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Participant Observation. Source: Participant Observation. Overview of Data Gathering Techniques: Participant Observation Interviews Focus Groups Archival Research Documents Public Records Personal Documents Photographs.

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Participant Observation


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Participant Observation

  • Overview of Data Gathering Techniques:

    • Participant Observation

    • Interviews

      • Focus Groups

    • Archival Research

      • Documents

      • Public Records

      • Personal Documents

      • Photographs

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Participant Observation

  • What is it? Gathering data while experiencing subjects’ social contexts with them. (Sometimes “ethnography”)

    • Long term interaction and proximity with group being studied

      • getting close, people feel comfortable with your presence allowing you to observe and record their lives

      • with rapport and acting like them, people go about their business as usual when you are around

      • if you go native you are no longer doing research -- you are just living

  • Remove yourself daily from the research setting to put it into perspective, including making notes and some analysis

  • Doesn't rule out administering formal surveys or other structured data collection tasks

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Participant Observation

  • Point:

    • Gain holistic perspective on social living.

    • To understand how things work

      • emic: understanding how people view their world

      • etic: how researcher views their world

    • Real view of how people behave in their settings.

    • See guiding principles of an organization, setting, sub-group, or culture.

    • Capture social meanings shared by a group.

    • To understand how it feels to be a member of a given group

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Participant Observation

  • Information you get:

    • . The setting—physical environment

    • . Social environment and human interactions

    • . Actual behaviors in a setting

    • . Native language of the setting being studied

    • . Nonverbal communication (dress, opinions, spacing during discussions, arrangement of actors)

    • . Notable nonoccurrences

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Participant Observation

  • Getting Access

    • Among a set of reasonable sites, choose the one that is easiest to get into.

    • Be prepared with lots of written documentation about yourself and your project. Grant proposals, resumes, examples of past work, and letters of introduction from your university, granting agency, boss, etc.

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Participant Observation

  • Getting Access

    • Depend on social capital. Come with a list of specific people to look up that are acquaintances of people you know

    • With organizations, start at the top and work down -- get to the gatekeepers first. Assure them confidentiality, and don't offer a quid quo pro that could harm your informants

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Participant Observation

  • Getting Access

    • Have ready answers that describe your research, what will be done with the results, etc.

    • Do your homework and learn about the setting before you get there. Get comfortable with the physical setting.

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Participant Observation

  • Options for data collection:

    • Complete observation: “open recording”

      • May change behaviors more

    • Participation and observation

    • Covert participation: “fly on wall”

      • Is it ethical?

      • Is it necessary?

  • Sometimes are forced by persons to take sides

  • Figure out: My behavior is normal for situation or it is interference, changing things

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Participant Observation

  • How many observers? More than one:

    • may remove bias

    • has higher costs

    • may change behaviors more

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Participant Observation

  • Ways of recording events and impressions:

    • Notes

    • Audio

    • Video

  • For analysis purposes, almost all records will be analyzed as text.

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Participant Observation

  • Types of notes:

    • Field (descriptive)--when observing, one should:

      • Describe the setting

      • Identify the people

      • Describe the content of the activities

      • Document the interactions

      • Describe and assess

      • Be alert to unanticipated things

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Participant Observation

  • Types of notes:

    • Theoretical

    • Personal

  • How much data do you gather? Not Clear

    • Avoid atypical situations

    • Carry out more than one observation

    • Spread observations over time

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Participant Observation

  • How long does it take?

    • For very sensitive topics with real strangers, can take a year. Studies show that ethnographies that took less time tend to make scant reference to sensitive topics (sexuality, crime, witchcraft, political feuds, etc)

    • For simple settings with little that is sensitive (e.g., studying a Laundromat), a couple of weeks will do.

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Participant Observation

  • Researcher Skills

    • Learn the language--language, dialect, jargon, phrases, buzz words, styles

    • Explicitize. Become consciously aware of what people are doing and saying. Otherwise you take in what you expected to see rather than what you saw.

    • Maintain posture of apprentice. Informants are experts in their culture. You are ignorant. You learn more this way.

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Participant Observation

  • Researcher Skills

    • Store information in an organized and routinely thorough way. Good note taking skills.

    • Patience. Trust takes time, learning new “understandings” takes time.

    • Practice Objectivity. Personal ideas can kill accuracy.

      • Your beliefs may not fit your research context. Don’t try to empty your mind of pre-conceived notions and don't try to disbelieve what you believe. Just be aware that alternative views are possible.

      • Be extremely wary of personal outrage, indignation, and similar feelings. They are pleasurable because they produce feelings of self-worth and purposefulness. You will believe ideas, thoughts that make you feel that way.

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Participant Observation

  • Advantages of Observations:

    • Direct information about behavior of individuals and groups

    • Permits researcher to enter and understand situation/context

    • Good opportunities to identify unanticipated outcomes

    • Natural, Non artificially structured, and flexible setting.

    • Reduces reactivity -- people changing behavior because they are being watched

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Participant Observation

  • Disadvantages

    • Expensive and time consuming

    • Need well-qualified, highly trained observers; may need content experts

    • Done poorly, may affect behavior of participants

    • Selective perception of observer may distort data

    • Investigator has little control over the situation

    • May observe atypical behaviors

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Participant Observation

  • Participant observation’s sociological role

    • Certain topics cannot be studied by other means. Some groups won't let you see anything unless you are part of their lives (like criminal networks).

    • Many settings are too intricate to be understood with piecemeal techniques. Think of understanding court settings.

    • Helps formulate survey questions that are sensible and appropriately phrased.

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Participant Observation

  • Participant observation’s sociological role

    • Intuitive understanding of contexts that allow you to interpret other findings more meaningfully.

    • Participant observation is respectful of subjects. Rather than just hitting them up for data, you invest your time in them and treat them like experts in their setting.

    • Pedagogically, research based in participant observation is often the most convincing, easily understood sociological research