Welcome again as we journey along on this course understanding ethnography. In this
module, I would like to draw our attention to one of the basic tools or let us call it a method, a
way to learn about our participants through observation. To observe comes naturally to all of
us. It is the most primary method of learning. As children we learn by observing the actions
and behaviors of others around us. And as we grow, we continue to learn from our
surroundings. But in ethnography, observation has a somewhat different meaning. For
ethnographers, observation is different from the seeing or looking around, which we do
almost without thinking.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:00)
To observe is to be alert, to actively engage with what we are looking at, and to try and make
sense of it. Seeing on the other hand, is perhaps the more passive activity, which requires less
effort, where we are looking at something but may not be trying to understand it. I am
reminded of a Zen story. I was introduced to my teacher Nasreen Mohamedi. A young
student goes visiting his Zen master on a rainy day. Of course, he carries an umbrella because
it is raining and before entering the house, leaves it outside along with his wooden clogs. The
Zen monk greets him warmly and invites him in. And then with a smile ask, I suppose you
left your wooden clogs on the porch., I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left
side of your clogs.
" This leaves the student confused and tongue-tied, and he realises that his learning is far
from complete. Now, this was not just a trick question about memory. What the teacher
probably wanted to assess was whether the student had the full awareness required of his
training. Here full awareness was perceived as observation. There are many questions that
arise as we speak of observation as an element of research.
(Refer Slide Time 02:15)
We could ask ourselves, why is observation so important? And what do we observe while
doing ethnographic research? How do we carry out observation? And what are the different
types of observation? We will engage with all these questions in this module.
(Refer Slide Time 02:33)
Let us begin by discussing the value of observation. For one, it allows us to understand and
learn in situations where the participants and the researcher speak different languages. Or
when the participant feels uncomfortable articulating their ideas in words like when carrying
out an activity, it is difficult for people to put into words their process and the details of what
they are doing. Think about it. How difficult it is to describe the process of tying a shoelace?
It is so much easier to just show how it is done or just observe how it is being done.
In observing, we do not learn about the proper or the ideal way of doing something. Instead,
we learn about how it actually happens. We see the mistakes and alterations, adjustments, the
many different ways in which the same activity might happen. Observations reveal to a small
but significant details which are very much a part of every process, but which we might
forget when describing an activity from memory. To summarise, observation allows us to see
details and particularities instead of generalisations.
(Refer Slide Time 03:46)
And what are the activities, or phenomena that are best learned through observation? When
we need to learn about a particular activity and understand it in close detail, like someone
working with an instrument or a tool or performing a specialised activity, like embroidery,
pottery or cooking. We also use observation to learn about less specialised activities like
shopping or driving behaviour, where we need to observe the small actions and decisions that
make up a larger journey. Let us now quick recall here.
(Refer Slide Time 04:27)
In one of our earlier modules, we had discussed with you the work of Satish Krishnamurthy
and his team in designing a FinTech app. The team wanted to learn about the payment
behaviours and processes that take place at shops. Using ethnographic research methods, they
were able to observe these behaviours as they happened. So you see, through observation, we
can learn of the small activities and actions that make up larger habits and decision- making
Besides the details of a phenomena, observation can also help us understand its overarching
nature. For instance, we want to learn about the crafts and the lives of craftspersons in a given
(Refer Slide Time 05:09)
We can learn about these by observing the daily life of the artisans, their processes of making
craft objects, and the other activities of their day. We can also observe their interactions with
customers and sellers, family members, and so on. Through observing these multiple
different components that make up our participants' lives, we can learn about many
(Refer Slide Time 05:34)
We could learn about the process of craft making, the networks that form the community;, the
role of family members in the crafts cycle, and many such themes. Through observation, we
can learn about relationships and social structures in a context. Observing how people interact
with each other, how they speak, gesticulate and express themselves, we can learn about their
relations with each other. Observing these interactions also teaches us about socio-cultural
customs. For example, observing the interaction between patient and doctor, we can learn
about the rules that define the environment of a clinic and the patient-doctor relationship.
And so, through observing interpersonal behaviour, we can learn about the conventions that
dictate interactions in the context.
