It was 1 p.m. and the Heinz Lounge was empty. A student walked by and peered into the room only to see someone deliberately staring into a trash can, alone. The someone was me, feeling very unlike a social researcher as I took notes on the waste of the people I was attempting to learn about.
For Research Methods, we are given assignments that allow us to practice a few of the techniques used to conduct research, each suited for certain types of studies. This observation was part of a qualitative research project on the topic my group chose to investigate: student use of and behavior in Arcadia’s lounges. Qualitative research doesn’t start with a theory to test: It starts by observing real life. Given the exploratory nature of qualitative research, anything could be interesting. Since I didn’t know what the themes of the research would be yet, I needed to write down as much as could, even if that meant notes on discarded water bottles and M&M Minis containers. Those notes didn’t end up being a part of our findings (hey, they had a fair shot—garbology is a useful field!) but I had plenty of notes from sites other than a trash can.
Each time I strategically found a place to sit and observe students in the Heinz Lounge, Thomas Lobby Lounge, Dilworth Blue Lounge, and the Stein Fireplace Lounge, gathering data on Arcadia campus life, I felt myself being watched, too. If I was lucky, I’d be in a position that prevented other students from noticing me. But if I was bold, I could see them clearly and they could see me, too. I was inadvertently engaging in tiny battles of awkward eye contact and peripheral vision. Despite feeling like weirdos, my group conducted more than 15 hours of observation and interviewing in which we were able to establish four themes: social connectedness via technology, lounge preferences, conversation topics, and personal boundaries in a public space. Success!
For many of us aspiring social scientists, though, the experience in its entirety is not what we first picture when we think of conducting research. I pictured interviews with intriguing people, statistics scrolling on computer screens, lively discussions with colleagues, and even frustrating moments in airports. The effect of a course like Research Methods is that it shows us how limited our ideas of research really are. We don’t think of (or know of) moments when what the researcher anticipated didn’t match reality, moments when mistakes were made. I didn’t think it’d be difficult to go unnoticed during an observation. But truth be told, it’s comforting to know that even highly educated and highly experienced researchers don’t smoothly sail through their projects.
After a few rounds, I’d say I’m still an obvious novice. This was a project, not a serious sort of contribution to our knowledge of the social world. But I’m learning to walk in a new way, with a new purpose, and eventually I’ll plant my steps as a social researcher more confidently. I suspect there will still be surprises along the way, but I know each surprise will add to my understanding and ability.