Psych 274  Project #1 


Photographing Physical Traces



One of the research methods taught in this course is the observation of physical traces.  When observing physical traces, the environmental psychologist systematically examines an environment for remnants or reflections of the activities of the people who use that setting.  What the researcher looks for depends entirely on what he or she is interested in, but the research is usually being done to make an environment better suited to what people actually do while they are in it.  Carefully observing how people rearrange the furniture and other props in their environment, the kinds of litter that they leave behind, and the nature of the accretion (the deposit of material in a setting) and erosion (the selective wear of some portion of an environmental setting) that occur in the environment can tell you what people do, and do not do, in an environment and how well that environment is accomplishing what it was designed for.


In his book Inquiry by Design (1981), John Zeisel categorized physical traces into four major categories:


By-Products of Use:  Reflect what people do in settings.


            a. erosions - places that have been worn away from use        

            b. leftovers - objects reflecting activity that have  been left behind by users

            c. missing traces - reflect what people may not have been doing in a setting


Adaptations for Use: Changes people make to their environments to accommodate



a.     props - items users add to a setting or change to create new opportunities for


b.     Separations - items added to separate places that previously were together.

c.     Connections - items added to connect two places.


Displays of Self: Changes people make to establish a place as their own.


a.     personalization - items expressing one's uniqueness and individuality

b.     identification - items identifying an environment as belonging to someone

c.     group membership - items reflecting membership in groups and organizations


Public Messages: Changes people make to communicate with the public      


a.     official - messages erected by institutions

b.     unofficial - messages announcing short-term events or messages not posted by official institutions/organizations

c.     illegitimate - messages that are not approved of


Each of you will be assigned to a group of 4 or 5 students.  You will have a preliminary organizational meeting before beginning the project.  After the project is asssinged, each group will spend some time walking around campus searching for physical traces.  When you find a physical trace, take a picture of it and briefly describe it on a worksheet that you will carry with you.  For each trace, describe the location, the type of trace you think it is using Zeisel's categories listed above, and a specific description of what it is (e.g., trampled grass, empty beer cans, etc).  When you have found and photographed 25 traces, return to the classroom.


The Group's Assignment

Each group must look through its photographs and select the five best examples of physical traces in terms of creativity and picture quality.  One person from each group shall be appointed to present and explain these photos to the rest of the class, describing what the picture shows and what type of physical trace it illustrates.  Your group will then prepare a brief report in which the 25 traces that you photographed are catalogued and described; you will also include the photos of your 5 best traces with this report. 



All members of your group will receive the same grade on this assignment, and all aspects of the project will be taken into consideration.  Some of the criteria will be as follows:


1. How clear and creative were your photographs? How many different kinds of traces  

    did you find?  It is more desirable to have photographs depicting 8 or 10 different types

    of physical traces than it will be to have 25 pictures of the same 2 or 3 types of traces.


2. How clear was the oral presentation to the class of what your group found?


3. How thorough, clear, and well-organized was the written summary of your traces?