Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Aspects
3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.1 Positivism and observation
3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation Observation for theory generation: emergent theory Observation for theory development: a naturalistic perspective Observation as a basis for identifying subjects’ meanings Observation as a basis for empathetic interpretation Observation as the basis for deconstructing everyday life Observation as a process of establishing identity Observation as a means of discovering how communities operate

3.3.3 Critical social research and observation

3.4 Access
3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation Observation as the basis for deconstructing everyday life
Observation can also be used to identify how activities are framed and integrated into the everyday lives of people. In his study of ice-hockey supporters, for example, Garry Crawford (2003) adopted an ethnographic approach to explore what ice-hockey meant to its fans:

My academic interest is primarily in the area of fan culture, and what interested me in this sport (as a sociologist) was that it appeared to represents an advanced example of the commercialisation, globalisation and even Americanisation of sport in the UK. Consequently, it would have been very easy to approach this from a macro-Americanisation perspective and be very damming and critical of this sport and its supporters, but rather I set out to find out what this sport meant to its followers, and how it was used and located in their everyday lives. (Crawford, 2005).

The approach that perhaps goes furthest in attempting to determine the ‘everyday’ is to be found in the work of the ethnomethodologists, which emerged in the 1960s and focused on the subjective aspects of everyday life and common-sense understandings of the world in which we live. (See Section

Ethnomethodology is concerned with taken-for-granted aspects of the social world. It examines the routine, practical activities of everyday life to show how people make sense of them (see Section It examines the processes by which we make the world ‘accountable’ to ourselves. Ethnomethodology goes beyond Blumerian symbolic interaction. It investigates not only the impact on interaction of the meanings that things have for people but also how are those meanings generated in the first place. In particular, how meanings are related to common sense.

Ethnomethodologists presume that meanings are not clear, rather they see meanings as ambiguous and problematic for people in specific situations. Ethnomethodologists examine the ways in which people apply abstract rules and common-sense understandings in situations so as to make actions appear routine, explicable and unambiguous. Thus ethnomethodologists argue that meanings are not self-evident; rather, they are practical accomplishments by members of a society.

Travers (1994, p. 248 ) notes that ‘… methodological devices do no more than enable the ethnomethodological researcher to step outside the ‘natural attitude’ of professional sociological enquiry, and to encounter the everyday world—in all its ongoing and unfolding complexity—as a researchable topic’.

Phenomenologists objected to official statistics because they said more about the taken-for-granteds involved in the compiling of statistics than they did about the phenomena supposedly described. Atkinson’s (1977) work on suicide was an example (Section Douglas (1967, 1971) has also studied, from an ethnomethodologist’s view, how coroners designate deaths as suicides. This requires the use of common-sense understandings by coroners to establish intention on the part of the victim. Coroners put together certain clues and come up with a ‘suicide for all practical purposes’.

The task for ethnomethodologists, then, is to bracket or suspend their common-sense assumptions to study how common sense is used in everyday life, (for example, Garfinkel’s (1967) experiments, see Section Through an examination of common sense, the ethnomethodologists hope to understand how people ‘go about the task of seeing, describing, and explaining order in the world in which they live’ (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975, p. 17). As a result, ethnomethodologists tend to inspect social processes minutely to reveal subjects’ taken-for-granted assumptions about the social world. In practice, they tend to use non-participant observation to do this.

Travers (1994) adopts an ethnomethodological approach to his observational study of radical lawyers. He is not concerned to evaluate radical positions but is interested in radicalism as a cultural object. He focuses on the way in which radicalism ‘was produced, displayed and exhibited in the talk and actions of a small firm of solicitors situated in one of the inner city areas of a large city’ (Travers, 1994, p. 245). He uses three methodological devices, which he claims are common to ethnomethodolgy and conversation analysis.

First, he uses fieldwork observations to ‘ground’ descriptions.

Second he adopts a strategy of ‘ethnomethodological indifference’ (Garfinkel and Sacks, 1970), that is ‘avoid taking sides’, in this case, over the issue of radicalism in the law.

Third, ‘is the ethnomethodological (and phenomenological) practice of placing cultural objects within sets of phenomenological brackets. The aim here is to transform any particular object out there in the world, from something that is taken for granted as a cultural resource by readers and writers of academic texts to a topic of enquiry in its own right.’ The aim, then is to describe what makes a particular ‘radical’ lawyer radical. An example of the kind of analysis he undertakes is as follows:

The radical character of Gregsons was also made visible in the talk of people working inside the firm, and especially the uncomplimentary views Jane Gregson expressed about the conduct of the police and the professional caliber and moral worth of other lawyers. These views were made known to me through interviewing her on a number of occasions, through watching her be interviewed, …and through hearing her recount different versions of the same opinions and observations in the presence of clients, and at social occasions such as the firms Christmas party. Together they amounted to a running commentary, instructing myself and others to view Gregsons as a firm of ‘radical lawyers’. (Travers, 1994, p. 251)


Next 3.2.6 Observation as a process of establishing identity