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Fieldwork can involve three very different roles: (1) complete participant, (2) participant observer, and (3) complete observer. The first role involves deception—becoming a member of a group without letting on that you’re there to do research. The third role involves following people around and recording their behavior with little if any interaction. This is part of direct observation, which we’ll take up in chapter 14.

By far, most ethnographic research is based on the second role, that of the participant observer. Participant observers can be insiders who observe and record some aspects of life around them (in which case, they’re observing participants), or they can be outsiders who participate in some aspects of life around them and record what they can (in which case, they’re participating observers).

In 1965,1 went to sea with a group of Greek sponge fishermen in the Mediterranean. I lived in close quarters with them, ate the same awful food as they did, and generally participated in their life—as an outsider. I didn’t dive for sponges, but I spent most of my waking hours studying the behavior and the conversation of the men who did. The divers were curious about what I was writing in my notebooks, but they went about their business and just let me take notes, time their dives, and shoot movies (Bernard 1987). I was a participating observer.

Similarly, when I went to sea in 1972 and 1973 with oceanographic research vessels, I was part of the scientific crew, there to watch how oceanographic scientists, technicians, and mariners interacted and how this interaction affected the process of gathering oceanographic data. There, too, I was a participating observer (Bernard and Killworth 1973).

Circumstances can sometimes overtake the role of mere participating observer. In 1979, El Salvador was in civil war. Thousands fled to Honduras where they were sheltered in refugee camps near the border. Phillipe Bourgois went to one of those camps to initiate what he hoped would be his doctoral research in anthropology. Some refugees there offered to show him their home villages and Bourgois crossed with them, illegally, into El Salvador for what he thought would be a 48-hour visit. Instead, Bourgois was trapped, along with about a thousand peasants, for 2 weeks, as the Salvadoran military bombed, shelled, and strafed a 40-square-kilometer area in search of rebels (Bourgois 1990). Perforce, Bourgois became an observing participant.

John Van Maanen played both of these roles, one after the other, in his dissertation research on how rookie cops in a California city become street-wise. There was nothing accidental about this, either. First, Van Maanen went through the 3-month training course at the police academy. Everyone at the academy knew why he was there, but he was a full participant in the training. He was an observing participant. Then, for 4 months, Van Maanen rode 8 to 10 hours a day in the back of a patrol car as an participant observer (Van Maanen 1973). His first role not only gave Van Maanen the credibility he needed for his second role to be successful; it also gave him a deep appreciation of what he was observing in his second role.

Researchers at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons asked Mark Fleisher (1989) to do an ethnographic study of job pressures on guards in a maximum-security federal penitentiary in California. It costs a lot to train a guard—a correctional officer, or CO in the jargon of the profession—and there was an unacceptably high rate of them leaving the job after a year or two. Could Fleisher look into the problem?

Fleisher said he’d be glad to do the research and asked when he could start ‘‘walking the mainline’’—that is, accompanying the COs on their rounds through the prison. He was told that he’d be given an office at the prison and that the guards would come to his office to be interviewed. Fleisher said he was sorry, but he was an anthropologist, he was doing participant observation, and he’d have to have the run of the prison. Sorry, they said back, only sworn correctional officers can walk the prison halls. So, swear me in, said Fleisher, and off he went to training camp for 6 weeks to become a sworn federal correctional officer. Then he began his year-long study of the United States Penitentiary at Lompoc, California. In other words, he became an observing participant in the culture he was studying. Like Van Maanen, Fleisher never hid what he was doing. When he went to USP-Lompoc, Fleisher told everyone that he was an anthropologist doing a study of prison life.

Barbara Marriott (1991) studied how the wives of U.S. Navy male officers contributed to their husbands’ careers. Marriott was herself the wife of a retired captain. She was able to bring the empathy of 30 years’ full participation to her study. She, too, took the role of observing participant and, like Fleisher, she told her informants exactly what she was doing.

Holly Williams (1995) spent 14 years as a nurse, ministering to the needs of children who had cancer. When Williams did her doctoral dissertation, on how the parents of those young patients coped with the trauma, she started as a credible insider, as someone whom the parents could trust with their worst fears and their hopes against all hope. Williams was a complete participant who became an observing participant by telling the people whom she was studying exactly what she was up to and enlisting their help with the research (box 12.3).

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