Observations in public spaces

One of the most characteristic applications of observational research is that which is carried out in public spaces. Indeed, given the nature of this setting, observation is almost always the preferred technique, given the difficulty of arranging interviews in such a setting and the lack of archival back-up for a shift­ing, heterogeneous, ill-defined population. Traditional public space research, such as that of Erving Goffman, was carried out in the manner of the covert, ‘complete outsider’ role. Although that is no longer necessarily so, public spaces remain a distinctive ‘field’ for observational research.

Some public spaces are fairly clearly delineated (e.g. airport waiting rooms, shopping malls), others less so (e.g. busy downtown streets), but all provide the context for studies involving moral order, interpersonal relations, and norms for dealing with different categories of individuals, including total strangers. A case can be made that in urban society, public spaces are an ideal setting for research in that they represent a microcosm of the dense, heterogeneous – even dangerous – society at large. People in urban societies do seem to spend a large part of their lives in public, so much so that formerly private functions (e.g. talking on a phone) are now commonly carried out in public. It is mainly in smaller-scale tra­ditional societies where we still find the core activities carried on behind closed doors, as it were – private spaces to which we do not have immediate observa­tional access. As such, observational studies in public spaces allow researchers to gather data on large groups of people and thereby to identify patterns of group behavior.

It may be said that the anonymity and alienation of life in a modern urban envi­ronment lead people to create enclaves of private space within the larger public context; even people crammed together in an elevator will typically stand in rigid postures, to convey the message that they are not interested in touching anyone else. Nevertheless, when people leave those small protected spaces and go out into the larger public space beyond, they must go forth with sufficient knowledge about the potential range of social types they might have to deal with; in other words, they have to know how to deal with the actions of strangers. In traditional societies, it was generally assumed that strangers could never be trusted because one never knew how to ‘read’ them. But in urban society, where almost everyone is a stranger, it would be dysfunctional to treat everyone as a massive, collective unknown. So we learn to put people into categories or types, and we respond to those types even if we do not personally know the individual representatives of those types. Of course, doing so inevitably leads to stereotyping, with occasion­ally unfortunate consequences. But that is the trade-off most people make in order to be able to negotiate a potentially threatening environment.

Perhaps the most famous – even notorious – example of public space observa­tional research is that of Humphreys (1975), who adopted a covert observer-as- participant role in a public bathroom. His intention was to observe men engaging in impersonal homosexual encounters. Using a very structured methodology of data recording, he concluded that men in this setting adopt one of several possible roles, which he described as waiter, voyeur, masturbator, insertor, and insertee. He also meticulously recorded the characteristics of participants and their relations with their temporary partners, as well as with potentially dangerous outsiders. The provocative nature of Humphreys’s study raised eyebrows at the time of its publication, and it continues to be an object-lesson in the ethics of observational research, a topic to which we will now return, using this study as a case example.

Source: Angrosino Michael (2008), Doing Ethnographic and Observational Research, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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