Richard Fenno Jr. (1986). “Observation, Context, and Sequence in the
Study of Politics.”
“Observation is at the heart of political analysis. Observing the behavior of U.S. senators involves
watching them in two contextsat home and in the capital city. It also entails sensitivity to the sequences
of events or contexts which impinge upon senatorial behavior. Contexts and sequences of legislative life
have not been observed in the rich detail they deserve, because not enough political scientists are
presently engaged in observation.”
Observation (interactive observation) used as a tool to study politicians:
Observation in this context: following politicians around and talking with them as they go about their
Whatever is important to the politicians becomes important to you ▯ Much of what you see is dictated
by what they (politicians) do and say
Brings you very close to political activity through your interaction with politicians
This introduces some “value added” observations ▯ normative views.
Individual level theorizing becomes the building blocks of your research and analysis.
Fenno uses his article to focus on US senators, however, this technique can be applied to the study of
Benefits: Brings you very close to data
You watch the data being generated and you collect it directly from the source
Cost: Considerable loss of control over the research process
Main Question of Article: What, if any, value can the close personal observation of politicians bring to
our studies of politics?
Secondary question: Should we, as a discipline, encourage more of it?
2 Large lessons to be drawn from observation:
Sharpened appreciation of context as a variable in your analysis
Sharpened appreciation of sequence as a variable in your analysis
This is with regards to what a politician does at a certain ‘time’, ‘next time’ or ‘previous times’
“They speak of stages and phases, of rhythms and flows, of plans and turning points, of gains and
losses, of momentum and pace, of beginning games and end games”
“Decisions about how to vote are separable from decisions about attentiveness, decisions about
involvement, and decisions about timing. We have devoted far more energy researching the first kind of
decision than the other three” Essential gist of argument and why observation (defined in the above manner) is valid to political