So, how do we do ethnographic observation? Let us discuss the different types of observation. Each of
these requires a different way of going about it. In participant observation, we join our participants,
taking up a role of sorts and getting involved in the activities that form the phenomena we are
(Refer Slide Time 00:28)
So we may string flowers along with the family of flower vendors.
(Refer Slide Time 00:32)
Non-participant observation is about observing and not getting actively involved. For instance, we
may not participate in a surgery or a dental operation.
(Refer Slide Time 00:47)
Generalised observation is to observe everything that is taking place around us with equal focus. This
applies to early research when we are just about understanding the scenarios and not quite certain
what is more important to observe. Observing people shop in a mall is one example that comes to
(Refer Slide Time 01:05)
Focused observation is to limit our attention to activities or events that are only related to the
phenomena we are studying. This often happens after we have achieved some certainty about the
focus of our fieldwork. Of course, as with all of ethnographic practise, we can shift between these
forms of observation as we go about fieldwork. Let us pause for a moment here and do a small
(Refer Slide Time 01:31)
Here, you can see a list of different kinds of observations. , participant, non-participant, generalised,
focused, and another list of examples of observation. Observing students in the playground, observing
a child solving a math problem, cooking with a participant, observing sales staff in a shop. Can you
match the items on the first line to those in the second one? Take minute and complete the exercise.
(Refer Slide Time 02:07)
And here are our answers. Compare the two sets. If you feel unsure about why your answers do not
match us, post your confusion on the discussion forum. Now let us return to our discussion.
(Refer Slide Time 02:20)
Whichever form of observation we deploy, there are certain concepts that are fundamental to the
practice of observing. You may recognise these terms from our previous conversations. Why we have
earlier discussed these as abstract concepts? Here we will try to understand how they translate into
practice and particularly the practice of observation.
(Refer Slide Time 02:43)
Let us take an example here, from a film by David and Judith MacDougall, With Morning Hearts. The
film is set in the Doon School in Dehradun, in the state of Uttarakhand. It is an observation of the life
of some students living in one the dormitories of the school. These are primary school children, all
boys, who are getting used to the idea of being away from home, and in a boarding school
environment. In one of the sequences of the film, the filmmakers observe a class in progress. It is a
class of English literature, where the teacher is discussing a certain poem. Let us watch this sequence.
(Refer Slide Time 03:27)
(Refer Slide Time 7:30)
Let us reflect on what we just saw. Can you note down what makes this sequence a rich piece of
observation? Many of you may point out the details that the filmmakers observed. Some of you may
have noticed the students' expressions while the teacher is asking some questions; others could have
noted how the students engaged with what the teacher is explaining to them.
(Refer Slide Time 7:53)
These are all very important details and constitute the imponderabilia of the classroom. The decision
of the filmmakers to pay attention to these is evident of rich ethnographic observation. But it is not
only imponderabilia that makes an observation ethnographic in nature. You might recollect our
discussion on thick description. We had said that an ethnographic description is considered thick if it
is able to convey the web of meanings, or culture, which underlie our observations. For this, we need
to pay attention to the context. This includes the immediate physical environment, the social
structures and cultural beliefs in which the phenomenon is located.
(Refer Slide Time 8:42)
What do we learn from the film excerpt about the social structure and cultural beliefs that shape
interactions in the classroom? Think for a moment and note down your answers. Some of you may
say that the classroom is a hierarchical space with a clearly defined structure with the teacher as an
authority figure. Some others may say that the classroom interactions are defined by rules such as
raising hands, or not speaking out of turn. You might also have noted that the structure sometimes
dissolves and it becomes a less formal space. But how did we learn all of this from this short video
It is by paying attention to observable behaviour that we learn about the intangible aspects of the
context. The ways in which children react to a question asked by their teacher by raising their hands,
hoping to be picked. The expression on their faces denotes excitement and anticipation. This reveals
that there is a desire to showcase knowledge to the teacher and other students. The social structure of
the classroom is mirrored in its physical layout.
