How do we learn to observe and question?

To help us understand context and practice we need to observe and question. As we have explored above, if we are observing practices, we need to observe

  • what people are DOING,
  • what people are SAYING about what they are doing, and
  • WHO is involved in what they are doing and how (RELATINGS).

We also need to observe how the context influences the doings, sayings and relatings, and we need to be able to work out if things can be done differently, and if so, how.
What is meant by observe is that we look at and record the context of our case studies in detail as if we are looking at them for the first time. We do this through the eyes of the people that are living there and are affected or involved in the issues we are investigating. The Makhaza video we have just watched is a good example of how EMG have presented a context and a practice from the perspective of the people living there who are affected and involved.

What is meant by question is we ask questions about the doings, sayings and relatings associated with a practice and the context of the practice. This helps us to see if the practice can be changed in any way, and if so, how. This can help us then to identify gaps in knowledge and possible contradictions in the practices people are engaged in, with a view to working with them to resolve the contradictions or use new knowledge or new strategies to change the practices. It is very important that we find ways of working with others to do this, so that the changes in practice are brought about not by us for others, but by people in their own contexts of practice.

In the Makhaza case study for example, we see how EMG worked hard to work with community representatives as well as the councillors to try and resolve the problem of the water devices. The case study shows too that this is not always an easy process, and that our efforts can become disrupted or frustrated. However, we should remember that there are always possibilities for changing practices. Practices are also collective actions in that they usually involve more than one person, so if you fail with one person, it is possible to try with other people who also have an interest in, or responsibility for, the practice. Thus, to assess the situation in which a practice is taking place, we need to sharpen our own skills of observing and questioning.

When investigating context and practice we are trying to answer the following questions:

  • What kind of water activist practice or practices are people involved in?
  • What are the doings, the sayings and the relatings of this practice?
  • What contextual factors influence these doings, sayings and relatings? Remember to also consider the historical factors.
  • What questions do people have about their practice?
  • What gaps in knowledge or struggles can you observe in the practice or practices?

Below are the steps you can follow to investigate context and practices in your area.

Step 1: Negotiate access: Whose permission do you need to be in the area?
Step 2: Choose your participants
Step 3: Make observations
step 4: Developing stories of people and their practice
Step 5: Writing up stories of people and their practice


Negotiate access

Support material: Worksheet 1 You may already have access to the area where you want to work because your organisation is already involved in the area or you live in the area. But it is still a good idea to make sure that people know what you are doing and why. If you have never worked …

Choose your participants

Support materials: Worksheet 1 Access and Participants Who are the most appropriate people to speak to? The most appropriate people are not necessarily the most important or powerful ones. They are people who are engaged in the water practice you are working with. (For your assignment you will use the Access and Participants worksheet to write …

Make observations

Support materials: Worksheet Observation sheet Make notes of things that seem significant to the water practice in question. We have prepared an observation sheet to guide you related to what we have discussed above. We will practice using this observation sheet during our field trip. Ask permission to take photographs.

Developing stories of people and their practice

Support material: Worksheet Questioning the context by developing stories of people and their practice To do this we go and chat to people and find out what they know. This is not an interview because we are not trying to extract information from people. We are trying to understand and learn about the context and what …

Writing up stories of people and their practice

Now that you have talked to people about their stories of their practice you can write up these discussions into stories. We suggest structuring your stories as follows: A brief biography of who they are, where they live and, if necessary, who they work for. A description the type of activist practice or practices that they are engaged …