Notetaking For Observation And Participant Observation Part 4 by Beverly Peters

Beverly Peters
Beverly Peters

Hello again! I am Beverly Peters, a faculty member in Measurement and Evaluation at American University. This is the final article in a 4 part series on Using Observation and Participant Observation for Monitoring and Evaluation. In the previous article of this series, we discussed what to observe when engaging in observation and participant observation. This article will provide a guide for notetaking when using these tools.

As I engage in observation or participant observation, I prefer to take notes on data that is relevant or interesting to my evaluation during my actual research. Throughout this process, I make sure that I am consulting my logic model or evaluation statement of work, to remind myself what role observation and participant observation are meant to play in my overall effort. I keep myself open to new data or observations that might be relevant, yet not planned or expected. I remember the advice of Spradley and Merriam and Tisdell on the attributes that researchers could potentially observe.

The bulk of my notes includes text. This is where I write what I observe. These notes are as detailed as I can make them. My notes might also include interview quotes or summaries, if I have key informant interviews or conversations as part of my participant observation activities. I always make sure to reference my respondent, if conducting interviews as a part of participant observation, so that I can follow up with a formal interview if needed.

I find drawing maps to be particularly useful. For me, this helps to see the relationship between different entities, and how project stakeholders divide space. I might also draw diagrams to help me think through different relationships.  If appropriate, I take pictures or a video recording, or task a second evaluator to do this.

When I leave the project, I like to revisit my notes as soon as possible thereafter, to see if I missed anything or if I need to add more information, while it is still fresh in my mind. I also point out areas where I have questions so that I can follow up at a later date.

Sometimes it is not possible to take notes while you are conducting observation and participant observation. In these cases, I always find a quiet place after my research to write down as much as I can remember. Sometimes pictures or videos can help to remind me of important observations that I may have forgotten.

Then, I usually step back for a day or two to mull over my thoughts. A couple of days after my research, I return to my notes and add in analyses or areas where I need to conduct more research to clarify my data. Only after I have several days of observation and participant observation, or other research such as interviews, do I start to analyze it. I approach the analysis of observation and participant observation the same way I approach the analysis of qualitative interview data: becoming familiar with the data, looking for themes and concepts, defining and coding these for comparison, looking for consistencies and inconsistences in the data, and then searching for puzzles while always asking WHY.

In my monitoring and evaluation work, I have found observation and participant observation to be useful tools, especially as part of a well thought out evaluation plan that defines the kind of data I need to collect, yet leaves room for other observations or data to emerge from the research. In particular, participant observation has given me unparalleled insight into local needs and project performance, and helps me to develop more informed interview and focus group questions and surveys.

Rad Resources:

Throughout this series, I have cited a number of references, including:

  • Bernard, H.R. (2018). Research Methods in Anthropology, (6th ed). New York: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Merriam, S. and Tisdell, E. (2015). Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation, (4th ed).San Francisco: Wiley.
  • Spradley, J. (2016). Participant Observation, (reprint edition). Long Grove: Waveland Press.
  • Tracy, S. (2019). Qualitative Research Methods: Collecting Evidence, Crafting Analysis, Communicating Impact, (2nd ed). San Francisco: Wiley.

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