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The Zapotec Children Study

Douglas Fry used CM to study aggressive play among Zapotec children. From 1981 to 1983, Fry did 18 months of participant observation fieldwork in La Paz and San Andres, two small Zapotec-speaking villages just 4 miles apart in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. During the last 5 months of his research, Fry did direct, continuous monitoring of 24 children (3-8 years old) in each village. Before that, he visited almost all the households in the villages several times so that children had become accustomed to him when he began his intensive observation.

Fry describes his data collection procedures clearly:

The formal focal sampling observations were conducted between May and September of 1983. They represent each day of the week and encompass the daylight hour. Most observations (84%) were conducted within family compounds, although children were also observed in the streets, town squares, school yards, fields, and hills. I alternated sampling between the two communities on a weekly to biweekly basis. A total of 588 observations were conducted, resulting in an average of approximately 12 observations for each focal child (M = 12.25, SD = 6.21). On average, each focal child was observed for just over 3 hours (M = 3.13 hours, SD = 1.39 hours), resulting in a total of 150 hours of observation time for the entire sample. [It is common in scientific papers to report means and standard deviations; hence the M and SD figures in this paragraph. HRB]

Focal observations were narrated into a tape recorder carried in a small backpack or recorded on paper using a shorthand system. I recorded a running commentary of the behaviors engaged in by the focal child, using behavior elements defined in the previously developed ethogram. I moved with a focal child in order to maintain continuous visual contact (Altmann 1974), but did not remain so close as to interfere with actions or unduly attract the child’s attention. Whenever a focal child engaged in any type of antagonistic behavior, the specifics of the interaction were noted, including identity of the interactant(s) and any facial expressions or gestures. For instance, interactions such as the following were recorded: Focal boy punches, pushes sister of 3 year old while laughing (sister does nothing in response). (Fry 1990:326-27)

Fry developed his ethogram of Zapotec children by watching them in public places before beginning his study of focal individuals. Based on 150 hours of focal child observation, Fry’s data contain 764 episodes of what he calls ‘‘play aggression” and 85 episodes of‘‘serious aggression.”

Play aggression is a punch, kick, tackle, etc., accompanied by smiles, laughs, and play- faces. Serious aggression acts are episodes accompanied by low frowns, bared teeth, fixated gazes, and crying. Fry found that when girls initiated serious aggression, it was almost always with other girls (93% of cases). But when boys initiated serious aggression, it was just as likely to be with girls as with other boys (Further Reading: studying children under natural conditions) (box 14.1).

BOX 14.1


Pearson (1990) used CM to study how Samoans in Western Samoa, American Samoa, and Honolulu used energy. Pearson had the idea that, as Samoans moved to Honolulu and became more urbanized, there would be changes in lifestyle and that these changes would show up in their energy intake and expenditure. Pearson asked people to recall their activities over the past 24 hours, and then, to check the 24-hour recall data, he and a female assistant monitored 47 men and 43 women.

The team did 825 hours of observation and had their subjects in direct view 92% of the time. The estimates of energy expenditure from direct observation of the 47 men were 33%-80% lower than the estimates from the recall data. For women, the estimates were 27%-53% lower. Women had better recall of their activities, but men and women were both way off the mark, particularly in recalling their light-to-moderate work of the previous day. Pearson's work makes it clear that, when it comes to measuring energy expenditure, recall is not a good substitute for observation.

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