(Refer Slide Time 10:00)
The teacher sits in the front, facing all of the students. And the students' desks are all arranged in a
strict row- by- row formation. But this structure also dissolves. When the students gather around the
teacher, the layout of the classroom is temporarily disrupted. And so is the authority that otherwise
separates the teacher from students. So you see, this short video clip is a great example of
ethnographic observation. Because it pays careful attention to the imponderabilia. In order to be
attentive in such a manner, we need to be completely present and alert as we observe physically,
intellectually and emotionally. We have to be attentive to whatever is happening in the immediate
time and space around us.
(Refer Slide Time 10:53)
Acts of recording such as writing, drawing, making photographs, or even speaking what we observe
into an audio recorder can help us be more alert to small details.
(Refer Slide Time 11:09)
In drawing something, for example, we pay attention to its details. Similarly, in photographing, or
writing about an occurrence, we need to articulate into words what we are observing. The act of note-
taking makes us look at something carefully, to notice its details with as much accuracy as we can.
(Refer Slide Time 11:31)
So, in fieldwork, we make records, not simply to document, but to observe, with greater alertness and
attention. For those of you who want to read some more examples of imponderabilia in ethnographic
writing, we have a very interesting paper for you. And after that, you can take a quiz. The quiz we
have for you here is based on the reading, and on the video clip that we just discussed.And what do we observe? Everything! People, their activities and interactions with each other. The
physical environment, and the objects in it, and the way in which people interact with them. But
'everything' is a difficult brief to follow and can be quite overwhelming.
(Refer Slide Time 00:32)
There are some frameworks that help us. Let us look at one of these. Space, actors, activities, what is
the physical space like? Who all are involved? What are they doing? Objects, acts events.
(Refer Slide Time 00:43)
What objects are present? What are individuals doing? What kind of event is it?
(Refer Slide Time 00:52)
Time, goals, feelings.
(Refer Slide Time 00:55)
What is the sequence of events? What do they accomplish? What is the mood of the group
and of individuals?
A framework such as this guides our attention towards the many different entities and
elements that make up a phenomenon. Using one of these, we can construct a fairly
comprehensive and detailed description. Material objects in any physical environment form
an important part of our observation.
(Refer Slide Time 01:25)
We can learn the many stories and meanings that participants associate with these objects. In
learning these stories, we can learn about our participants' experiences.
(Refer Slide Time 1:39)
One such work is that of artist and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra. Aanchal tells us the story
of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan through objects. These are objects that people on
both sides of the border carried with them as they fled their homes. She starts from her own
home. She learns about the kitchen utensils her grandparents brought with them from across
the border. Exploring the stories behind these objects, she learns of their experiences.
Through these, she constructs a deeply personal narrative of the partition.
(Refer Slide Time 02:16)
You can read more about Aanchal's project here. Aanchal's work shows us the importance of
being alert to the smallest details present in the immediate environments. But as we know, it
is not only the immediate time and space that makes up the context in ethnography. It is just
as important to learn about the social-cultural context in which a phenomenon occurs and
much of this lies beneath the surface. It is not quite visible or observable. How do we learn
about this? Let us pause and reflect on this question.
(Refer Slide Time 02:50)
We can observe some social and cultural aspects of the context. But there is a lot of fit that
we might not know of, especially when we are new to our participant's culture. How do we
learn about the many invisible or unobservable aspects of the context?
Take a minute and note down your response. Some of you may have said; we should pay
attention to whatever happens while we are present in the context. The rest we cannot
observe, and so it cannot be a part of our study. This is not entirely correct.
(Refer Slide Time 03:30)
While we can only observe that which happens in front of us, we also learn by speaking to
our participants, and from existing literature. Some of you may have responded that we can
learn about the invisible aspects of the context by spending more time there. This is true to a
great degree. Often, we spend time during fieldwork observing phenomena that are not
directly connected to the focus of our study. These observations contribute to our
understanding of our participant's culture.
(Refer Slide Time 04:02)
For example, I spent time with the Kaavad storytellers, even on the days when they were not
performing or reciting the Kaavad. Doing this, I learnt about the social structure in which
their role as non-kaavadiyas was situated. Strangely enough, they were not very keen for me
to spend too much time in their village. And I learnt why. I noticed that when they were not
performing, they would hide the Kaavad shrine in their homes. None of their neighbours
could know that they were storytellers, else they would be ex-communicated. This is because
being a storyteller was an undesirable status in their own village.
