box so he picks it up again and sets it in her hands. She closes the box up as carefully as she opened it.

'We've lived here for twenty-nine years' the old man says. 'Just two days ago we finished work on another house near Greenville. It's an odd house on tep of a rocky mountain. Blasted out a chunk and thin built on tep. Course we han't seen it. We've both bin blind fer a few years.'

I say to the old woman 'Your African violets are beautiful.'

She replies 'I em so glad fer you to say. I can't see em ya know.' I describe the colors of the blossoms and she smiles. A silence follows that I want to fill but I don't know what else to say. I look at Craig and then I stand up.

'Thank you so much for sharing you home with us but we have an engagement tonight in Hilton Head. We must be going' I say as I walk toward the sofa and our hosts.

'Please sign our guest book and take a souvenir calendar' the old woman says. I am amazed. Guest book? I see the open book on the large dining room table. A fountain pen lays in the spine. I sign our names under a couple from Iowa. I realize that they do this all the time. These gentle, kind and far too trusting blind-deaf people invite strangers into their home on a regular basis. They seek the company of strangers and share their view and time.

'On yer way out I'd like to show you the rest of the house if yer willin' the old man says.

'That would be lovely' I say. He proudly shows me their bedroom with its enormous canopied bed and wall of built-in drawers. Then he shows us the guest room with its high twin beds with turned mahogany posts.

At the door to the stairs he tell us 'We sure enjoyed your company. Ride on down now, and let yerselves out. Byebye.'

We get on the lift and ride down. We shout up from the bottom 'Thank you for showing us your wonderful home.'

'Our pleasure' he says and we shut the door out on the bright sidewalk.

Craig says 'That was really weird!' We excitedly talk about our experience. I tell Craig about my misapprehensions and sinister imaginings. He says he was thinking the same things. He tells me he waited till I took a bite of the candy before he took a bite. We laugh and hold hands as we walk towards the street where our car is parked. We agree that it has been a wonderful spontaneous adventure for a couple of suspicious northerners in the alien 'Old South.'


        For this next project, we need to introduce a few new terms.  The first is ethnomethodology.   This, despite the similarity of the term to ethnography and ethnoscience, is something quite different.  Ethnomethodology is an effort to understand how we maintain a social reality, how we keep ourselves and others from sliding out of it into...something else.

        The next idea is the  social unconscious.  Much -- maybe most -- of what is socially important is, in fact, a background to conscious experience.  It is not easily available to the person who has grown up within this background, and may be missed in the techniques we've been discussing.  I believe that this social background was, once upon a time, foreground  --  when the individual first had to learn the rules of basic social behavior.  It is also available to the newcomer, the outsider, or the student of social realities.  While you learn something, the theory goes, you will be conscious of it, however fleeting that conscious moment may be.

        Attempting to be fully aware while learning social behaviors I call passing,  though it could also be called "observant participation" or "hermeneutic role-playing."  Millions of people throughout history have passed as something they were not:  Jews passing as Gentiles, blacks passing as whites, men passing as women, and so on.  It is they who are often most aware of the subtleties of Gentile, white, or female behavior.  So, when you wish to understand the underlying social realities of some group of people, you might try to "pass" as one of them, to one degree or another.

        There is, of course, an ethical problem here.  It can be alleviated a bit by clarifying to the group that you are indeed an outsider (something that, in most cases, they figured out in the first five minutes!), but that you wish to become an insider.  In passing, you not only observe and interact, you become.

        As a class, learn to do a decent imitation of a dialect.  Take notes on what it is that characterizes that dialect, as these characteristics are revealed in the learning process.  Try a different dialect.

        A secondary effect -- maybe the primary one! -- is your increased awareness of your own speech.  You are likely to feel your tongue, mouth, lips, face...as you haven't before.  We take so much for granted.

        If you are interested in insights into a very specific phenomenon, one that doesn't happen often (or perhaps at all!), you might go so far as to create the phenomenon.  You can do this by setting up a situation in which the phenomenon is very likely to occur.

        One example is something done by ethologists.  If you are studying the mating behaviors of stickleback fish, it certainly makes life easier if you can set up an aquarium with all the right conditions, rather than waiting in icy cold European streams for the little buggers to get going.  After all, the fish don't seem to know they're in an aquarium.  This way, you can introduce a male or female fish to another and record what happens, over and over again.  You can even do nice "free variations" by introducing fish of other species or even little plastic fish of varying sizes and shapes.

        Another example is the work of Piaget, and of those who have been influenced by him.  His calls his method  la méthode clinique:  Give children specific problems to solve and carefully watch how they go about it.  Note differences among children of different ages (or some other "classification variable") and you have a valuable  --  yet non-experimental  --  contribution to the field.

        We also find this technique among the early social psychologists, revealing their Gestalt roots.  Asch's conformity experiment or Sherif's autokinetic and boy's camp studies, for example, weren't true experiments.  They were situations, reactions to which were carefully recorded.

        The final example is Garfinkeling, after the ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel.  It could be characterized as "experimental participant observation:"  In order to make evident the underlying background social understandings we share, he suggests simply breaking the rules, doing what does not come naturally.  For example, in a busy restaurant, get up and help the waiters and waitresses, take orders from people, explaining you are only trying to help out, and so on.  See what happens.  Note the looks on people's faces.  Note the speed with which you are escorted out of the restaurant.  Free variation, live!

        Garfinkel had his students go home to their families and do a very simple thing:  Play the part of the perfect son or daughter.  Ask politely for things you have been helping yourself to for years.  Make your bed.  Make other people's beds.  They found that their parents were, if anything, frightened by this behavior.  It is, quite literally, as if there were an imposter in the house.  Garfinkel had to stop doing many of his favorite exercises simply because they were too threatening to people:  You were taking away their social background, their foundation for reality.

        There is, of course, a criticism to be made regarding "experimental phenomenology" (by whatever name):  We are introducing the very artificialities that we criticize traditional methods of having, and come up against some of the same ethical questions.  The gains must be weighed against the costs.

        This project involves "mirror-writing."  You will need a small mirror, a piece of cardboard, and paper and pencil or pen.  With a partner holding the piece of cardboard to shield your view of your hand, try to write while looking only in the mirror.  Write whatever comes to mind  --  the Gettysburg Address, the Lord's Prayer, 'To be or not to be...' or whatever.  Make the letters and words look right in the mirror.  (They will be upside down and backwards on the paper.)  Keep your attention on the mirror image of your hand, the pencil, and the marks on the paper.  Tell your partner what you are going through:

        What are you conscious of?
        What is your focus?
        Where are your tensions?
        What were the hardest things?
        The easiest?
        How does it get easier?
        What's happening to you that makes it easier?
        How's your self esteem holding up?

Then change places with your partner.

        You might want to reflect on your first grade experiences:  starting letters at the right spot, reversing letters, staying in the lines....  Note why kids need lots of recess time!

        If you don�t have a mirror handy, you can get the same effect by trying to write backwards or upside down, or by switching to your non-dominant hand.

        You can also investigate "learning to read:"  After you've written things, let your partner try reading them.  Note the way the words slowly become "legible"  --  first as composites of strange letters, later as whole words or phrases that "speak" to you.  Or just try reading upside down or in a mirror.


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Copyright 1998 by C. George Boeree