Embodied Observation

Karl, my husband, has often accused me of being in the witness protection program.

“How can you be from Utah and be such a wimp in the winter?” he asks.  “There’s something fishy going on.”

He is right.  Once I moved south, I lost my winter coat (if you will).  I get cold easily, stay cold easily, and am often found searching the house for a blanket or sweatshirt. I especially get cold in the kitchen (where I spend a fair amount of time).  This past holiday season, I got a nice cozy pair of slippers to help keep my toes warm while I cook. Even with the slippers, though, we play out our couples dance of turning the heat up and down individually, wondering how the other could be hot or cold.

The problem now is that our puppy (8 weeks old) loves my slippers.  Being untrained, we have her relegated to the kitchen where her kennel lives.  She follows me around the kitchen and chews on my slippers.  The first time she started doing this, I got down on the floor on my belly, armed myself with puppy toys, and played at her level (slowly moving my slippers out of chewing reach).  As I played, I noticed a breeze (ok, perhaps I’m over exaggerating)—I noticed I was feeling cold air.  Looking around, I saw a crack between the molding and the base cabinet under the sink.  As I laid there on my belly in the middle of the kitchen, I reached over and placed my hand over it and felt cold air.

I GET IT NOW, I thought.  All the while my feet have been freezing in the kitchen and I had no idea there was a hole that was bringing in cold air.  All it took was getting down to “puppy perspective” to see and feel the air.

Over the next few weeks, I start the “data collection” portion of my qualitative methods class.  Next week I teach “observation.”  I always struggle with this topic—not because it is hard to talk about, but because it is hard to teach.  How do I teach students that observation is not people watching?  That they have to attend to things they typically don’t attend to and make strange things that they consider background? How do I teach them to be present in the observation space?  To be IN the space?  Where I’ve landed is that they need to do it—to practice.  And in doing it, they often realize just how many details they miss.  I send them out to Hillsborough Street (main drag of campus) and tell them to find a space to watch people for 15 minutes.  I have them write down as much as they can, and to be as detailed as possible.  Then we come back to class, exchange fieldnotes, and write questions on them—with the goal of seeing how many details can be further explored.  The group that is the most detailed in their question-writing (e.g., writes the most questions that push the observers for more details) gets a prize (yes, this class often occurs close to Valentine’s Day so I use the opportunity to purge the house of our candy).

This usually works.  But what it doesn’t teach the students is how to observe outside of their own eyes and skins.  What it doesn’t teach is how to see the hole in the molding.  How do I teach students to metaphorically get down on their bellies and look from a different perspective?  The old adage always comes up for me—“walk a mile in another’s shoes.”  Sounds easy, right?

“Empathize.  Understand from the perspective of the other.”

Truly doing it is difficult.  In my own research, I have been most successful doing this when I have “tried on” the norms, practices, and activities of the participants in my study.  I started using mechanical pencils in my engineering research, tried to build a model of an outdoor park in landscape architecture, and got into a human powered vehicle in a design course.  Empty, symbolic actions?  Not for me.  These actions—for me—allow me more than just a bird’s eye view of the culture.  They are different than just watching participants use a mechanical pencil, build a model outdoor park, or design a human powered vehicle.  For me, these actions involve me doing something with more than my eyes. They are, in fact, embodied observations.  I see things I would not have seen in ways that involve much more than just seeing.  I notice subtleties that I would not have noticed without this embodied perspective. These subtleties have added important hues of understanding about the cultures I study.

The question remains—how do I teach (in two to three class sessions) what took me years and years to learn as a researcher?  How do I teach embodied observation?  How do I help students understand what it means to see—with hearts and eyes open—life through the eyes of the “other”?  How do I support them as they take the risk of being with instead of simply watching?

Belly up to the research….
Belly up.

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One thought on “Embodied Observation

  1. I didn’t know you got a puppy. I can’t wait to see pictures! Love this blog by the way – and your website. Funny to think about you in Alaska while reading about how you lost your winter coat in NC.