How to Observe – Guidelines for an Open Mind
When we encounter unfamiliar situations or find ourselves in cultures which we do not understand, it is best to gather the facts before jumping to conclusions about what is going on. Some ethnographers use Kohl’s three-stage process of Describe, Interpret, and Evaluate (DIE) as a rule of thumb to ensure the quality of information when engaging in cultural description. These are crucially ordered activities; straying from the sequencing will eliminate the value of your observation by producing uninformed and biased data. It is a little morbid, but if you remember that in order to learn about a new culture you have to DIE first, then you will approach the learning situation with an open mind and leave with new cultural understanding.
Description is the natural dominion of the observer. The observer does not need to have an expertise on what is being described; in fact, naïve observers who are unfamiliar with a setting will often see things that the calloused and accustomed ‘expert’ fails to recognize. The outsider sees what is unfamiliar; sees what the insider takes for granted.
This is also why it is hard to tell when you have bad breath; being accustomed to your breath you fail to recognize how horrid it actually is – it takes someone else noticing and calling it to your attention.
It is important to approach the task of observation with awareness of the goal of the description; you aim to write about it, accordingly you will pay attention to what provides enough information to texture your writing with the detail that only intentional observation can provide. Chiefly, you aim to write about what you observe; this is the reason you observe at all.
“Ethnographers learn to experience through the senses in anticipation of writing: to remember dialogue and movement like an actor; to see colors, shapes, textures, and spatial relations as a painter or photographer; and to sense moods, rhythms, and tone of voice like a poet. Details experienced through the senses turn into jottings with active rather than passive verbs, sensory rather than analytic adjectives, and verbatim rather than summarized dialogue.” [Emerson, Fretz, Shaw, 35]
Give as complete of a description as possible in your field notes, and describe in such a way that you will be able to benefit from the description. You need descriptions that can be interpreted.
- Describe all of the observable details about this person/place/thing/idea/event/behavior.
- Describe everything that is unfamiliar.
- Describe everything that is seemingly familiar.
This is the task of sense-making. You have gathered descriptions of experiences, places, people, and activities, and now you must interpret the significance that these play in the situation which you have described. This step requires that you try to understand what these things mean in their context. This means that even if it seems familiar to you because you have observed seemingly familiar situations in your cultural context, you have to consider that it may have different significance in the culture you are observing.
During this stage you take the descriptions you have made and you figure out how they relate to the situation you observed. You work out what relations exist between entities in the situation, such as, how actors relate to objects they use, and then how they use objects to complete tasks, and then how those tasks satisfy goals that an actor has in the culture.
- What do these things mean in the cultural context in which they occur?
- How does the culture understand this person/place/thing/idea/event/behavior?
You can even get people to tell you insider information so that you interpret your descriptions properly. Be careful that the people helping you make sense out of your observations do not inadvertently evaluate situations for you; they should only tell you what significance your descriptions have in the situation.
Now that you have interpreted your description, you are in the position to evaluate the situation and the quality of the events and actors. You may judge according to the standard which structures the context of the culture, but you may not judge according to a standard of an unrelated culture. For instance, you may evaluate whether or not x is consistent with the cultural framework in which x occurs. Having already described and interpreted the cultural situation you can now evaluate the performance of x. You cannot reasonably evaluate until you understand the standard against which to compare.
Evaluate to the best of your ability by comparing with the values of the culture to which the object of your evaluation belongs.
- How well does the actor perform the activity to the cultural standard?
- Do insiders view this as behavior consistent with their values?
- Is the level of performance determined by the actor’s value of the situation?
- How might these seemingly similar concepts actually be different?
Evaluation takes description and interpretation and it brings them together into actionable intelligence, giving the outsider the necessary insight in order to understand what the insider understands. This enables you to adopt new cultural understanding and to assimilate into the unfamiliar situation and solve everyday problems with a degree of cultural fluency.
Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R.I., & Shaw, L.L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes, University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Kohls, R.L. (1996). Survival kit for overseas living – for Americans planning to live and work abroad, Intercultural Press, Yarmouth