Public Policy Bits: What Did you See in this Video?

One key advice I got from many columns for early-stage professors is not to be afraid to experiment in a class-room. So I went ahead with this last Friday, on session 2 of my undergraduate research methods class. I had to introduce students to the ideas of social constructivism and interpretation in order to sanction interpretive research design and methods later in the course. I decided to show them the video of an experiment in psychology designed and administered by Heider and Simmel in 1944, which I had learned about from Dvora Yanow.

The experiment is well known in psychology, altho less so in other social science disciplines. On session 1 on Wednesday, I asked my students to watch the clip at home and write 2 paragraphs addressing two questions — a) what do I see? and b) what is going on? They had to bring these to the classroom in 2 days.

On Friday, I started the class with showing the video and soliciting written answers to these two questions from the students. Many have written pages about it. It worked wonders, just as Dvora suggested! One student, Lola, gave 2 stories about the movement of shapes. Both were about conflict, one involving a family with mother, father and a child, and another involving a couple. Triangles came to signify age in one case and gender in the other. Kenan, another student, came with an elaborate description of an invasion in the house where again shapes were assigned human-like characters and traits. Finally, the third student, Zarifa, went on to describe the family conflict again, but went a step further in offering a morale of not fighting each other, or rather, not fighting your imaginary enemy, and saving the strength to fight the real one. I am sure we could have gone on for the whole class to discuss multiple interpretations of the clip, but I carried on after 20 minutes to make sure I cover the lecture material.

I achieved my goal of introducing convincingly the ideas of observation and interpretation, and of social construction of reality. And it was engaging and interesting. Thus, something to recommend for anyone interested in discussing interpetivism and the issues of perception in a classroom.


Assistant Professor at International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Hague, The Netherlands

3 thoughts on “Public Policy Bits: What Did you See in this Video?

  1. Hi Linh. Thanks for appreciation. Everything was an experiment last year as it was my first research methods class. But I keep changing things annually, so that’s normal.

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