Week 7: Participant Observation and Ethnography Social Research Methods Alice Mah
Lecture Outline • What is ethnography? • What is participant observation? • Practicalities (access, gatekeepers, online vs. face-to-face, field notes, writing up/analysis) • Conclusions • Seminar: readings and homework
What is ethnography? “The underlying purpose of ethnographic research is to describe what the people in some particular place or status ordinarily do, and the meanings they ascribe to what they do…” (Wolcott, 1999, p. 68) “[Ethnography] involves the ethnographer participating overtly or covertly in people's daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions - in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of research.” (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995, p. 1)
Ethnographic questions • What is happening, specifically, in the social action that takes place in a particular setting? • What is the meaning of the action to the actors in the setting? • How are the events that take place patterned in a way that reveals aspects of the social organisation of the setting? • How is the action in the setting related to other contexts and society as a whole?
Traditions in ethnographic research No single linear trajectory in the development of ethnography – overlapping “traditions” • Chicago school • Founded in 1892; 1917-1942 – Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, urban sociology • Focus on everyday interactions in specific locations; triangulation of methods • Seeking out “natural areas” of the city (e.g. Jewish ghetto, dance halls etc.) • Critiques: normally male, middle-class perspective; not neutral • British social anthropology • Began in the 1920s, closely associated with Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific • Central goal: “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world” (Malinowski) • Fieldwork as a rite of passage • Critiques: prevailing empiricism, ignores role of observer, relates to colonialism • Community studies • 1930s-1960s: early community studies – seeking out “pure” communities (e.g. West (1945) Plainville, USA, Lynd and Lynd (1929) Middletown, USA ) • Early focus on place; later – focus on migration / urbanisation • Critiques: community as ‘bounded’, romanticised, exclusive, difficult to define
Ethnography: the study of the ‘Other’ BronislawMalinowski with ‘natives’ on Trobriand Islands in 1918.
More recent developments in ethnography • 1970s – transcending disciplines: move towards anthropological fieldwork in Europe; shift towards ‘ethnography’ as a key sociological method • Increased focus on gender and ethnicity • Increased focus on mobile groups (migrants / tourists) • Studying groups with a shared perspective (children / untouchables / transvestites) • Addressing silenced perspectives • Incorporating critiques of science • Reflexivity
What is participant observation? 1/2 “Participant observation is about engaging in a social scene, experiencing it and seeking to understand and explain it.” (May, 1997, p. 155) “One cannot simply observe. A question such as ‘What is going on here?’ can only be addressed when fleshed out with enough detail to answer the related question, ‘In terms of what?’” (Wolcott, 1999, p69)
What is participant observation? 2/2 • Trying to understand a social scene • Doing this by observing what is going on • Doing this by participating (to some extent) in what is going on • Oxymoron: combination of ‘subjectivity’ as participant and ‘objectivity’ as distant observer: towards ‘intersubjective’ understandings between researcher and research participants • Listening to/thinking about how and why people act as they do within that social scene
Participant observation and ethnography • Participant observation: central and defining feature of ethnography • Burgess, 1984; Delamont, 1992; Wolcott, 1995) • Links to Chicago School • Weber’s verstehen • Interactionism • Interest in the micro not the macro
Possible problems with participant observation • Focus on the present may blind researcher to important events that occurred before their arrival • The risk of going ‘native’ and over-identifying with the observed, or else voyeurism/exploitation. • The risk of artificially ‘bounding’ communities or cultures through research focus. • The risk of ‘empiricism’/simple description rather than sociological analysis
Practicalities of Participant Observation • Negotiating access • Gatekeepers and trust • Non-negotiated access • Online vs. face-to-face • Field notes and reflexivity • Writing up and analysis
Negotiating access • Initial access, situational access, ongoing access • Negotiating access usually requires personal revelations • How much do you reveal? • Tests of confidentiality • What did ‘x’ tell you? • Importance of confidentiality and trust
Implications of the gatekeeper relationship • Gatekeeper “…those individuals in an organisation that have the power to grant or withhold access to people or situation for the purposes of research.” (Burgess, 1984: 48) • Different gatekeepers control different aspects of the setting • Gaining access by one route may limit other forms of access • Access route has implications for research • Top down vs. bottom up • Headteacher vs. teacher vs. pupil • Football coach vs. player
The Centrality of Trust • Layers of Trust • What if you discover an hotel cleaner skipping some of her/his cleaning routines? • Whose confidentiality do you protect? • How do you explain your research? • How much do you tell? • Access to the data or the interpreted data?
