Example: Participant observation

Michael Cheang studied a group of older adults engaged in leisure activities at a fast food restaurant in Honolulu. Before he was able to begin the study, he obtained permission from the manager under the conditions that he 1) appear to be a paying customer, 2) not conduct any formal interviews or surveys on the premises, and 3) not interfere with the flow of business.

There were three phases of data collection extending from August 1997 through May 1998 (22 months). The first two phases are most relevant to observational research (the third phase involved interviews done off the premises).

Phase 1:  Two weeks were spent in unobtrusive casual observation.

With familiarity, his observations became more systematic. He devised a system for recording information. Cheang focused on a specific group of about 26 adults, one of the larger groupings that 1) seemed stable over time, 2) came there frequently, and 3) was diverse with regard to gender and age.

After selecting his target group, Cheang sat at a nearby table, exchanging cautious smiles, and eventually engaging one of the group members, John, in conversation. The researcher described his desire to study the activities of older people. John introduced him to other people in the group. They were friendly, but at first viewed him as an outsider (he was considerably younger). He showed up every Tuesday and Thursday, and sometimes Friday, and soon became part of the group.

Phase 2: Participant observation

He observed the group in the setting for 2 or 3 days a week for 9 months. His initial observations entered discretely on 3 x 5 cards. To write longer notes, he went into a telephone booth, or the restroom. The group soon became accustomed to his jotting notes on cards and paid little or no attention to it, returning quickly to the ongoing activities.

At the end of each day's observations, he expanded his field notes into a full-length detailed account. The initial descriptions were chronological – showing the order of events and behavior. His notes became more narrative in quality as he retold the adults' stories. By the 5th month of participant observation, several themes of behavior and experiences emerged: laughter, personal expression, and sociability

Phase 3 - Interviews:

He began one-on-one personal interviews in month 6. He shared his observations and the themes with group members, and interviewed them with regard to their 1) personal background, 2) motivation for coming to the restaurant, and 3) perceptions of the themes that were generated from his field notes.

Finally, he pulled together information, providing detailed descriptions of  the individuals describing how they had come together as a group. He gave a detailed description of their interactions and activities in the setting. His final research paper described how a group of physically independent older adults constructed a setting for play, laughter, and positive social interaction and appraisal on a regular basis.

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(1) Cheang, Michael (2002). Older adults' frequent visits to a fast-food restaurant: Nonobligatory social interaction and the significance of play in a "third place." Journal of Aging Studies, 16, 303-21.