To ward off the prying eyes of their neighbours, they even changed my identity to that of a
tourist. However, in the presence of their patrons in another village, they would speak of their
role as Kaavdia Bhaats with great pride. They would claim to be the progeny of Shravan
Kumar, the Kaavad bearer and the Bhaat genealogist. And here they would introduce me as a
(Refer Slide Time 05:10)
Video: Playing in regional language (5:10 to 5:38)
In his own village, the kaavadiya storyteller hides his identity. In contrast, in the village of
the patron, he claims recognition, status and identity from his patrons.
(Refer Slide Time 05:55)
I gained this insight about the kaavadiyas by spending time with them in different villages,
and at different times. During the times when they were performing, and the times when they
were not. This is an important aspect of fieldwork: observing the different aspects of our
(Refer Slide Time 06:16)
We observe the many phenomena, people, activities and locations that their context is
composed of. We draw connections between different instances of observation. As we do so,
we start to see the underlying web of meanings that define our participants' lives. This helps
us contextualise the phenomena we are focused on, and understand what it means to them.
(Refer Slide Time 06:47)
Let us pause for a moment here and think. If we are to try and observe everything about
immediate and non-immediate context, how do we know where to focus our attention?
This is an important, and rather practical question for ethnographers in the field. Some
of you may have said that we need to keep observing. As we analyse our observations, we
will know what to focus on.
This is an acceptable answer. However, this approach may lead us into many different
directions. Everything seems interesting, and everything seems important. Observing as much
as we can, we may find ourselves buried under our own material. So what may be an
alternative approach? As important as it is to learn from everything in the context, it is just as
important to set some boundaries for our fieldwork.
(Refer Slide Time 7:40)
What to observe is guided and determined by our research question. While preparing for
fieldwork, we had learned to break down our research question. In fieldwork, these various
dimensions of the research question must guide our focus.
(Refer Slide Time 7:56)
What to observe is guided and determined by our research question. While preparing for
fieldwork, we had learned to break down our research question. In fieldwork, these various
dimensions of the research question must guide our focus. We can also use some simple
parameters to determine what to observe. We must try to observe phenomena which
constitute the everyday lives of our participants, events and rituals we are interested in
learning about. The events and activities we observe should help us understand our
participants' perspectives of their world, and reveal meanings that people attach to a
phenomenon. If a phenomenon adds to our understanding of any of these, we should observe
it. In the early stages of our fieldwork, we learn about various phenomena in our participants'
(Refer Slide Time 8:37)
As we proceed with fieldwork, the focus of our study gradually narrows down, we start to
focus on aspects which are more closely related to our research question. In looking closely at
a narrow set of phenomena, we see that there is so much more to them. It is like looking
through a microscope. Often, at this stage, new questions may emerge.
(Refer Slide Time 8:57)
These may force us to rethink the research question we had started out with. We should be
open to this possibility. I had started out wanting to learn about the Kaavad as a form of
storytelling, but as I got closer to the phenomenon, my understanding of it evolved.
(Refer Slide Time 9:17)
I realised that it isn't simply about reciting and listening to stories. It is a way of performing a
virtual pilgrimage. Perhaps this, more than anything else, keeps the phenomenon alive. So as
my focus narrowed, I recognised new dimensions to the phenomenon, which took my
research towards new and interesting directions. I guess you could say that the structure of
fieldwork is something like an hourglass.
It starts out broad, then narrows, then the narrow bit expands into unexpected directions or
dimensions. Sometimes, it is not enough to observe our participants from a distance.
Sometimes, we need to place ourselves in their positions to actually understand their
perspectives and the meanings that they assign to the phenomena. This is when we carry out
participant observation, which will be the subject of our next session.
Log in to save your progress and obtain a certificate in Alison’s free Diploma in Ethnography online course
Sign up to save your progress and obtain a certificate in Alison’s free Diploma in Ethnography online course
Please enter you email address and we will mail you a link to reset your password.