Mini-Essay Two: Fieldwork Observation


You will observe a social setting, record what you see, and offer an analysis of the location, context, event, and activities. This is an opportunity to actually practice what anthropologists do. Choose a public location to conduct a series of observations (lasting from 15-30min. each). Take fieldnotes to document what you see. Later you will compile your notes and write an essay analyzing the location and what people are doing. You can observe locations such as coffee shops, markets, libraries, museums, and restaurants. It is important that you choose to observe a location that you are relatively unfamiliar with—observing your roommates at home or your work environment is not acceptable.

Observing is hard but it is one of the key components of the ethnographic method. For this assignment, please do not ask anyone any specific questions. Rather than saying, “What are you doing there when you do X?” watch what people are doing. Pay attention to details. Here are a few questions that might help you start thinking and writing:

-General observations: What time did you arrive at the location? Who was there? How old are they? What are the genders? What are people wearing and what are they doing? How are people communicating with each other? How are they communicating with you? How is the space used? How do people move through the location (what influences this)? How are people in this community similar to each other? How are they different? Why?

-Patterns of Behavior: What are the patterns of behavior? What interactions did you observe? What did the people do? Why did they do it? What were the rules that people follow? Were these rules ever broken (or is there a difference between what our culture tell us to do and what the person did)? What are the consequences for breaking the rules? Did you participate in any of those patterns? What were the dynamics in the relationships between those present (customers, workers, management).

-Analysis of a specific practice: What might the practice under observation mean? Why is it done? What is its purpose? What is its relationship to other cultural practices? What does it tell us about the culture (for example, what they believe is important)? In other words, what is the cultural significance of what you observed?

-Your position in the observation: Where were you? What were you doing? Did this influence what you observed? How did people communicate with you? What did it feel like to do this project?

In your write up, you will not have enough room to explore all of these domains, but I do expect you to offer a clear description and analysis of what you feel to be the most important themes in your observations. It is also important for you to draw upon the relevant material we have covered in class. The use of outside supportive materials is allowed. However, remember that this is an essay based on your fieldwork, not a library research paper.

Some other important things to consider:

-It is essential that you practice cultural relativism.
-The purpose of your trip is to observe. Not shop, flirt, etc.
-You do not need to announce your activities, but if you are asked to explain note that you are working on an anthropology project for school.