Participant-Observation is a technique used to not only collect information about a group of people but to also experience the group’s activities first hand. The technique involves simultaneously participating while observing a group of people. In my own research on a university writing center, for example, I worked as a writing tutor and went to writing tutoring sessions. I thus participated in the writing center while observing others in the writing center and taking field notes.
Some anthropologists have even gone undercover to better understand their target audience. For instance, Cathy Small (an anthropology professor I’ve had the pleasure to study under at NAU) went undercover to better understand a population that bewildered her—college students. She wrote a book on her experience that led to significant improvements on the NAU campus: My Freshman Year.
#1: Separating Policy from Reality
Often the social hierarchy within an office has a subtle disconnect from the hierarchy established via policy. At the writing center where I conducted research, I noticed that there was a disconnection between what the policy claimed should be the hierarchical order for seeking help and what the reality was. Instead of first year writing tutors seeking help from the more experienced tutors, they were seeking help amongst themselves. The result was a cycle of angst—tutors seeking help from each other turning into tutors venting to each other. This observation lead to the construction of a more direct mentor program, which continues to help the university writing center flourish.
#2: Optimizing Workplace Environment
Communication patterns, once identified, can provide insight into workplace environment and efficiency. For example, at an office where I conducted research, the manager had a singular linguistic style when talking to employees. One second the manager would be venting about things an employee has no control over and the next second s/he would be critiquing the employee’s work. The employees thus felt like they were constantly in trouble even when they weren’t.
#3: Seeing through “Facts-of-Life”
Everyday we have routines that we do automatically and barely ever stop to think about their efficiency or point in our lives. In another office where I conducted research, one of these routines was complaining about bank employees who called to request declaration pages. The bank employees would ask for the wrong types of documents because they weren’t trained in insurance terminology. This routine was such a “fact-of-life” for the insurance agents that they didn’t stop to think about how or even if they could change this annoying pattern. I thus suggested a marketing campaign where they would send insurance term cheat sheets to banks with their logo. It served two functions: 1) it helped communication between the banks and the insurance company and 2) it created a way to market their services to bank employees.
#4: Pointing out Industry Specific Vocabulary
Have you ever called an insurance office and didn’t understand the terms they were using? What about an IT person? A doctor? Often when we are working we are so caught up in communicating with coworkers using the industry-specific vocabulary that we forget which terms are industry specific or even specific to your office. One technique to remind yourself which vocabulary words aren’t readily known to people outside the industry is to have new employees (or your trained expert) keep a list of words they aren’t familiar with and share those lists with the office.
A trained eye is capable of the following:
- Identifying social hierarchies within a workplace
- Creating solutions to disconnects between policy and reality
- Identifying problematic communication patterns
- Creating customized communication lessons
- Seeing past “what is” for “what could be”
- Taking note of which vocabulary items should be avoided when talking to clients