The hallmark method of cultural anthropology is participant observation—total immersion in a social milieu and simultaneous scrutiny of it from an outsider perspective. In a fieldwork project, participant observation may last for months or even years and will usually entail careful documentation in notes, recordings, images, and artifacts. The anthropologist analyzes and interprets observational and other data to create a written ethnography, a document about a culture or society.

The anthropological kit also includes a far simpler tool: just being present and paying close attention. This form of observation may not even entail note-taking or incur any significant costs, yet it builds skill and knowledge, whether by sharpening the senses or by enabling the observer to scan the environment or even refine or answer research questions.

In its various forms, observation is a tool with a multitude of applications in libraries, for example, assessing when and how different spaces are used, gaining a better understanding of the role of legacy and high-tech equipment in academic work, or discerning the rhythms of work throughout the day, week, and semester. As part of a formal study done by a trained team or as an isolated activity conducted individually, observation can be a quick, easy, inexpensive, and effective tool.

Ways to Observe

Anthropology textbooks and handbooks provide extensive guidance, but the essentials are easy to relate. To develop observational perception, sit and watch, listen, and sense. You need not take notes; instead, become immersed in sights, sounds, aromas, temperatures, and other ambient qualities of human life.

To gain further understanding, look for patterns of movement and practice. Watch people interact with each other and with their environment. Notice how people are similar and different. Write as much as you can, as fast as you can. Make maps or use codes and make counts for quicker data collection.

The documentation you produce during observation is raw information to be analyzed and interpreted at a later stage. Your data will be far more useful and powerful later on if you refrain from interpreting your observations while you are making them. If you are taking notes, only write what you see, hear, and sense; figure out what it means later on.

A Simple Exercise

Find a place where people are working and sit or stand where you can see and hear them but will not attract undue attention. Watch, listen, and take it all in. Pay particular attention to the activities and utterances of the people who are at work and their interactions with others in the space. Do this for ten minutes, keeping your eyes closed for at least a minute or two. Do not write or make audio notes or talk to anyone during the observation period, unless that is unavoidable. At the end of ten minutes, make a few notes about your sense of people, their activities, or the site in general. Readers of this post are invited to note their observations in the comments section.

Learning from Observations

Many people who conduct this simple observation discover that they have been nearly oblivious to the environment and the people in it, passing by the same cafe or the same floor of the library each day without really perceiving what is all around them. We fall so easily into a perceptual rut, seeing what we expect to see, hearing what we expect to hear, and ignoring what is really happening in our corner of the world.

Focused observation is an excellent antidote to sensory numbness. When we observe carefully in a library, for example, we gain a much better understanding of how people distribute themselves, what they do, and how they deal with each other and the objects in their environment. We also get a better sense of important environmental conditions, such as noise, temperature, odor, wear, and overall ambiance. For example, a space that sounds terribly noisy to someone passing through may seem very different and even much quieter to the observer accustomed over a period of time to the ebb and flow of the soundscape. People who seem fidgety at first blush may be observed to settle into a pattern of tension and relaxation more amenable to scholarship. But to realize all this takes time and a willingness to stop moving and sense the world as it is.

The observer is richly rewarded, whether with clearer perception, deepened understanding, or usable data. For almost no cost and a very small investment of time, we create a foundation of observed data upon which to build our more extensive inquiries. We can pursue this pathway toward grounded plans with the hope that our decisions will be better informed and more successful in the end.