Posted by: Jamie Ann | April 3, 2015

Excuse me, have you seen my verstehen?

Reading Exercises Post 1:4. Jamie Schaub
Chapter 3 Paradigmatic reflections and theoretical foundations, Exercise 3.1 (p. 41)

This exercise answers three questions based on interpretive paradigm’s key concept – Verstehen. To summarize, the author explains verstehen as a way of the observer to describe participants’ perspectives with an emphatic understanding of the participants’ situation in the field. (p41)

The Questions

1. The first question asks me to take a verstehen approach when observing a group of people that I regularly see but rarely engage with. I am to take notes while asking the question, “What is going on here?” I chose my work’s break room. Many years ago, I would meet a group of co-workers and have lunch there. Over time the group stopped meeting, and I started taking my lunch in my office. Fast-forward a couple of years, and a new batch of folks lunch together in the break room. Here are my notes for the question at hand, “What’s going on here?”

  • Different waves of people arrive at different times. The first wave of ‘regulars’ are from 11:30 a.m. – Noon. The second wave are from 11:50 a.m. – Noon. And the third group of people are from 12:30 – 1:00 p.m.
  • Back when I was eating lunch in the break room, the only things we had to isolate ourselves from others was either a newspaper or a book. Now, almost everyone brought a smartphone. Some eaters remained face-down in their screens, others looked up occasionally, and some flip-flopped between conversation and screen-time.

2. Now I have to ‘place myself in the scene.’ I had my lunch from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. While I was there, no one read a book or a newspaper. Instead, everyone had their smartphone. And they were doing one or more of the following:

  • texting
  • playing games
  • perusing news/sports sites
  • Facebooking

How do I know the details? Because people casually mentioned their screen-time activity in their conversations. Such as: Blazer game highlights, funny things their kids are texting, game player updates and Facebook reads. This fascinated me.

The people that I talked to and asked why they chose to eat in the break room for their lunch were run-of-the-mill answers, such as: get away from being asked to do something, taking a break from the computer/email, and enjoying co-workers’ company. What I found to be the most interesting answer was from people who were on their smartphone instead of engaging in conversation: Many use their smartphone to disengage from an intimate social setting.

3. Comparing Q1 and Q2 notes, I realized how verstehen enhanced my interpretation of what’s happening in the break room. First, it’s important to check assumptions when observing the field. As much as I had thought that I was neutral and just recording observations, subconsciously I had already made my conclusions. It wasn’t until I wore the verstehen hat did I empathize with participants, and how smartphones are used in social gatherings.

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