Participant-observation in ethnography
by Maureen E. Sheridan
Ethnographic field research is a qualitative method of data collection to observe, interact, and understand how people develop within their proximal environment. Ethnographic methods are techniques used to collect data and may include methods like interviews, participant-observation, mapping, focus groups, or surveys (Mannik & McGarray, 2017). When a researcher speaks about being in “the field,” they are describing how it feels to be at a location examining the everyday lives of the people they are studying.
Participant-observation is an indispensable component of the ethnographic research process because the researcher is in an active state of participation while at the same time passively observing their subjects (Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016). In examining ethnography, it is important to acknowledge that participation and observation are equally important to accurately gather data yet can be construed as contradictory principles. The ethnographer not only observes and assembles notes and field maps throughout the process, they also benefit from having gained a first-hand account of a lived experience. Working side by side daily with participants in a research environment allows the ethnographer to gain first-hand knowledge about the environment under investigation. In other words, to make the most out of the ethnographic research process, the participant-observer must practice the art of balancing both participation and observation, which can be difficult at times (Mannik & McGarray, 2017; Murchison, 2010).
Frequently individuals think that the ethnographic research process of participation and observation are easy tasks because the researcher seems to be simply surveying their subjects in a less formal or structured way. It might even seem an easy or fun task with little interjection on the part of the researcher. Whatever the case may appear to be, one should note that successful participant-observation requires that researchers develop a way to first check their personal bias at the start of the investigation and to observe and participate within the environment in an unfettered and unbiased way (Anderson, 2011; Tombro, 2016). The role of the ethnographer is not to guess what they might find, it involves rather, researching the behavior of their participants and their surrounding environment objectively which occurs over an extended period.
Equally important to note is that an ethnographic study consumes the researcher’s and participants time as it occurs over an extended period of weeks, months, or even years. The ethnographic method takes resources from the ethnographer’s own energies as they become an active participant while simultaneously observing the process itself. Observing specific groups of individuals in their own environment cuts to the root of an ethnographer’s mission. But this cannot happen within a vacuum. The trick to successful participant-observation is to remain objective and observant while, at the same time, becoming involved in a hands-on, first-hand experience. It is imperative to remain objective in one’s role (Tombro, 2016; Van Mannen, 2003).
In this chapter, we see that the role of participant-observer can be challenging as the ethnographer navigates the research process within a socially constructed environment. It has been noted that most researchers do not choose the ethnographic method as a research method. Instead, they may choose observation, interviews, surveys, or focus groups to understand the phenomenon under investigation. Ethnographic research requires a long-term commitment of weeks, months, or years, and commands the researcher’s active interest in the process at hand. The ability to communicate effectively with participants about the reasons for and the process of how the study will occur is critical in gaining not only participants’ trust but their shared enthusiasm as well.
Reconciling Participation and Observation
Some experts argue that the ethnographic research strategy cannot be reconciled with the participant-observation method. Participant-observation appears to have contradictory principles that cannot be equitably negotiated. The ethnographer may have a more difficult time to plan for research because the process not only requires solid preparation and purpose, but the actual participant-observation takes place over an extended period of weeks, months, or years. Ethnographic research requires that the participant-observer maintain an objective stance and remain a detached observer. The researcher must not intentionally try to redirect or influence the environment or participants under examination. A challenge the ethnographer faces is that, although the researcher must keep a neutral frame of mind and avoid bringing personal bias into the equation, their direct participation in the study involves them on a personal level. This happens when their own lived experience mixes with the environment and reacts to the subjects and environment involved (Alasuutari, 1995; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016).
In order to drill down and gain access to the personal experiences of a society or culture in action, the ethnographer must become involved on a personal level to some degree. It has been argued that participant-observation involves acquiring important first-hand knowledge of the subjects being studied but it can cause the ethnographer to involuntarily abandon their objective stance. When this occurs, the ethnographer may experience social or cultural empathy that could sway the conclusions of the investigation. The researcher must be cognizant of keeping an open mind and not to prejudge anything he/she/they witnesses (Murchison, 2010).
