Interview a patient's family member in the hospital cafeteria.


- Students will carry out the basic qualitative research techniques of observation, note-taking, and interviewing

- Students will record and analyze the hospital experience from the perspective of patients’ family members


A hospital cafeteria. The cafeteria chosen should be a public, not private, space.

Recommended Preparatory Reading:

Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, Linda L. Shaw, Writing Ethnographic Field Notes, second ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 1-43.

Askel H. Tjora, “Writing Small Discoveries: An Exploration of Fresh Observers’ Observation,” Qualitative Research 26, no. 4 (2006), 429-451.

Time Commitment: 

Approximately 60 minutes for observation, 20-30 minutes for note-taking, and several hours for reflective writing. Total time in the field: 90 minutes.

Appropriate For: 

college students in the social sciences or health professions; undergraduate medical students or graduate students in other health professions; graduate students studying qualitative research techniques.

Activity Description:

Go to a hospital cafeteria at a time of day when it is not likely to be crowded—for example, very early in the morning, or in mid-morning after the breakfast rush.

1. Begin with a brief assessment of your surroundings. How is the furniture arranged? Who do you see? Can you distinguish hospital employees from patients and their families? How many people would you classify in each category? What inferences can you make about the family members’ backgrounds and moods by observing them from a distance? Jot down a few notes about the cafeteria setting.

 2. Identify a person who you believe may be a patient’s family member. Ideally, the person will be seated alone. Approach them and politely ask if you can share a table. If you can, try to engage them in conversation. If they seem open to talking, introduce yourself, show your student identification, and ask if they would do you the favor of being interviewed for a course assignment. What brings them to the hospital? Where are they from? How long have they been there? Have they been satisfied with the care their family member has received? If the person does not wish to engage in conversation, don’t press the issue; move on.

3. Once the conversation has reached its natural conclusion, excuse yourself and leave the cafeteria. Write down a summary of your conversation. Be as accurate and thorough as possible, including body language, tone of voice, and other details in addition to dialogue. You will want to note demographic information about the person you've interviewed (age, gender, etc.) but do not record their name.

4. When you have finished recording field notes of your observations and interviews, write a short essay (about 750 words) reflecting on your experiences. What did you learn about the way the hospital operates? About family members’ experiences with medical treatment?

Author: CD Clark