Play at McDonald's

Nonobligatory social interaction and the significance of play

Michael Cheang studied a group of older adults at a fast food restaurant in Honolulu. Before he was able to begin the study, he obtained permission from the manager under the conditions that he 1) appear to be a paying customer, 2) not conduct any formal interviews or surveys on the premises, and 3) not interfere with the flow of business.

Cheang spent the first two weeks simply observing the behaviour of the regular customers. He focused on a specific group of about 26 adults, one of the larger groupings that came there frequently and was diverse with regard to gender and age.

Cheang sat at a table and eventually began talking to one of the group members. The participant introduced him to other people in the group. They were friendly, but at first viewed him as an outsider. He showed up every Tuesday and Thursday, and sometimes Friday, and soon became part of the group.

He observed the group in the setting for 2 or 3 days a week for 9 months. His notes were narrative in quality as he retold the adults' stories. By the fifth month, several themes of behavior and experiences emerged: sociability, play, and laughter. Findings suggest that: (a) older adults congregate at this fast-food restaurant to be with their buddies “to play”; (b) the group is fun for members and there are lots of laughter; and (c) group membership in this restaurant provides structure, meaning, and opportunities for these older adults to engage in personal expression.

In month 6 he shared his observations and the themes with group members, and interviewed them with regard to their perceptions of the themes that were generated from his field notes.

Cheang, Michael (2002), "Older Adults' Frequent Visits to a Fast-Food Restaurant: Nonobligatory Social Interaction and the Significance of Play in a Third Place," Journal of Aging Studies, 16 (August), 303-21.


Please answer all of the following questions with direct reference to the study above. Please note that unlike a real paper 3, this paper has 4 questions in order to encourage students to interact more with the text and apply their knowledge.

1. What type of observation was used in the above study? What are the strengths and limitations of such an observation?

This is a covert, naturalistic, participant observation. Covert observations have the advantage that they do not lead to demand characteristics or reactivity. However, they have several limitations. First, it is difficult to take notes during a covert observation. In the above study, Cheang ran frequently to the bathroom to record his notes. This means that the researchers has to rely on his/her memory when recording data. This can be unreliable. In addition, there are ethical concerns in creating friendships - in this case for 6 months - while actually recording behaviour without consent.

Naturalistic observations have high ecological validity. It is in a natural environment so people should be acting as they would in "the real world." With this, however, comes some difficulties. First, it is very difficult to replicate an observation of this nature. The researcher has to record the precise environmental situation in order to determine the transferability of the findings - that is, to see whether it compares to other settings. In addition, there is no control over variables. There are several variables that could hurt the study. The number of customers could increase because of seasonal changes and then behaviour of the group could change. Prices could go up and some members of the group stop coming.

Finally, this is a participant observation. The advantage is that the researcher gets a better understanding of what is happening in the group. The limitations are that the fact that the researcher develops a relationship with the participants means that the findings may be overly subjective. In addition, the researcher may unintentionally influence the behaviour of the group. For example, he says that they are humorous. To what extent did he actually invoke humour? It is important that the researcher employ reflexivity - that is, that he consider how he may have influenced the outcome of his own research.

2. Discuss how Michael Cheang analyzed his notes. What type of coding did he use? Why do you think that he used this type of coding?

Cheang analyzed his notes using an inductive content analysis. He looked through his narrative notes to look for themes that emerged from the text. He then would group information according to these themes in order to write an interpretation of his data. He used emergent coding - that is, he did not go into the study with a list of things to look for (a priori coding), because he was not sure what he would find - and he did not want to limit his findings. When one uses an a priori coding system this may lead to researcher bias.

3. Discuss the ethical considerations of carrying out this type of study.

There are two chief concerns with this study. First is the use of deception. There was no informed consent from the group members. They believed that Michael was their friend. Secondly, the debriefing was essential here. The researcher had to reveal the deception. He also then had to give the participants the right to withdraw their data.

4. Why did Michael Cheang carry out the interviews at the end of the study?

There are three reasons why the interviews were carried out. First, they served as a form of debriefing. Because of the nature of the deception, it was important that Cheang discuss the deception in a face-to-face one-to-one manner with each participant. Secondly, the interviews were a way for Cheang to get information that he could not easily get doing a covert observation. Primarily, this information was demographic in nature (e.g. age, how long they had lived in the neighborhood, etc). Finally, the interviews were a way for the researcher to verify his results - that is, he showed the participants the themes and asked them if they thought that it adequately described their experience. If so, we say that the results were credible. This is the "equivalent" of reliability in qualitative research.

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