Participant observation techniques illustrate how qualitative research methods can be used in studying the built environment, more specifically low income housing in developing countries. Reasons for undertaking qualitative research in this field are various and, while there are shortcomings to the method, modifications of the anthropological research methods can be made to suit the purposes of environmental design research. Fieldwork carried out in Northern India is used to illustrate the technique. Finally, the advantages and disadvantages of studying the observer’s own society and its physical environment are discussed.
Each discipline must find its own way of doing research, formulating and advancing theory. The model followed by environmental design research, especially in evaluation of the built environment from the user’s point of view, is a causal deterministic one, derived from psychology. This paradigm has been shaped by logical positivism which emphasises testing and quantification rather than interpretation. In a quest for the ability to generalise, the testing and quantification may be of concepts which have little validity. Very often the lack of meaning can arise from an inability to interpret the data in terms of a social and political structure. A superficial examination of user behaviour can lead to neglect of social and cultural norms which guide behaviour. The emphasis on causality in terms of independent and dependent variables is at the cost of understanding the mutual influence of a number of factors.
If architects are to be involved in the research and evaluation of the built environment, this prevailing model of research is unsatisfactory. By their very training, designers are more inclined to do interpretive work. A research outlook is needed which can adequately describe the