While all this may be necessary, there is the opposite assumption that a researcher who becomes a “participant” cannot maintain the ability to capture and acknowledge the larger picture. Instead, the ethnographer may absorb the experience of events and may not have the ability to remain objective once they have immersed themselves in the study over a period of time. This can occur when concentrated experiences and emotions have actively ensued over a prolonged time period. The first-hand experience of the ethnographer can change the long-term perception of their environment when they continue to act as a participant-observer long term (Ladner, 2014; Murchison, 2010).
The Importance of Allocating Sufficient Time
Ethnographic research methods require the participant-observer to spend considerable time at their field site. Ethnography happens over a period of weeks, months, or years. Spending time in the field helps facilitate better data collection and helps the ethnographer develop a deeper sense of the events or culture under investigation. During an ethnographic study, participant-observation allows the researcher to meet with and speak to all levels of employees or members of society, not just a select few chosen by leadership ranks. Most times there is a direct correlation between the quality of the study when compared with the amount of time spent in the field. It has been noted though that over time the research relationship evolves as participants become more familiar with the study and comfortable with the relationship they have formed with the ethnographer (Geertz, 2000; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016). Therefore, allowing for extra time necessitates that the ethnographer plans their project timing and deadlines carefully to allow for a full investigation of the phenomena under consideration.
Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that most of the time ethnographers work under deadlines or departure dates. The goal then should be to ensure that the researcher’s time is optimized within the structure of these deadlines. It has been noted that when a researcher first chooses to use the ethnographic method and has not developed enough experience with this approach, they may delay the start of the participant-observation process. This stems from a real lack of knowledge on what to expect from the process and how to approach the social nature of the study (Averill, 2006; Tombro, 2016). The ethnographer may even stall fieldwork due to apprehension or a lack of confidence. However, procrastination is detrimental to an ethnographer’s research study because precious time is lost. This can result in reduced research opportunities and outcomes. It is important to remember that planning and timing are critical aspects of any successful ethnographic venture.
Communicating with Participants to Execute the Research Process
The ethnographer puts a lot of work into their project and starts out with an exciting set of ideas. The researcher should keep in mind that building on this enthusiasm during the first stages of the research process is an important first step. Participants are commonly perceptive and inquisitive when it comes to ethnographic projects and their purpose (Alasuutari, 1995; Tombro, 2016; Van Maanen, 2003). You may receive countless questions about your research project including queries about how the idea to organize the study originated, what the utility of the project is, why this audience, or why you chose to evaluate this environment rather than another. As a research expert, the investigator must be prepared to answer these questions and to clarify your commitment to the process. As a researcher, you will likely have fairly lengthy responses to the questions delivered, but you should also be ready to provide relatively short versions of the answers as well (Murchison, 2010).
Avoiding Deceptiveness and Misrepresentation
We have already learned that deception and misrepresentation are not acceptable practices. When you begin your field research, you should keep in mind the importance of avoiding miscommunication and deception with the process and to demonstrate a sincere interest in the phenomena under investigation to your participants (Bryman, 2004; Murchison, 2010). To get participants to fully engage in the process and assist you with your research, you should be able to explain and your own interest with clear examples. The ethnographer knows that potential participants are acknowledging the study if they tell you that they are excited and committed to the process.
The main thing to remember is to exhibit your own genuine interest in the process. It is important to communicate fully to your participants about the sacrifices both of you will be making throughout the process. This can be achieved by spending time to educate and communicate with participants about the process prior to getting started. When participants understand the reasoning behind the project, they are more likely to understand the potential advantages that complement your research process and become supportive within the group or social unit. When explaining your research process in diverse situations, you may discover that the explanations can lead to interesting conversations that help shape or even sometimes redirect the project. This exchange is part of the engaged nature of ethnographic research (Geertz, 2003; Murchison, 2010).
Getting ready to enter the field or environment under investigation, it is important to be prepared for the unknown. In ethnographic research, there can be many unknowns, so how does one prepare for this? When deciding how to approach a research project, many researchers turn to research books and journals found in their local libraries or bookstores. The most important thing to remember when approaching ethnographic research is to just get started! Once your research begins, it will reduce much of the fear and apprehension of observing living participants (Ladner, 2014; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016). If you have decided to go into the field where you are a non-native, either in your appearance or in speaking the language, you may feel out of place. Keeping in mind that the first step in the ethnographic research process is usually the most difficult will help the ethnographer alleviate stress and launch the process.
