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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Seeing is not observing

@anniemurphypaul advises us how to increase our powers of observation - by emulating scientists. "As practiced by scientists", she writes, "observation is a rigorous activity that integrates what the scientists are seeing with what they already know and what they think might be true."

Here are some tips that she draws from an article by Eberbach and Crowley.

  • Train your attention. Practise focusing on relevant features. 
  • Keep field notes - careful records of your observations, quantifying them whenever possible. Try attaching a number to each episode you observe: how many times a customer picks up an item before deciding to buy it, how many minutes employees spend talking about office politics before getting down to business. 
  • Develop hypotheses that you can test. What happens if a salesperson invites a potential customer to try out a product for herself? How does the tone of the weekly meeting change when it’s held in a different room? 
  • Extended reflection. Actively engage with your observations after the event, organizing and analyzing what you've seen 
  • Cycle. Engage in the cycle of observing, recording, testing, and analyzing many times over. 


It may be useful here to distinguish between Field Notes and a Field Journal. Field Notes contain a record of what has been seen or heard by the observer. Whereas the Field Journal contains a record of ideas, thoughts, interpretations and other material. In particular, the Field Journal records anything else that was going on at the time, which later reflection may determine to have influenced the observations.

Sheldon Greaves outlines the approach adopted by Joseph Grinnell, who kept detailed records of his observations from 1894 to 1939, and who was Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley for most of that time.

"The idea behind the Grinnell system is to turn you from a passive recorder of information into a participant in a dialogue with nature. Rather than just recording bits of data, you poke, explore and cross-examine nature in order to sluice nuggets of knowledge from what you see."

But in her review of Molly Gloss's short story The Grinnell method (Sept 2012), Maureen Kincaid Speller offers a detailed critique of the Grinnell method for observing human affairs, and complains that "there seems to be no place in Grinnell’s method for analysis, just the ongoing accumulation of information".

Which is clearly why we also need extended reflection.


Annie Murphy Paul, How To Increase Your Powers of Observation (Time Ideas, May 2012)

Catherine Eberbach, Kevin Crowley From Everyday to Scientific Observation: How Children Learn to Observe the Biologist’s World (abstract) Review of Educational Research March 2009 vol. 79 no. 1 39-68 doi: 10.3102/0034654308325899

Cathryn Carson, Writing, Writing, Writing: The Natural History Field Journal as a Literary Text (Feb 2007)

Jamie Cromertie, How to keep your field notes and journal,

Sheldon Greaves, Making, Maintaining, and Using Serious Field Notes (Feb 2012)

Paul Handford, Notes on Keeping a Field Journal,

Betsy Mason, Beautiful Data: The Art of Science Field Notes (Wired Science, July 2011)




Places are still available on my Organizational Intelligence workshop, November 22nd.

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