Jarkko Päivärinta

Market Square Gatherings under Observation

Antti Wallin, a student of sociology, wrote his Master's thesis on the social gatherings of male pensioners in a market square of a Finnish town. Wallin had the inspiration for his thesis after he read some research literature of the Chicago School and became interested in urban sociology and the public space. He began to actively observe the phenomena related to the public space and its use in Finland.

Wallin soon noticed small groups of men spending their time in market squares. "At some point I observed that these groups always came to the same places at the same time every day," he says. He decided to examine the phenomenon further, which gave rise to a thesis that was awarded the Westermarck Society's Prize for the Best Master's Thesis in Sociology in Finland in 2013.

Participant observation a challenging experience

In his thesis, Wallin studied social practices in the public space and was particularly interested in what kind of space the male pensioners produced in social interaction in the market square. He collected the data by using participant observation methods – interviewing the men in the target population and spending time with them in the square. He wrote his observations in fieldnotes and recorded the interviews, which he later transcribed. Some of the interviews were conducted individually and some in groups. The fieldwork was done in the summer of 2011.

Wallin says he chose participant observation as his method partly because he wanted to develop his social skills: "I'm a quiet and reserved person. The fieldwork was a way to develop myself. In a way, I wanted to challenge myself to the process."

Wallin approached the research subjects step by step, first observing them from a distance. However, he informed them about his research very early on. This, he says, was essential for research ethical reasons alone. Wallin also distributed leaflets containing information about himself and the project.

The presence of the researcher did not seem to bother the subjects much. "The questions I asked weren't very personal. People seemed happy to chat about general issues with anyone," he says.

Finding people to interview was relatively easy, but the ethnographic method was exhausting. "I was surprised how mentally demanding it is to spend two to three hours with people and talk with and listen to them in a concentrated manner. I used to be totally exhausted when I returned from the field," Wallin recollects.

Hesitation in archiving the fieldnotes


Wallin was familiar with the FSD from his methodology courses. He had considered archiving his data even before the FSD contacted him, but had thought they were too "messy" and did not dare offer them for archiving. He thinks that if he had thought more about the archiving during the data collection and processing, he would have paid more attention to the questions of anonymity and how to organise the data. That would have made the archiving process easier.

When the data archive contacted Wallin about archiving the data, he barely hesitated. However, the idea of archiving the fieldnotes, in addition to the transcribed interviews, caused him some concern at first. He had written them for himself and thought someone might criticise his observation methods after reading them. He eventually decided to archive the fieldnotes as well in the name of open science. "I have to be able to take criticism and justify my decisions," he says.

Generally speaking, Wallin thinks archiving research data is important and he can imagine it being a natural part of the research process in the future. However, he is not keen on the idea of archiving becoming obligatory one day. "Obligation is never nice – it's not good if it starts to affect your actions in some way," he says.

He believes that processing data in a manner that takes archiving into consideration would not notably increase the workload of a researcher. "There wouldn't be any trouble, because you're handling the data anyway," he points out. On the other hand, thinking about archiving might have hampered writing the fieldnotes: "Word choices would surely have been different. My notes wouldn't have been written in a stream of consciousness to the same extent. I think there would have been some self-censorship," he says.

In the future, Wallin plans to take the archiving services better into consideration both as a data collector and a data user. "For my dissertation, I'll certainly check if there are suitable data available. And I'll prepare future interviews for archiving already during the transcription process," he says.

Wallin has some ideas for new research that could be done with the data he collected: "It would be interesting to take a dramaturgical approach, that is, to study what kind of roles the subjects have." He also thinks that the archived fieldnotes could function well as study material. "Often there are only small excerpts from fieldnotes in literature on methodology and those don't help the reader much," he says.

Prize for the Best Master's Thesis Motivates for Further Study

Wallin began doctoral studies in the autumn 2013. The Westermarck Society's decision to award his thesis the Prize for the Best Master's Thesis in Sociology convinced him that the career of a researcher is the right direction for him. When he heard that his thesis was awarded the prize, he, being modest, would not believe it at first.

He thinks the prize has been helpful in many respects. "I think it made it easier for me to get accepted as a postgraduate student and has at least given me confidence in what I'm doing," he says. On the other hand, having been awarded the prize also brings challenges. "Being awarded was great, but it also creates pressure and means that I need to get something done," says Wallin.

In his dissertation, Wallin will study the impact of the change in the age structure on urban space and life in Finland.

More information

Data description: Gatherings of Finnish Male Pensioners on a Market Square 2011. Qualitative datasets are available at the FSD in Finnish.