Direct Social Observation

Schutz, Alfred. (1967). The Phenomenology of the Social World. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

An aspect of Schutz’ discussion of face-to-face (FtF) communication and the structure of the social world that is highly relevant to the online video conversation (OVC) is that of the direct social observation. This idea has to do with the situation in which an individual is aware of another yet knows that awareness is not mutual; the observer knows the observed is unaware of him or her. This creates a special sort of Thou-orientation that the observer gains toward the observed person.

In the direct social observation, the Thou-orientation is one-sided, unlike the reciprocal nature of FtF communication. However, just as one can gain understanding of a person’s meaning when looking at him or her in a FtF setting, so to can one gain such an understanding by merely observing the person, since many actions and events add clarification, meaning, and detail to what the person is saying.

How do I know what’s going on in his mind? Well, even if I am merely observing him, his body is still a field of expression for his inner life. I may, as I watch him, take my own perceptions of his body as signs of his conscious experiences. I will direct my attention to the subjective rather than the objective meaning-contexts of the indications I perceive. As a direct observer I can thus in one glance take in both the outward manifestations–or “products”–and the processes in which are constituted the conscious experiences lying behind them. This is possible because the lived experiences of the Other are occurring simultaneously with my own objective interpretations of his words and gestures. (173).

In this way, the individual’s perspective and perception is not unlike the FtF setting in that the observer still receives the speaker’s aural and visual message in both settings. Thus, the observer receives the objective message (the meaning of the words themselves) and can interpret the subjective meaning (what’s going on in the speakers mind as he or she speaks) through gesture, appearance, voice intonation, volume, etc.

The other person is quite as much present in a bodily sense to the observer as he is to someone who is participating in a social relationship with him. His words can be heard and his gestures seen: there is as great a wealth of indications of his inner life as in the case of a direct relationship. (173).

Other than the lack of interactive opportunities, such as asking questions for clarification, the perspective from the one side is really not so different from that of FtF. Of course, the lack of this interactive aspect, the ability for observer/participants to verify assumptions and statements should not be downplayed; without it, the level of understanding cannot likely reach that of certainty. This setting is where true immediacy, as opposed to a lagged immediacy is beneficial.

Thus, when one is participating in an asynchronous OVC, he or she is taking part in this one-sided direct social observation, yet one that offers at best a lagged immediacy. In the true immediacy of the FtF conversation allows for instant clarification, which may redirect or otherwise shape the conversation. However, a lagged immediacy offers the opportunity for clarifications and interaction, yet though a delay of some period. This latter situation can be beneficial in that participants tend to plan responses a bit more than they would in a FtF setting which results in both clearer, more understandable responses and fuller, richer responses. If one has more time to plan a response, it is likely to be a more well-fashioned and detailed response. Additionally, while I have not tangibly verified this point nor it is it currently a point I am researching, there seems to be a feeling that if one is creating a video response, it is somehow a larger endeavor-than an email for example, in which one can quickly send a few words as a response–and therefore worth crafting and adding as much as possible to it.

It is worth noting that at the point one asks questions or interacts in another way, he or she ceases to be just an observer, and become a participant. Therefore, when conversing in the asynchronous OVC, the individuals are both observer and participant. The individual is an observer in that he or she is experiencing the other person while that individual is not aware of being observed. The observer becomes a participant when he/she posts or directly sends a response, thus making it a participatory conversation. When the Other person sees the response video, he/she is aware of having been experienced, but knows it is a past event and that he/she is not at the moment being observed.

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