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To a certain extent, participant observation must be learned in the field. The strength of participant observation is that you, as a researcher, become the instrument for data collection and analysis through your own experience. Consequently, you have to experience participant observation to get good at it. Nevertheless, there are a number of skills that you can develop before you go into the field.

Learning the Language

Unless you are a full participant in the culture you’re studying, being a participant observer makes you a freak. Here’s how anthropologists looked to Vine Deloria (1969:78), a Sioux writer:

Anthropologists can readily be identified on the reservations. Go into any crowd of people. Pick out a tall gaunt white man wearing Bermuda shorts, a World War II Army Air Force flying jacket, an Australian bush hat, tennis shoes, and packing a large knapsack incorrectly strapped on his back. He will invariably have a thin, sexy wife with stringy hair, an I. Q. of 191, and a vocabulary in which even the prepositions have eleven syllables. . . . This creature is an anthropologist.

Now, four decades later, it’s more likely to be the anthropologist’s husband who jabbers in 11-syllable words, but the point is still the same. The most important thing you can do to stop being a freak is to speak the language of the people you’re studying—and speak it well. Franz Boas was adamant about this. ‘‘Nobody,’’ he said, ‘‘would expect authoritative accounts of the civilization of China or Japan from a man who does not speak the languages readily, and who has not mastered their literatures” (1911:56). And yet, ‘‘the best kept secret of anthropology,” says Robbins Burling, ‘‘is the linguistic incompetence of ethnological fieldworkers’’ (2000 [1984]:v).

That secret is actually not so much well kept as ignored. In 1933, Paul Radin, one of Franz Boas’s students, complained that Margaret Mead’s work on Samoa was superficial because she wasn’t fluent in Samoan (Radin 1966 [1933]:179). Sixty-six years later, Derek Freeman (1999) showed that Mead was probably duped by at least some of her adolescent informants about the extent of their sexual experience because she didn’t know the local language.

In fact, Mead talked quite explicitly about her use of interpreters. It was not necessary, said Mead, for fieldworkers to become what she called virtuosos in a native language. It was enough simply to use a native language, as she put it, without actually speaking it fluently:

If one knows how to exclaim ‘‘how beautiful!’’ of an offering, ‘‘how fat!’’ of a baby, ‘‘how big!’’ of a just shot pig; if one can say ‘‘my foot’s asleep’’ or ‘‘my back itches’’ as one sits in a closely pack native group with whom one is as yet unable to hold a sustained conversation; if one can ask the simple questions: ‘‘Is that your child?’’ ‘‘Is your father living?’’ ‘‘Are the mosquitoes biting you?’’ or even utter culturally appropriate squeals and monosyllables which accompany fright at a scorpion, or startle at a loud noise, it is easy to establish rapport with people who depend upon affective contact for reassurance. (Mead 1939:198)

Robert Lowie would have none of it. A people’s ethos, he said, is never directly observed. ‘‘It can be inferred only from their self-revelations,’’ and this, indeed, requires the dreaded virtuosity that Mead had dismissed (Lowie 1940:84-87). The ‘‘horse-and- buggy ethnographers,” said Lowie, in a direct response to Mead in the American Anthropologist, accepted virtuosity—that is, a thorough knowledge of the language in which one does fieldwork—on principle. ‘‘The new, stream-lined ethnographers,’’ he taunted, rejected this as superfluous (Lowie 1940:87). Lowie was careful to say that a thorough knowledge of a field language did not mean native proficiency. And, of course, Mead understood the benefits of being proficient in a field language. But she also understood that a lot of ethnography gets done through interpreters or through contact languages, like French, English, and pidgins ... the not-so-well kept secret in anthropology (Further Reading: using interpreters).

Still. . . according to Brislin et al. (1973:70), Samoa is one of those cultures where ‘‘it is considered acceptable to deceive and to ‘put on’ outsiders. Interviewers are likely to hear ridiculous answers, not given in a spirit of hostility but rather sport.’’ Brislin et al. call this the sucker bias and warn fieldworkers to watch out for it. Presumably, knowing the local language fluently is one way to become alert to and avoid this problem.

And remember Raoul Naroll’s finding that anthropologists who spent at least a year in the field were more likely to report on witchcraft? He also found that anthropologists who spoke the local language were more likely to report data about witchcraft than were those who didn’t. Fluency in the local language doesn’t just improve your rapport, it increases the probability that people will tell you about sensitive things, like witchcraft and that even if people try to put one over on you, you’ll know about it (Naroll 1962:89-90).

When it comes to doing effective participant observation, learning a new jargon in your own language is just as important as learning a foreign language. Peggy Sullivan and Kirk Elifson studied the Free Holiness church, a rural group of Pentecostals whose rituals include the handling of poisonous snakes (rattles, cottonmouths, copperheads, and water moccasins). They had to learn an entirely new vocabulary:

Terms and expressions like ‘‘annointment,’’ ‘‘tongues,’’ ‘‘shouting,’’ and ‘‘carried away in the Lord’’ began having meaning for us. We learned informally and often contextually through conversation and by listening to sermons and testimonials. The development of our understanding of the new language was gradual and probably was at its greatest depth when we were most submerged in the church and its culture. . . . We simplified our language style and eliminated our use of profanity. We realized, for example, that one badly placed ‘‘damn’’ could destroy trust that we had built up over months of hard work. (Sullivan and Elifson 1996:36)

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