Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Naturalistic Observation: The Road Less Traveled

The entrance to the park. Let the
observing begin!
Today was quite unusual, and since my posts have been quite short recently I figured I'd take you through it step by step. Class started half an hour earlier today (so really, at about the same time that everyone else usually starts) and hauling myself out of bed even just those few minutes earlier was quite a chore. Worth it, though, for such an exciting day! Instead of our regular lecture format, we spent the morning out in a park observing the behavior of children in their 'natural environment.' It sounded a little weird, but I was assured that for our purposes it was in no way illegal and actually an important aspect of understanding psychology. There are many reasons to observe behavior in this way; naturalistic observation often produces more valid data than experiments performed in a laboratory setting and can help generate new ideas to later be tested in controlled laboratory studies. The main problem with naturalistic observation, as I discovered today, is that it really is uncontrolled. It is sometimes very hard to tell what is going on, and even once you do make some safe inferences and figure it out there is nothing that you can do about it.

At first, no children in sight!
Beautiful nature, though.
The class split into several groups, each to be taken to a different park. Our TA Marjorie helped us maneuver our way to our park location using the bus system,  and from there we were on our own to complete the observation assignment and make our way back to campus for class at 1:15 PM. My group ended up having a bit of a hiccup, since we all sat down with our pens out ready to observe the kids only to watch them all line up and walk out of the park! What can I say, there is really no controlling these kinds of things. We ended up walking over to a nearby playground to join another group. There were plenty of little kids there, so I settled in on a park bench and began the first part of my observation.

The first part of the assignment was to keep a running record of the actions of a single child for 15 minutes -- to write down objectively in the left column each action that the child did and in the right make more subjective inferences or evaluations. Some early elementary school aged boys were splashing in the fountain near me, so I picked one of them in a bright yellow shirt and started writing. I was just barely out of earshot, so I couldn't hear the dialogue between the kids. I documented the behavior, the boy in yellow attempting to tug a shoe out of the hand of another boy (in stripes). The boy in stripes attempting to smack him with the shoe, and the boy in yellow retreating to walk with a little boy in blue. They walked out and around a tree while still maintaining eye contact with the boy in stripes. Leaving the boy in blue to watch, the boy in yellow kicked water at the boy in stripes repeatedly as the boy in stripes wildly swung out with his shoes. As the strange pattern of behavior continued it escalated, and it became clear that this was not just a game but an instance of bullying. The two kids in yellow in blue (who, it should be noted, were both Caucasian) were teaming up to torment the kid in stripes (who appeared to be Asian). As I watched I started to recognize taunting in the motion of the two bullies, and frustration and desperation in the behavior of the victim. At one point thee group got closer and I recognized shouting dialogue from the boys "I'll throw [the ball] at him too once you get it." "You idiot!" "I'm just defending myself... because you hate me!"

It was a terrible situation, but somehow intriguing. There were so many details I was missing. Did these children know each other before today? Was there some previous event that caused them to act this way? Why didn't the parents get involved earlier? Was there someone in their lives modeling this kind of behavior, or did it stem from something else? What could possibly cause children to behave this way? Worst of all, though, there was really nothing I could do about it. I had to move on to the next part of my observation. I did notice the boy in stripes on my way out of the park later, though, sitting on the swing set dejected and teary while being comforted and swung by who I can only assume was his father.

A slightly different route through campus
 revealed this beautiful building.
Campus really is like a castle!
For the next part of my assignment, a frequency count, I watched two kids and tallied the number of playground interactions they had with people of their own race versus people of other races. This was significantly harder, since it was challenging to figure out what counted as an "interaction." It was hard to reduce such a complex situation to purely quantitative, but still the segregation was clear. Astonishing how such concepts as power dynamics and race relations make themselves evident in even just the microcosm of children on a playground.

Instead of taking the bus back to campus, we decided to take the 30 minute walk back through the unfamiliar streets to get some fresh air and see the sights. I ended up getting lunch at Medici for the second time, and then walking with Bryan (another student in my class, who is from Taiwan) to check out a mini-museum in the economics building. He had lots of questions about American politics, so I tried my best to explain to him the American government system and the intricacies of this year's presidential race. That was a tough one.

A display of awards in the economics building,
including a Nobel Prize diploma and medal!

Alice? THE Alice?
On the way back to class from the dorm, I ran into YET ANOTHER ALICE in the elevator. That's four now besides me. Are there more?! I had to take a picture with her because it was just too insane.

We didn't do much in class during the afternoon other than share our experiences with our observation assignments and work on designing our experiments. We got out early, so I had plenty of time to get some other work done and write you all this novel. I've still go a little more homework to do today in preparation for my experiment starting Thursday and my evening out tomorrow. Here's to a productive evening!


  1. Interesting day, as you noted. Observation can end up
    Being one of those moral struggles: intervention changes the observation but what is ones responsibility, etc etc.
    I was so happy to hear your much loved and much missed voice.
    I appreciate your attention to details which makes your descriptions vivid. Hugs and kisses

    1. Great comment William!

      I really like your insight into this wonderful blog post written by our very best and brightest!

  2. Did observing change their behavior? did the kids or parents notice you all taking notes?
    Such an amazing campus, are the buildings just as castle like on the inside?

  3. Wow! Great work Alice! I really like your enthusiasm in this post - I could almost feel my self watching little children!

    I'm psyched to hear more about psychology. I guess you could say I'm psyched-ology!