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The term reconstructive observation has been coined by the German sociologist Thomas Loer and the German innovation adviser Armin Moehrle. It refers to a mode of collecting data in research processes in the social sciences and in consulting processes by observing people during their work or other activity and conducting conversation with them. While the researcher who collects data by participating in observations asks: “What the hell is going on here?” (Clifford Geertz*) and tries to get access to what is going on by diving into the reality of action and taking part in it, the researcher ‘observing reconstructively’ asks: “If Jesus is the answer–what was the question?” and tries to reconstruct the problem to which the observed actions are the solution during observing them. In this way, he always maintains his distance to the action even though he is present. He does not side with anyone he observes, he does not try to find practical solutions to the problems the people he observes are confronted with, and he does not evaluate practically the issues at stake. Disburdened of the practical involvement he is able to look at a given situation differently and to see also the aspects of it, which are not immediately practically relevant, which the people he is observing can’t see due to their involvement. To record what he sees, the researcher prefers technical recording such as videotaping and tape-recording to writing because the data will be more direct and less filtered subjectively–‘pure’ observation is used only if the complexity of the observed action does not allow for videotaping (for example, when the observer follows people at work all day, in their office or on the shop floor). If possible, the researcher at least completes his written record by videotaping and tape-recording. The researcher tries to get more insight into the ongoing action by conducting conversations with the people involved. The focus of these conversations held sur place is the description of what is going on and its explanation from the actor’s point of view. By asking maieutic questions the researcher reconstructs interpretation patterns of the actors and reveals their hidden knowledge for understanding the observed action and for improving it. The researcher must be aware that both: the observation protocol (recorded in writing and/or on videotape) and the conversation protocol (tape-recorded) are types of data, which, in a second step, will have to be analyzed. (Objective hermeneutics, as developed by the German sociologist Ulrich Oevermann*, is an adequate methodology for this analysis.) The consultant (clinical sociologist) collecting data in the mode of ‘reconstructive observation’ must, while collecting them, analyze these data in an abbreviated manner (like the psychoanalyst analyzes the utterances of his patient by “listening to him with the third ear”, as Theodor Reik* called it). But in order to improve this implicit analysis, every now and then he must explicitly analyze the data methodically as an evaluation of his casual interpretation.


  • Geertz, Clifford (1973): Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In: Clifford Geertz: The interpretation of cultures. Selected essays, New York: Basic books, pp. 3–30
  • Reik, Theodor (1948): Listening with the Third Ear. New York: Farrar Straus, and Giroux

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