Something to consider when preparing for your research project is to make sure you have a well-developed research plan prior to beginning your research (Bryman, 2004; Creswell, 1994; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016). Having a well thought out and prepared research plan allows the ethnographer to feel better prepared to face the research process and can reduce some of the uncertainty they may feel. The ethnographer’s participant-observer role relinquishes a lot of the control over to the research environment and participants at hand. This is something that the ethnographer must reconcile amongst the preparation in the research plan and its implementation.
Equally important to note is confronting the pressure involved with conducting your research project in a familiar environment. If this is the case, the ethnographer performs the research in a familiar place. If so the researcher may face various expectations from participants that could create a sense of apprehension about their own role as researcher. The preliminary stage of your research is important because it sets the tone for the research that follows. It also creates first impressions that can be hard to change (Creswell, 1994; Ladner, 2014). It is important to note that facing these fears head on will help guard against stalling your project and instead get you started. It is important to note that getting started is the biggest hurdle to overcome. Once the process has begun and you have completed your first participant-observation, you will discover that your stress is alleviated and that the process will become easier moving forward.
Fieldwork means being visible to your participants and to personally collect data through hand-written note taking and ethnographic mapping. The ethnographer as participant is always there taking notes, making observations, and acting as the primary research instrument to navigate the complexity of being within the social environment (Ladner, 2014). The use of recording devices are not always a viable option, so the researcher must be prepared to have pen and paper ready at all times. Passive observation within a framework of active participation makes the whole process a delicate balance to reconcile between observer and participant.
It is also important to remember that at the beginning of the process, most participants will be curious and excited to begin. It is imperative to build upon this beginner’s enthusiasm to capture the trust and cooperation of the participants and to also maintain momentum as your move forward. As the research expert, the ethnographer should be prepared to respond to questions and be able to explain your dedication to the process. A researcher should prepare both longer or shorter responses to the possible questions asked due to differences in time constraints and the audience at hand (Murchison, 2010; Van Mannen, 2003).
Routine versus unexpected behavior and conversations
A challenging task in ethnography comes in the form of sorting the routine or regular things observed versus the extraordinary or unique items observed. Many researchers in the past have been drawn to emphasizing the extraordinary discoveries as they made for a better story and captured a more exotic appeal over time. However, the downside to overemphasizing things is that the data collected, which is a primary goal in ethnography, can sometimes lead to being counterproductive as most humans cannot relate to the cultural or social phenomena being documented. Yet, focusing solely on regular or routine aspects of cultural or social phenomena under investigation shifts the focus of the reader to miss important variations between the social lives of different cultures and environments.
“A good ethnographer recognizes that there are patterns of behavior and shared sets of symbols and structures that shape possibilities” (Murchison, 2010). Identifying distinctive interests and peculiarities and the role that creative and inventive ways social attitudes or conflicts can stimulate significant variety within the way groups interact is also significant. Therefore, the researcher should plan to identify both the regular and the extraordinary aspects of the phenomena under investigation. The outcome of the data collected may emphasize one dimension over another, but they must be reconciled against what needs to be addressed in both the routine and extraordinary. When conducting participant-observation and writing notes and creating ethnographic maps, you should remember to pay attention to any repetition and to that which is unique.
Paying Attention to Repetition
In the beginning of the participant-observation the ethnographer will not be able to identify that a particular action or occurrence happens every time or that certain words or symbols always appear until they have been observing long enough to identify multiple similar events or discussions. It is important to keep in mind that being aware of signs of repetition is important from the outset. The researcher must pay attention to things that repeat so that the study can proceed as a more functionally effective observation. The faster that the ethnographer grasps the idea of separating out shared practices and customs such as greetings, friendliness, and gracious manners, the more likely he/she/they will be able to find a degree of acceptance and rapport within the group.
