The sociologist Harold Garfinkel once talked about doing sociology as making things ‘anthropologically strange.’
What did he mean exactly by this?
Well, it’s a tough one. I like to think of it more as a way of simply looking at things than any particular kind of theory or concept about things. For example, when we look out upon a scene of people talking to each other, what do we see? Or to put it another way, what is seeable? Sitting around the dinner table, or chatting at a coffee shop, or socializing at a bar, it all seems quite straight forward. We’ve taken the things we do on a daily basis so much for granted that what is most seeable, or most noticable let’s say, about a particular situation is precisley what breaks our expectations. When we are driving down the road, it’s what is out of place, a car swerving out of its lane, or dog crossing the road, that catches our attention and takes us out of our often automatic driving reverie. We have selective attention:
If you were a Martian, or since Martians always get all the attention when talking about seeing things weirdly, rather, let’s say, if you were a Alpha Centaurian, flying on your intergallactic spaceshuttle and happened upon the earth and, barring all common sense for a moment, were actually able to hang out with some humans, what would you see? Or what would you notice?
Everything would presumably be new, weird, unfamiliar and anthropologically strange. And suppose, since we are supposing quite a bit already, that you could understand what was being said, by some Matrix like computer program to speak another language? Despite this, as an Alpha Centaurian, would you be able to ‘understand’ the words being spoken, lacking the know-how of the cultural and embodied embeddedness of meaning?
The family sitting around the dinner table would appear to be an utterly baffling seen of individuals cooperating around some food source, talking about each others lives, asking existential questions like, “did you have a good day?” and so on. And the language, although presumably having the ability to ‘understand’ spoken language, would be a kaleidoscope of activity that would overload your ability to process anything at all in the moment. Why does one person have to lock gaze with another individual when speaking? Does this ensure mutual understanding?
What happens when the child averts his gaze? Does this mean something? What does a large circular motion with the hands simultaneously coupled with the word “a whole lot” and a laugh to boot mean when embedded in a larger sentence with other gestures and facial expressions, and why did some at the table seemingly mimic the laugh, while others did not? Why did the child say, “If you could pass the chicken, that would be awesome,” coupled with a smile and an index finger gesturing out into space towards the general area of the chicken? Why was this necessary? Isn’t the word ‘chicken’ perfectly understandable with out a gesticulating pointer?
And why would it be awesome if the chicken were passed, that is of course if the surrounding individuals are able to pass it, seeing as the child asked “if they could,” apparently questioning their ability to do so, and why was it phrased as a statement, rather than a question? Or is it a question? What is a question? It seemed more subversive than a straight forward question!
Of course this is all a bit in jest, but the point is that there is a lot going with communication that fades under the radar of our attention spotlight and is just implicitly ‘understood.’
This was sparked by a short article I recently read on conducting participant observation for qualitative research. One entertaining aspect of this article was towards the end which mentioned some techniques or activities to hone one’s observational senses. While this may have been intended for researchers, there’s no reason anyone can’t do a little ‘research’ for themselves.
If there’s one thing about learning a new language, it’s that language learners all become anthropologists a bit in their endeavor to figure what people are saying and doing and why. So here are some techniques of participant observation that might be fun to improve that ever important ability in learning a new language: figuring out what’s going on.
First some suggestions from Dewalt and Dewalt (2002),
• When one is not sure what to attend to, he/she should look to see what it is that he/she is attending to and try to determine how and why one’s attention has been drawn as it has.
• Listen carefully to conversations, trying to remember as many verbatim conversations, nonverbal expressions, and gestures as possible. To assist in seeing events with “new eyes,” turn detailed jottings into extensive field notes, including spatial maps and interaction maps. Look carefully to seek out new insights.
• Being attentive for any length of time is difficult to do. One tends to do it off and on. One should be aware that his/her attention to details comes in short bursts that are followed by inattentive rests, and those moments of attention should be capitalized upon.
And Merriam (1998) has some interesting ones too:
• pay attention, shifting from a “wide” to a “narrow” angle perspective, focusing on a single person, activity, interaction, then returning to a view of the overall situation;
• look for key words in conversations to trigger later recollection of the conversation content;
• concentrate on the first and last remarks of a conversation, as these are most easily remembered;
• during breaks in the action, mentally replay remarks and scenes one has observed.
The article by Barbara B. Kawulich (2005) describes some activities that might prove to be beneficial towards developing those perception muscles ever crucial for hearing and seeing a new language and culture:
Sight without sound—In this exercise, students are asked to find a setting in which they are able to see activity but in which they are unable to hear what is being said in the interaction. For a specified length of time (5 to 10 minutes), they are to observe the action/interaction, and record as much information as they can in as much detail as possible.
This exercise has also been done by turning off the sound on the television and observing the actions/interactions on a program; students, in this case, are instructed to find a television program with which they are unfamiliar, so they are less apt to impose upon their field notes what they believe they know about familiar characters or programs. This option is less desirable, as students sometimes find it difficult to find a program with which they do not have some familiarity. The purpose of the exercise is to teach the students to begin observing and taking in information using their sight. 
Sound without sight—In this exercise, similar to the above exercise, students are asked to find a setting in which they are able to hear activity/interactions, but in which they are unable to see what is going on. Again, for a specified length of time, they are asked to record as much as they can hear of the interaction, putting their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about what is happening on the right side of the paper, and putting the information they take in with their senses on the left hand side of the paper. Before beginning, they again are asked to describe the setting, but, if possible, they are not to see the participants in the setting under study. In this way, they are better able to note their guesses about the participants’ ages, gender, ethnicity, etc.
My students have conducted this exercise in restaurants, listening to conversations of patrons in booths behind them, while sitting on airplanes or other modes of transportation, or by sitting outside classrooms where students were interacting, for example… The lesson here is that, while much information can be taken in through hearing conversations, without the body language, meanings can be misconstrued.
Participant Observation—Students are asked to participate in some activity that takes at least 2 hours, during which they are not allowed to take any notes. Having a few friends or family members over for dinner is a good example of a situation where they must participate without taking notes. In this situation, the students must periodically review what they want to remember.
They are instructed to remember as much as possible, then record their recollections in as much detail as they can remember as soon as possible after the activity ends. Students are cautioned not to talk to anyone or drink too much, so their recollections will be unaltered. The lesson here is that they must consciously try to remember bits of conversation and other details in chronological order.
I’ll leave that last word to Schopenhauer for some extra food for thought, whose implicit reminder in his statement compels us to reassess the world and look at it again, as anthropoligically strange.
“Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
The feature image for this post was taken yesterday in my backyard
The main resource used for this post is Kawulich, B. (2005) Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method, FORUM: QUALITATIVE SOCIAL RESEARCH, Volume 6, No. 2, Art. 43