Observation is a natural way by which humans learn and is a continuous process. In ethnography, observation is a learned art. It seems so easy that we may think there is nothing more to it but for an ethnographer, observation is a key method to engage with participants and the field area. Through observation you can describe a person (who), a place (where) or a thing (what). Observation is conducted in the time and space that is convenient to the participants rather than the observer. To be an observer requires you to become a part of the natural settings so that you do not draw attention to yourself. In their book Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method, Collier and Collier have observed that the invisibility of the photographer is usually best accomplished by participant observation. We will learn about it soon. During observation, all your senses that is vision, touch, taste, smell and hearing will be put to use and it always helps initially to keep eyes open and mouth shut. Immersion translates into a state of intense awareness regarding what is happening around you. Observation can be a useful method when local language skills are lacking. Observation further helps when the site and the participants of the study are completely unfamiliar to the observers.
Showing up at the study site with lot of enthusiasm but little preparation can be extremely overwhelming as observation can yield plenty of data within a short span of time. While observing, data streams in through a variety of formats. For example, what was said, what was left unsaid, what was implied, facial expressions, gestures, postures of individuals, actions performed etc. The goals and questions of your study will determine the techniques used while conducting an observational study. It would help to plan out beforehand, whether you will employ participant or non-participant observation.
Participant observation is where you aim to understand the world of the community members by putting yourself in their shoes. By participating with the community members, you put them at ease and they will not feel the pressure of scrutiny. As a participant observer, recording anecdotes, layered descriptions of places, persons, objects and activities will yield rich data. Here, you as a designer become a part of their world by empathizing with their position. Participant observation requires certain degree of skills in order to be able to participate depending on the context. If you wish to be a participant observer while learning about a group of dancers, you may need dancing skills. If you are trying to understand the craft of an embroidery artist as a participant observer, you may require the knowledge of basic stitches etc. Participant observation helps you understand the nuances of a certain activity that the community members themselves will not be able to talk about as they take it for granted. Strength of participant observation lies in the fact that it does not cause any distortion of the context. However at times participant observation may not be an option, in such cases we use non-participant observation.
By participating with the community members, you put them at ease and they will not feel the pressure of scrutiny.
Non-participant observation is also known as being a fly on the wall. It means observing from a distance and being as unobtrusive as possible. This method is especially useful in settings where other methods are not usable; as in case of deviant subcultures, participants unwilling to talk, unable to verbalize, habits that are unfamiliar or disturbing. For example, if you were observing an operation at a hospital- it would be impossible to participate, unless you were a trained doctor yourself. In such cases non-participant observation would be the least intrusive method. But it is not always about lacking the skills to participate; at times the nature of the activity (clandestine, deviant etc) may not require you to participate, in order to understand it. For example, non-participant observation was employed to study a ritual called Jaagar. It is performed by certain communities in the state of Uttarakhand, India to appease the spirits of their ancestors.
Findings from observation alone cannot help us come to a conclusion. Observation should be followed up with interviews to clarify doubts that you may have had in mind.
Nonparticipant observation was employed to study rituals called Jagaar performed by certain communities in state of Uttarakhand to appease the spirits of their ancestors who have passed away. This method is especially useful in settings where other methods are not usable- as in case of deviant subcultures, participants unwilling to talk, unable to verbalize, habits that are unfamiliar or disturbing.