A lot of the experience gained over time occurs through observation of repetitive practices, any types of imitated behaviors and a bit of trial and error. In situations where the researcher comes to a field site as an obvious outsider, they should try to ensure their first instinct is to observe. That way the ethnographer has the opportunity to observe and learn the appropriate manners or behavior of a particular situation to better blend in with the group and develop trust among the participants. Developing a default pause to see how others are react or respond to a particular situation with help determine whether a certain behavior or approach is appropriate for the group dynamic. Becoming a student who learns through observation is helpful in determining what is acceptable or not in a given situation.
If the ethnographer is entering a familiar environment, he/she/they should still pay close attention to repeated behaviors and communications. The researcher may find that some aspects of a culture or environment become so routine that most participants are no longer consciously aware of their behaviors or actions. The process of participant-observation can sometimes reveal that some conventions that exist or certain expectations derived by the researcher about the environment may require that the research perspective may need to change in order to blend in slightly different behaviors, customs, or responses.
Aside from becoming a more effective participant-observer, paying closer attention to details of repetition allows the ethnographer to study the central features of shared cultural and social systems. It is known that individuals repeat things for a reason, which is to say that they are usually important aspects of a culture or society. Therefore, noticing repetitive events, behaviors, phrases, or symbols can shed light on the most important shared social and cultural components of the environment under study.
In this chapter, we reviewed how to create a foundation for productive participant-observation. With this knowledge, we can start to understand how the participant-observation process evolves into a well-detailed research study. One that accurately reflects what the participant-observer uncovered about the environment under investigation (Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016; Van Mannen, 2003). Ethnographic research requires a long-term commitment of weeks, months, or years, and commands the researcher’s active interest in the process at hand. This chapter also pointed out that the role of participant-observer can be challenging. As a participant, the researcher maintains an active role, yet, as an observer, the researcher upholds a passive role. Attempting to reconcile both becomes a challenge. As the ethnographer circumnavigates the research process of a socially constructed environment, it is important they maintain the ability to communicate effectively with participants. Quite often, there is much curiosity and excitement about the reasons behind the ethnographer’s reasons and choice for the specific research study and participants will usually express their excitement at the outset of the project. Ensuring good communication and commitment in the beginning of the process helps participants understand the reasons and/or benefits of performing the study. A good explanation and demonstration of commitment on the part of the researcher helps gain not only participants’ trust but their shared enthusiasm too. Hopefully, this chapter helped both new and seasoned researchers to gain a glimpse into the work involved in the ethnographic method and to understand how the process evolves into a well-detailed research study over time (Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016; Van Mannen, 2003).
- Analyze and discuss the delicate balance between participant – observation and its contradictory paradox.
- How to create a practical approach to combining participation and observation.
- The importance of planning to ensure successful ethnographic fieldwork.
- Explain why ethnographers depend on participants in research execution.
- Discuss the importance of communicating the purpose and choice of your research topic with participants.
- Learn to avoid deception in communicating your mission with participants.
- Understand the importance of noting repeating and dissimilar patterns presented in the course of participant – observation.
- Ethnographic methods
- Time commitment
- Objective stance
- Social or cultural awareness
- Key Participants
- Why is it important for an ethnographer to begin a project by observing first?
- Explain the contradiction caused by the idea of participant-observation?
- What is the importance of communicating the reasons for your research study to participants when you start the process?
- Why is it a good idea to avoid misrepresentation and deceptive practices when interacting with groups of participants?
- Do you think it is important to identify and categorize routine or regular occurrences or only the extraordinary and unique? Give your opinion on this topic.
- Why is repetition important to note? What is the usefulness of identifying things that repeat or that are unique?
- Demonstrate through several examples the significance of maintaining trust and enthusiasm throughout the research process.
- Why do many researchers avoid the participant-observation approach?
- Give an example of when a research study should be conducted with the ethnographic method.
- Discuss the importance of planning to ensure successful ethnographic fieldwork. Give examples.
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The Autoethnography Project by Melissa Tombro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
Van Maanen, J. (2003). Tales from the field: On writing ethnography (2nd edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.