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Participant Observation

This type of “research” is known as Participant Observation. The following pointers will help you get the most out of your experience.

From Catherine Dawson in “How to Carry Out Participant Observation”

  • Participant observation is a procedure for generating understanding about the way of life of others.
  • Participant observation can be carried out within any community, culture or context which is different to the usual community and/or context of the researcher. It can be carried out within a remote African tribe or in hospitals, factories, schools, prisons and so on, in your own country. The researcher immerses herself in the community – the action is deliberate and intended to add knowledge.
  • The researcher participates in the community while observing that community, and as such she must be a researcher 24 hours a day.
  • First impressions are important and you need to make sure that you dress and act appropriately. You must not appear threatening in any way.
  • …it is important from the onset to take copious notes. You need to have a good memory as in many situations it is not possible to take notes at the time. You need to have a notepad and/or laptop with you at all times so that you can write down your thoughts as soon as possible after the encounter.

From “Module 2: Participant Observation” in Qualitative Research Methods: A Data Collector’s Guide

What should I document?

Document what you observe, taking care to distinguish it from both your expectations and your interpretation of what you observe.

It is important to document what is actually taking place rather than what you are expecting to see and not let your expectations effect your observations. The purpose of participant observation is partly to confirm what you already know (or think you know) but is mostly to discover unanticipated truths. It is an exercise of discovery.

Distinguishing interpretation from observation

A North American researcher is hired to observe the behavior of young men in an African country. He notices a lot of handholding and displays of mutual affection between these men. Because of his American background, he interprets these data to mean that many young men in this country are homosexual. Although this might be a logical interpretation in North America, it is not logical for the African country. Thus, the observations are correct, but his interpretation is not, and any policies and programs based on his interpretation would be invalid.

Writing up Your Findings

Field notes vs. Expanded notes (Activity Report)

  • Field Notes are quick, rough notes taken during the activity/event or immediately after
  • Use shorthand
  • Don’t try to write every word of a conversation
  • Field notes need to be expanded and written up as soon after the end of the activity as possible, preferably the same day, or the next morning
  • For expanded notes/Activity Reports, use sentences to write a descriptive narrative, but be careful not to lapse into interpretation
  • Interpretation will come later as you accumulate a variety of experiences/events and can begin to test your theories and see trends or patterns.

Identify other questions that need follow-up

  • Discuss with your coach possible ways to do this follow-up
  • Design another event/activity and decide on a completion date

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