Qualitative Methodology:  Ethnographic and Phenomenologic 

Approaches for Studying Communication in Context


Methodological Guidelines for Observations and Interviewing



R. Bogdan & S. Biklen (1992).  Qualitative research for education: an introduction to theory and methods.  Boston:  Allyn & Bacon.


C. Glesne & A. Peshkin (1992). Becoming qualitative researchers.  White Plans, NY:  Longman Publishing Group. 





Objective/descriptive field notes or data:  Write down as much as you can. Try to take notes such that you can reconstruct the moment. Include what you see, hear, and smell.  Include your observations about the setting, including the layout of the room, the materials that are present, and the activities and events that are occurring.  Do certain aspects of the situation catch your eye: if so, describe them.  Pay attention to the participants.  Who is in the room?  What are they doing?  Is there anything remarkable about clothing, interactions?  Are you a “participant observer?”  If so, describe your situation and if appropriate, your role.   Provide as many specific examples as you can.  Include observations about verbal and nonverbal behaviors. 

Strive for detail and accuracy! 



“The fifth grade class contained 15 girls and 12 boys.  When I entered, they were clustered loosely into six groups.  One group of four girls was trying to see who could blow the biggest bubble with their gum.  A group of five boys was imitating a Kung Fu movie they had seen on TV the evening before…..”  (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992, pg. 47)


Subjective/analytic field notes [observer comments-in brackets] or data:  This component of the observation is sometimes called “observer comments.”  They should reflect the “thoughts and feelings” you have as you observe.  These notes are your reflections of your observation.  Write down what you feel, issues that seem to come up, ideas, impressions and/or speculations.  If you have particular reflections as you are writing your objective/descriptive field notes, place them in brackets as they occur. 



“A girl around three years old entered the room slowly.  She looked around the room with her eyes opened very wide [as if she was looking for someone familiar, maybe her mother].  She took small steps backward, toward the door.  Her head was lowered. [She seemed out of place.]  She began to shake her hands and look around the room rather quickly.  [She seemed almost frightened.  I began to feel very sad for her.]” 


Sometimes your subjective/analytic observations will come at the very end of your objective description.  These comments should also be in brackets and should capture your thoughts as they might reflect what occurred, what you observed, how you felt, etc. 


Interpretation of notes into patterns and themes:  Interpretation requires that you sort through the field notes and try to determine patterns or themes.  Attempt to put together pieces of information that are similar or seem related to each other.  You are looking for central ideas that are reflective of the observations that you have made.  What are the most critical, important patterns in behavior that you observed?  Provide specific examples from the objective and subjective notes to support the pattern.  



“The boy seemed highly distracted during the teachers 15-minute lecture.  He got up from his seat five times in 15 minutes.  He talked to his friends whenever the teacher paused in her lecture.  He drew pictures in his notebook.  He opened and closed his desk top about 10 times during the 15-minute lecture.  He only seemed to take two or three sentences of notes.”


Conclusions: This is the final section of the ethnographic observation.  In this section you attempt to summarize and draw conclusions from the patterns and themes.  What can you conclude about the focus of your observation?  How do the patterns and themes come together to support a conclusion?  Think about this as your finale.  This is where you can speculate about all that you have seen. You are the “translator” of the data; this is your chance to make a meaningful account of your notes and your interpretation (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992, pg. 153).  






Always decide the purpose of your interview first.  What information do you wish to obtain?  Do you wish to learn about the “lived experience” of the individual; for example, the experience of living with a disease?  If so, then you must not lead the respondent; you must let his/her story come out in his/her own words.  Ask open-ended questions. This type of interview allows you to see how the respondent will structure the topic; how he/she sees the topic unfolding; what issues seem to be most important to discuss.  This allows for a free-flowing interaction. Or do you wish to learn the respondent’s opinion about a specific event?  If so, then you will probably need to structure the interview in the direction of the event and the specific information you wish to know.  Ask discrete questions. Your questions will reflect your purpose.  Interviews can be completely open-ended or completely structured, or anywhere in between.  Most importantly a good interview allows for an easy, open discussion.  Most of all you wish to obtain the respondents perspective, rich with the respondent’s words, and filled with details and examples.  Your job is to ask the questions that will give you that result.  Remember even when asking open-ended questions, you can ask for clarification or amplification. 



Open-ended question:  “I understand you have diabetes.  What is that like?”

Discrete question:  “What was your opinion of the doctor’s attitude when he diagnosed your disease?” 



308 Home