One of the most available methods of social scientific study is direct observation, or systematically observing and describing what takes place in a social setting. A researcher may attend a worship service, for example, taking note of who is involved in the service, what they are doing, who is and who is not paying attention, what the implicit rules are, how the service is led, and so on. By actively perceiving, recording, and analyzing these congregational events, a researcher can gain important insights to the congregation.

How To

  • Take on the role of reporter, looking at the particular details of the setting, the individuals involved, and what the people are doing. Take note of whowhatwherewhen, and how.
  • In some cases, taking overt notes won’t be too intrusive or awkward, particularly during worship services. Make a note about what you notice about the scene and the actors, key phrases that are used, important parts of the ritual, as well as any disruptions of the flow. Write down enough to jog your memory, and after the event spend some time to write a complete overview of the event.
  • Take a look at the Observation Protocol to see what sorts of aspects of the situation you may want to focus on.
  • Keep an eye on non-verbal communication; much of what is communicated is not necessarily spoken. Non-verbal indicators like vocal tone, emotional expression, eye behavior, and posture are important cues to interpreting the situation.
  • Sketch a picture of where people are seated, and who is sitting where. Are particular people clustered in special areas? Are special pews reserved for visitors, lay leaders, or important families in the congregation? How do people enter the worship service — what about if people sneak out during the service or come late?

Important Considerations

  • Problems with Being An Insider — being an individual inside a congregation or tradition has its disadvantages for attempting to study the congregation, particularly with this method. One of the important tenets of social research is to attempt to treat the focus of study like an object of study, which often requires a researcher to take multiple perspectives and points of view towards the object. Direct observation requires the researcher to take note of what is going on around them, making it easy for individuals with strong perceptions of what is happening to only record what fits with their perceptions, ignoring what doesn’t fit.
    • To attempt to gain some distance from your congregation, it might be useful to attend a different church or different type of religious organization. Seeing the variations of religious life can focus your eye back to important areas of study within your own faith community.
    • Another way to attempt to gain distance is by asking new members, non-members, or outside consultants to give some perspective to your study.
  • Benefits of Being an Insider –– you should use your knowledge of your research topic to know what to observe and how to interpret situations.


Walking Tour

Another method you can use that is based on observational methods is to walk around your congregation’s neighborhood. It might be useful to bring a few other people, or go out individually and talk about perceptions and considerations after.

  • Examine the types of homes in the area — whether there are individual houses, apartment complexes, condos, duplexes or triplexes — can help to explain the types of economic situations your neighbors find themselves. Apartment complexes and other multi-family homes may suggest a higher degree of relatively-transient renters, whereas single-family homes and condos may suggest established home-owners.
  • Look at the restaurants and coffee shops — when are they busy and who are the clientele? That might indicate the age ranges of the individuals in your community.
  • Keep an eye out for schools or universities — are there young families in the neighborhood by an elementary school? Are there many students from the nearby college? Are those possible individuals you may want to minister to? And how would you do that?
  • Are there a lot of other people out walking, or is your area one where people tend to stay indoors? Does it feel safe to walk outside?

Check out our post about a walk down a contributor’s neighborhood — and take a walk!