What happens at convenings held by community-based civil society organizations and how do they influence organizational outcomes? Although ethnographies provide details about organizations’ internal dynamics, they offer limited insights into the distribution of those dynamics and their impact on outcomes. This article describes systematic social observation and explains how we adapted this method to CSOs for collecting data on multiple convenings from several organizations. To demonstrate the method’s viability, we digitized our SSO tool and used it in a pilot study of three CSOs in Indianapolis to collect observational data from 99 convenings. We illustrate the value of SSO for studying CSOs by presenting distributions of interaction styles and cross-demographic interaction across organizations. We note how such data could be combined with survey and administrative data to analyze the impact of CSOs internal dynamics on organizational outcomes. We conclude by discussing the broader utility and limitations of the SSO method for research on CSOs and the third sector.
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Apart from participants who verbally self-identify during a convening, observers generally do not acquire participants’ self-reported demographic identities. Instead, the observers capture “street race” (López et al., 2018) and “sex category” (West & Zimmerman, 1987)—categories individuals are placed in by outside observers.
We attempted to observe every convening held by each organization during the study period. Although organizations occasionally requested that we not observe certain convenings and scheduling challenges prevented us from observing others, our study captured data from most convenings held by each organization. The number of observed convenings varies across organizations based primarily on the number of convenings the organizations held.
While SSO tools are rarely changed during a single study, they can be changed between studies to address different theoretical points of interest––broadening the tool’s applicability.
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The authors thank Zoe Caplan, Estela Lopez, Marisela Sanchez, Sean Baird, Stacia Murphy, Renzo de la Riva Aguero, Benjamim Eduardo, Josette Robinson, and Bethany Van Alstine for collecting data in the field and providing feedback on the tool; Zoe Caplan, Renzo de la Riva Aguero, Shengnan Yang, and Derek Richardson for research team management and data analysis work; Emma Frankham for editorial assistance; the Corporation for National and Community Service, especially Andrea Robles, Roshni Menon, Melissa Gouge, and Kimberly Hammonds, for guidance with the grant process; the O’Neill School Business Office, especially Allison Howell, Taylor Ritchie, and Penny Volrich, for human resources support and grant management; and, most of all, the leaders, staff, and members of the three community-based organizations for their participation in the study.
This work was supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of Research and Evaluation [17RE197141], and by Indiana University’s Social Sciences Research Funding Program.
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Fulton, B.R., Baggetta, M. Observing Civic Engagement: Using Systematic Social Observation to Study Civil Society Organization Convenings. Voluntas 33, 1187–1195 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11266-021-00418-7
- Systematic social observation (SSO)
- Civil society organization (CSO)
- Community-based organizations
- Convening dynamics