Research Methods for Information Research

4. Observation

4.4 Structured observation

One element of the research life I miss is that over the past few years I have had little opportunity to indulge in my first research love – structured observation. This was brought home the other day when I came across a chapter I wrote during my first year as a researcher9. This includes an account of my first ever week of observation (such accounts of doing field research are still unusual in the research literature, especially in the library and information research field). My observation ‘subject’ was a Deputy Social Services Director in a Northern city. I’m not sure how evocative this piece was for other people, but reading it again stirred up the memories, such as this account of a meeting:

“For the first quarter of an hour nothing occurs to engage John's interest and he begins to sag slowly under the table. Over the week he frequently uses his body as a boredom-barometer by thrusting out his feet in front of him and leaning back in his chair at the start of a meeting and gradually subsiding until his nose is almost level with the table-top. When something of interest crops up he pulls himself upright and almost literally pitches into the fray.

“Two successive agenda items are relevant to social services and the deputy director speaks on both. The chairman nods across at me and says 'You are impressive this morning, John. John half-rises, turns from his chair and drawls ‘A’m going ‘ome'. He sits down again and gets heavily embroiled in a procedural argument …”

Is observation for long periods difficult? Now, in general I would say no, but I had forgotten that:

“ … I'm beginning to feel the effects of the observation equivalent of tunnel vision. Close concentration on a small range of activities is making me feel like a rabbit before a stoat, not exactly transfixed by his stare because he's busy ignoring me, but slightly discomfited. This does occur again from time to time and I learn a trick of deliberately widening my field of vision for short periods. This results in my spending three days in a state of intimacy with another subject before making the shattering discovery that she is left handed! I had been too busy waiting for her to stop writing so that I could start recording to notice which hand was holding the biro.”

How well does observation work? Later in the week I was quizzed by the Department’s Research Officer, who:

“ … puts me neatly on the spot by asking a series of questions which I can't answer yet. Do I get bored? What are my feelings about my subject's contacts and is he driving me mad? With hindsight I can report that observation is only boring if your subject spends long periods mulling over a report or thinking and since most social services work is highly fragmented this wasn't much of a problem. As for feelings about people, the fact that we concentrated on information activities meant that the nature of interpersonal relationships didn’t loom large, but paradoxically we found we could identify many subtle under-currents. (Most of these were confirmed later when we reported back.) Observation seems to be the ideal way to get hooked on differences in management style, identify the best hated staff around and discover an interesting range of office flirtations.”

9. STREATFIELD, D.R. ‘Observation and after’. Published in SLATER, M. (ed.) Research methods in library and information studies London: Library Association 1990.