Field Observations on the Intersection of Work and Family

Activity Description:

Author: Susan Cody-Rydzewski, LaGrange College


Observation / Note-taking


In order for undergraduate students to understand the overlap and competing demands of work and family, it may be useful to have them observe the intersection of work and family roles firsthand. One way to do this is to have them visit places in which parents (and children) must confront the demands of work and family obligations simultaneously.

In order to avoid IRB restrictions, students should choose a location that is accessible to the public and where observations can take place unobtrusively. I have found the following two locations to be most ideal for purposes of this assignment: laundromats and grocery stores. Observing in these locations will help students to see what often becomes invisible or not regarded as work – unpaid work. This assignment will also highlight issues of social class, gender inequality, and parent/child interactions.


Have students choose one or the other location and conduct a number of observations there over the course of a semester, preferably around the same time each day and on the same day each week. Students may want to select one or two families to observe each time.

In observing and note-taking, students should pay close attention to the following:

  1. Describe the location you have selected in terms of where it is situated (suburbs, inner city, rural area, etc.) as well as its appearance and environment (clean, quiet, noisy, dirty, crowded, well-lit, etc.). Describe the family arrangements or groupings that you see most frequently (mother and children; mother alone; father and children; elder and child, etc.) Identify family members who are most commonly present and those who are most commonly absent from these routines. Also, estimate the length of time each family was present in the store or laundromat. Note the time of day you observed.
  2. Estimate the approximate ages of the individuals you observe. About how old are the children? In what ways do the ages of the children make the experience (of shopping or laundering) more challenging?
  3. How many children are present with parents/caregivers? In what ways does the number of children help or hinder the experience?
  4. Describe the interactions between adults and children. Can you be sure they are family members? If so, how? Would you describe the interactions as warm, friendly, caring, nurturing, or cool, impersonal, and abrupt? Describe the affect of the individuals you are observing. Do they seem tired, annoyed, calm, neutral, disinterested, excited, etc.?
  5. If there are multiple children, do the children interact with and entertain each other? Or, does the parent/caregiver engage the child(ren)? How do the interactions among children differ from those between adults and children (or between adults and other adults)? Do the adults ignore, tolerate, or engage the children during the encounter?
  6. Estimate the approximate social class of the families you observe. What indications of social class do you observe? Does the nature of the interactions vary by social class? If so, how? Comment on how the time of day and/or location may have influenced the demographic profiles of those you are observing.
  7. In your observations, what complications or challenges of combining work and family do you observe? In what ways might these complications be alleviated?
  8. Reflect on how you will (or do) combine the obligations of work and family. How will you juggle these responsibilities? Comment on how your observations in this exercise might influence your choices with regard to marriage, timing of childbearing, family size, career aspirations, etc.

Activity Source:

Sweet, Stephen, Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Joshua Mumm, Judith Casey, and Christina Matz. 2006. Teaching Work and Family: Strategies, Activities, and Syllabi. Washington DC: American Sociological Association.