Monday, February 6, 2012

Participant Observation

The instructions for this assignment weren't all that clear, but here are some descriptive notes from today when I participated in the BYU Young Single Adults 205th Ward's "break the fast" activity* (Spradley 41):

The activity was held in one of the meeting halls of the church building on 200 N 900 W in Provo, Utah. (Place, Spradley 40.) There were about 40 people from the ward in attendance, including the bishop and the first and second counselors and their wives (these are ward leaders about 30 years older than the rest of the attendees who were mainly in their 20s). (Actors, Spradley 41.) The room has a divider in the middle which can be opened or closed depending on the amount of space required, with a raised pulpit on the South side of the room and a chalkboard and stacks of folding chairs on the North side, where the entrance is located. Although the regular church service is oriented toward the pulpit, the center of attention for this event was on the North side, where two long tables were connected and the food was placed, buffet-style. The activity began at 4pm with a short spiritual thought and a prayer each given by a member who had previously been selected by a leader, and then the females in the room were invited to serve themselves first. As a participant in the fast, I was listless and couldn't think straight by the time 4 o'clock finally came around, and I think others were feeling the same way because the opening message and prayer were both very succinct. Having been born into this religion/culture, I know from previous experience that the prayer was formulaic although the person giving it (a woman, probably a student) presumably chose the words herself. I didn't write down her exact words but the familiar phrases included "We thank thee for this food," and "please help it to nourish and strengthen us this day," and the prayer also included a word of an acknowledgment of the fast and our intention as a group to now break it with this food, as well as thanks for those who prepared and brought the food. The framework phrases at the beginning and end were those which are formally prescribed by the religion, namely "Our Dear Heavenly Father," and "We say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen."

The food consisted of two large pots of potato soup (made from a pre-made mix), several bowls of bread, a large salad bowl, a plate of sliced pears, a plate of sliced oranges, a container of steamed broccoli (the pears and broccoli were both in short supply compared to the size of the group), a plate of celery and other vegetables with peanut butter on the side, and about 5 or 6 large plastic bottles of soda including root beer and sprite at the end of the table. There was no water served, which I noticed because I'm not a fan of soda, but I did not notice if any of the drinks were lemonade or juice because I'm not a fan of those either. The utensils provided at the front of the table (Eastward, before the bread and soup) were a few paper bowls and some more Styrofoam ones, some metal spoons and just a few plastic ones, and napkins. At the far end next to the drinks were Styrofoam cups as well. On a smaller table just southwest of this were the desserts: two small bowls filled with brownies (they were cut smaller than usual and had become clumped together) and a cookie sheet with Pillsbury (or similar) cinnamon rolls. Most people served themselves using two bowls, one for soup and one for salad/fruit/veggies/bread/dessert, since there were no plates. This added to a certain feeling at the gathering of 'making do,' an informal atmosphere perhaps typical of a church-organized event.

People sat in groups at circular tables spread throughout the room, perhaps 8 tables total. The leaders and their wives were not joined at their table by the younger people, though one or two of them circulated in the room to make conversation with the younger crowd. People chose tables based on who they came to the activity with and/or who they were friends with, for the most part. My companions and I sat at a table with two other people we don't know very well and made conversation like everyone else in the room. When people finished eating (quickly), some went to get more food, dessert (or more dessert) and some people moved to a different table to make conversation. I didn't get a chance to listen to the conversations at other tables but where I was seated we established that we are all students at BYU (some ward members attend UVU or another university or work full time), discussed our areas of study and why we chose them, and continued to talk about foreign language learning and other school-related topics. The two girls I came with left the table to talk to other people after they finished eating, and a few minutes later another boy (man? male? kid? this word choice always stumps me) came over to converse and one of the other table members joined a conversation one table over. So I spoke to him and the other girl who I was slightly acquainted with, the topic of conversation still being foreign languages for the most part. I probably would have remained less actively involved had the conversation been moving smoothly on its own, but to be honest it was clear that people came to the event for free food and the social atmosphere was a little bit strained. To use a word that seems to define the social culture of my age group more and more these days, I might say the whole gathering was a little bit on the border of "awkward," made up more of polite conversation than the excited and lively type.

A few minutes after eating, most people left. I don't know if this is relevant to the particular activity, but it stood out to me when the boy I was talking to asked how long a friend of mine had been my roommate-- she moved out of the house just last month-- and commented that he was interested to know because we share a lot of the same mannerisms. I already know this because both of us tend to adopt other people's mannerisms and we're fond of each other so it's natural for us, but I think it is an interesting social element to have a third party comment on it, especially since she was not in attendance. Shortly thereafter my friends wanted to leave as well, so we parted ways.

When we left almost all of the food was gone and some people were standing and talking. The trash can was full but there was no clear place for the metal spoons and I saw one girl take hers to the adjoining kitchen and leave it in the sink. Someone who helped to organize the event will probably take out the trash themselves and clean the spoons, wherever the rest ended up. I wish I had been able to stay to observe the very end of this activity because those who stayed to help clean up or who collected their serving dishes before going home would indicate themselves as being part of the organization, which would have provided me with a more complete description of the event.

In any case there it is, a social situation I participated in and attempted to observe simultaneously. I didn't write down notes at the time although I brought a notebook because I felt a little uncomfortable at making myself conspicuous, and probably also because of the sluggishness I felt from participating in the fast. It was surprisingly difficult to play the role of participant and observer at the same time considering that this was an activity very familiar to me; I think that aspect both helped and hindered me as it made it easier to assimilate new information with previous knowledge but also drew me into the role of participant through conversation, which distracted me from making mental notes and observing other groups of people.

*More background info- members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints usually fast for two meals on the first Sunday of each month, that is to say, it is a practice that many members follow but the choice is considered personal and though encouraged it is not mandated. So the leaders of the congregation organize a meal--provided by ward funds [I think] with contributions of desserts and sides made by particular members--so that the members can gather to eat their first meal of the day as a group. (Actors.) Not everyone in the ward (ie congregation) attends this activity but all are invited.

Source: Spradley, James P. "Locating a Social Situation" and "Participant Observation." Participant Observation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. 39-62. Print.

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