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Home arrow Environment arrow Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches
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WHAT IS PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION?

Participant observation usually involves fieldwork, but not all fieldwork is participant observation. Gomes do Espirito Santo and Etheredge (2002) interviewed 1,083 male clients of female sex workers and collected saliva specimens (to test for HIV) during 38 nights of fieldwork in Dakar, Senegal. The data collection involved a team of six field- workers, and the lead researcher was with the team throughout the 3.5 months that it took to collect the data. This was serious fieldwork, but hardly participant observation.

So much for what participant observation isn’t. Here’s what it is: Participant observation is one of those strategic methods I talked about in chapter 1—like experiments, surveys, or archival research. It puts you where the action is and lets you collect data . . . any kind of data you want, narratives or numbers. It has been used for generations by positivists and interpretivists alike.

A lot of the data collected by participant observers are qualitative: field notes taken about things you see and hear in natural settings; photographs of the content of people’s houses; audio recordings of people telling folk tales; video of people making canoes, getting married, having an argument; transcriptions of taped, open-ended interviews, and so on.

But lots of data collected by participant observers are quantitative and are based on methods like direct observation, questionnaires, and pile sorts. Whether you consider yourself an interpretivist or a positivist, participant observation gets you in the door so you can collect life histories, attend rituals, and talk to people about sensitive topics.

Participant observation involves going out and staying out, learning a new language (or a new dialect of a language you already know), and experiencing the lives of the people you are studying as much as you can. Participant observation is about stalking culture in the wild—establishing rapport and learning to act so that people go about their business as usual when you show up. If you are a successful participant observer, you will know when to laugh at what people think is funny, and when people laugh at what you say, it will be because you meant it to be a joke.

Participant observation involves immersing yourself in a culture and learning to remove yourself every day from that immersion so you can intellectualize what you’ve seen and heard, put it into perspective, and write about it convincingly. When it’s done right, participant observation turns fieldworkers into instruments of data collection and data analysis.

The implication is that better fieldworkers are better data collectors and better data analyzers. And the implication of that is that participant observation is not an attitude or an epistemological commitment or a way of life. It’s a craft. As with all crafts, becoming a skilled artisan at participant observation takes practice.

 
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