In-person/On-site Observation

  • Normally in blocks of 1-2 hours, repeated several times in order to observe activity at different times, days of the week, and weathers.
  • Can often be co-ordinated with other methods, such as structured interviews or events.

Observation is useful in establishing how people moved around and engage with a site – what they do as opposed to what they say they do. This can be captured in notes or maps (also see behaviour mapping). Whenever conducting observation, reflection is required as to how the researcher presence is impacting on behaviour.

  • Observation was conducted in blocks of 2 hours at different times of day and different weather conditions. 2 hours was quite a good block of time for observation before needing a break – there were no facilities on site, so that was also a factor.
  • It was not possible to follow people around on such a large site, so observation was either completed from the car park (which was quite practical in terms of catching people to talk to as well) or from a spot or while walking on hills.
  • Notes were taken in real time of the patterns of behaviour, weather, passing traffic, and other activities or reflections.
  • The flow of visitors was quite slow, so observation was combined with engagement if the opportunity presented itself.
  • Spending an extended period on site (the longest continuous period was 6 hours) and walking both hills multiple times also connected with multi-sensory/embodied reflections.

Modifications in behaviour were most apparent at the Caterthuns, where participants in other activities expressly stated that they would decide which hill to climb in order to avoid other people, and in the Arnol Blackhouse study. Comparing behaviours observed in the close confines of the conserved blackhouse with visiting practices spoken about in interviews, it was apparent that people were less inclined to linger by the fire or physically engage with the contents of the rooms when there was someone else present.

Observation can also feel uncomfortable as a researcher, particularly when people are clearly surprised or self-conscious to be experiencing a place in the presence of another person.

Multi-sensory/embodied observation

  • Captures the full multi-sensory engagement between people and place.
  • Recognises the body as a tool in the embodied activity of research.
  • Time taken about 1 hour, although the embodied experience is on-going.

Observation is partially interpreted through direct personal experience and this can be formally incorporated through capturing multi-sensory or embodied ways of knowing. This method entails consciously scanning the full range of senses and recording the responses in notes.

  • During the observation I spent time in each part of the site, inside and outside, both by myself and while other people were there.
  • Scanning each of the senses in turn brought focus (also assisted by closing my eyes), and helped to tune into the surroundings and feelings or emotional responses it evoked.
  • I also consciously focused on how dynamic aspects of the environment impacted on these experiences.
  • These reflections were captured in notes made at the time and later when reflecting on the impressions and feelings.

In the Arnol Blackhouse study, many respondents commented on the multi-sensory experience, particularly the presence of the fire in the conserved blackhouse. The sense of smell was significant to the experience of place and connected to other memories and associations of home.

At the Caterthuns, the embodied experience of walking (a common activity for visitors to the site) brought attention to aspects of the site that, while observable, were then felt (also see transect walks). These personal experiences particularly assisted in identifying and understanding values connected to the atmosphere and the affective power of place.

Online observation

  • Similar to in-person observation but looking at publicly accessible posts and comments on social media platforms (such as Instagram, YouTube and Facebook).
  • Regular checking of new posts rather than continuous blocks of time.
  • Relevant content can be identified using key words and hashtags or by focusing on specific pages (such as those for organisations or communities).

Community interactions on public participatory media can be seen as a form of documentary evidence for natural interactions that are unmoderated or unaffected by the observer’s presence. This is with the caveat that online material is not without context (a context that may be difficult to identify or understand without other community interactions) and the method involves processes of selection and interpretation carried out by the researcher.