Observing and recording
Methods differ in the way casual observation takes place, how the observer observes a phenomenon, or how the latter is shown to the former. Observation, when practiced thoroughly, is a fundamental research skill that enables us to grasp the social world in its details and as a whole, to investigate and create closer to the reality observed, for or about the people and objects observed, and it is the questions that arise from this connection that makes the work process more socially engaged.
Unobtrusive measures, fly-on-the-wall observation, design ethnography, participant observation, shadowing, among others, are some of the methods that I would like to explore through specific examples that I have attentively observed and recorded through my camera or sound recorder. They will be added here whenever times gives me the opportunity to write on them.
1. Unobtrusive measures: Bonfires and Firecrackers
Without an adequate maintenance, the pavement of a street may suffer severe deteriorations over the years due to constant exposure, construction quality, temperature variations, water penetration or even roots heave, when trees do not have an adequate growing space underground. On the other hand, certain damages are ephemeral such as the traces of advertising notices or painting as well as those of bonfires or firecrackers. During every Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, dozens of dark stains increasingly appear on different areas of many streets. Once discovered in the morning, these traces could be classified in two categories – bonfires or firecrackers – according to their shape, their location and the period of time in which they were caused. By observing them, these traces as unusual data source could be considered ‘unobtrusive measures’ as they are physical evidence of use accessed without direct contact with participants. This research method finds indirect ways to collect information – the trash of a building block, the graffiti on a wall or, more interestingly, an eroded footpath in the middle of the grass unintentionally made by people who continuously walked on it over time, indicating a preferred shortcut.
Firecrackers and fireworks are usually employed in national festivities and although there are restrictions of using them in populated areas since the past few years, they are still dirtying the pavements of many streets in Beijing’s periphery. On the other side, street bonfires are part of a traditional Chinese custom of people burning offerings and paper money in memory of their ancestors. Their wishes are materialised in gifts, which are in turn dematerialised in the fire and expected of being received by the honoured dead in a spiritual afterlife. Some people make bonfires in urban soils or, more precisely, at the street corners because of their spatial openness to the wind that will in turn blow their wishes to the dead. Firecrackers are part of an excitement from the ground to the sky while bonfires are inner reflections that stay on the ground. The former happens during the Chinese New Year while the latter also takes place during other festivities such as the Qingming Festival, a holiday of ancestor worship.
Further, they both let traces behind that are mainly visible in the morning. People using firecrackers let powder and pieces of cardboard and plastic a bit everywhere while their black stains on the floor have random organic shapes. People doing bonfires let ashes and tree branches used to control the fire while their black stains on the floor have circular shapes as the fire is usually encircled by a circle drawn in chalk or soot with a small opening for wishes to leave through a symbolic door. If we take into account the street bonfires as unobtrusive measures on daylight, they reveal that mourning took place, and it may have been a special night if corners are seen with dozens of piles of dust before the arrival of street cleaners. They may feel a similar desperation than the gardener who finds his soil full of mole holes. For the passer-by who avoids stepping on the ashes, it is an annoying path in an imagined mine field. Both firecrackers and bonfires are officially forbidden but nonetheless permitted as part of Chinese traditions. Bonfires, as markers, indicate cultural heritage, mourning and beliefs of an afterlife. With this example, unobtrusive measures as such are a rather interesting term as samples surround us everywhere, the most recent that I found being this plastic film covering a building's lift buttons and the button '1' and 'closing doors' being ripped out supposedly for being the most used buttons as everyone needs to leave the building at some point in the day and close the doors of the lift in a hurry. Triangulation of methods may be needed to confirm such hypothesis as unobtrusive measures alone are not enough to deduce the veracity of casual observations. They have nonetheless become an essential source of information for research and design even before the term was coined in 1966.