Non-negotiated access • Some settings do not require formal negotiation of access • A football match • Have to buy a ticket • Bar life • Have to buy a drink • No official gatekeeper for such settings • No single person from whom to seek permission • Researcher must still access the situation • Behave according to formal and informal rules • Seek permission from particular respondents
Online vs. face-to-face participant observation • Ethical issues: • Role of the researcher in the setting (problem of ‘lurking’; question of ongoing access) • Issues of confidentiality and consent ‘online’ • Limitations of textual and/or multi-media interactions vs. face-to-face observations • Issues of representation/identity of research participants (often a focus of research)
Participant observation and field notes • Background • What do people usually do in this setting and why? • Physical space: • How is it laid out; how do people use the space? Draw a diagram/map • Verbal communication: • Who talks to whom? Why do you think this is? • Non-verbal communication • A wink or a twitch?
Field notes: reflexivity and reflections • Reflexive research: • What is your role in this setting? What sort of effect do you think this is having? • As you become more familiar with your research setting your views of people and of issues in the setting may change. • Research diary • Write up an account of the observation and how you felt about it. Did it go well? Why/Why not? What could you do differently next time?
‘Jottings’ • Reminders of the setting • Notes on particular incidents to be written up in full later • Write ‘jottings’ in front of people or not?
Full field notes • Write these up from your jottings ASAP • Recording experiences whilst still fresh in your memory • Word process them – easier to cut and paste later when you look for themes from your data • Writing up full field notes is part of your initial analysis • You are deciding what to include and what to leave out • Thick descriptions of events
Thick description • Important to describe the scene • Not just a summary of what has happened • Aim to create text that conveys a picture of the scene • Record facial expressions, noises, colours
Writing up and analysis • Use your full field notes in your research project: quote from these notes to: • give the reader a full flavour of your research setting, and • show that you have carried out observation as well as analysed the data you have collected. • Never leave field notes to speak for themselves – “So what?” • Analysis: theoretical saturation and identification of themes
Additional considerations • Time-consuming: recommended amount of observation for projects that use ethnography as the primary qualitative method: 35 hours. • Can be combined with other qualitative methods in the field (interviews, archives, documents, visual materials, mobile methods) as well as with quantitative methods.
Conclusions • Ethnography has developed across a range of traditionsand disciplines, and there continue to be differing approaches to ethnography. • Participant observation is a central method of ethnography, with aim of developing ‘intersubjective’ understandings. • Access is continually negotiated throughout the research process - it is not simply something you do at the outset. • The access route you take may have an effect on the way you as the researcher are perceived (top-down or bottom-up). • Field notes are an important part of the research. • Trust is central to the research situation and to your access to the researched.
Seminar Readings • Geertz: a classic ethnographer who provides a useful account of ‘thick description’ and the subtleties of participant observation and interpretation. • Anderson: an example of ethnographic writing and research to be discussed in the seminars in detail. Think about how the research is presented in relation to the idea of ‘thick description’ (Geertz). Please also read the book review to provide some context for reading the book chapter. • Additional key reading: Crang and Cook or else one of the recommended readings for further guidelines on participant observation as a method (Hine is particularly useful re: online ethnographies).
Seminar Homework Select an appropriate social setting for ethnographic research and undertake a participant observation of at least one hour. You should record your observations, reflections and preliminary findings/analysis in your research diary (or 'field notes‘/ ‘jottings’). Come prepared to discuss specific issues (which are outlined on the module website) with the whole seminar.