3.2.6 Data collection tools

Author(s): 
Laurence.Kohn
Author(s): 
Wendy.Christiaens

3.2.6.1        Checklists

Before you enter the setting and start observing, it might be a good idea to have some questions in mind. It may be helpful to carry a checklist in your pocket to help you remember what you are meant to observe54.

3.2.6.2        Fieldnotes

“Fieldnotes are used by researchers to record observations and fragments of remembered speech. Although researchers may use other means of recording (such as video) and other form s of data (such as interview transcripts), fieldnotes remain one of the primary analytic materials used in ethnography.” (p. 82) 35.

Depending on the research questions, the researcher is interested in other aspects of social reality. Mulhalls’ schema84 includes the following types of field notes, each covering an aspect of social reality:

  • Structural and organizational features – what the actual buildings and environment look like and how they are used
  • People – how they behave, interact, dress, move.
  • The daily process of activities.
  • Special events – in a hospital ward this might be the consultant’s round or the multidisciplinary team meeting.
  • Dialogue.
  • An everyday diary of events as they occur chronologically – both in the field and before entering the field.
  • A personal/reflective diary – this includes both my thoughts about going into the field and being there, and reflections on my own life experiences that might influence the way in which I filter what I observe.

It is particularly important to detail any contradictory or negative cases. Unusual things often reveal most about the setting or situation20.

Documenting observations consists of the following steps54, 86:

  • Quick notes during the observation.,
  • Once the researcher left the setting, he expands his notes into fieldnotes. This means he reads them through and adds other things he can remember, but has not yet written down. Note taking in the setting is not self-evident and it is impossible to write down everything you see. Therefore good note taking should trigger the memory by means of key words, symbols, drawings, etc.
  • After expansion, the researcher “translates” his shorthand into sentences., and
  • Together with the translation phase, a descriptive narrative can be composed. The researcher writes down a description of what happened and what he has learned about the setting. In this step the researcher should distinguish between describing what happened and interpreting.

The researcher should be well aware of the difference between describing what he observes versus interpreting what he observed. It should be avoided to report interpretations rather than an objective account of the observations54. For example, an interpretive description of a patient could be “he was in terrible pain”. An objective description would be “he was screaming and his face turned pale while grimacing”. “To interpret is to impose your own judgment on what you see” (Mack, 200554, p23). The danger is that interpretations can turn out to be wrong. Therefore the researcher should ask her/himself “what is my evidence for this claim?”54. One way of separating descriptions and interpretations is by separating them visually on paper or screen.

3.2.6.3        Draw a map of the setting or settings you observe.

Maps might support your memory and are a tool to reconstruct interactions and movements of people in a room.

3.2.6.4        Audio or video

Audio or video recordings of observations are generally not permissible unless all ethical requirements are fulfilled and informed consent has been obtained.