How do we really find out about the way of life of a group of people? One way is to join them – to participate in their daily activities & observe what they say and do. This research method is known as participant observation. It was used by John Howard Griffin (1960) a white journalist who dyed his skin black in order to discover what it was like to live as black man in the southern states of America in the late 1950’s. It was used by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who spent many years studying the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea. He observed the most intimate details of their lives as he peered into grass huts gathering data for Sex and Repression in Savage Society (1927). And it was used by the sociologist Erving Goffman (1968) when he adopted the role of assistant to the athletics director in order to study the experience of patients in a mental hospital in Washington DC. Ethnography
Participant observation is one of the main research methods used in ethnography. Ethnography is the study of the way of life a group of people – their culture and the structure of their society. Often researchers attempt to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’- to see the worlds from their perspective, discover their meanings & appreciate their experiences. Many argue that participant observation is the most effective method of doing this. Participant observation gives the researchers the opportunity to observe people in their natural setting as opposed to the more artificial contexts of the laboratory or the interview. It allows researchers to see what people do as opposed to what they say they do. Participant observation has produced a number of classic ethnographies- Elliot Liebow’s (1967) study of Black ‘street corners’ men in Washington DC; William f. Whyte’s (1955) account of an Italian-American gang in Boston and a range of anthropological studies of small scale non- Western societies from the Yanomamo of Amazonia (Chagnon, 1968) to the Mbuti of Zaire (Turnbull, 1961). Gaining entry
Participant observation cannot work unless the researcher gains entry into the group & some degree of acceptance from its members. This can be difficult. Many groups don’t want to be studied, especially those whose activities are seen as deviant or criminal by the wider society. However, as the following examples indicate, it is often possible to enter even closed groups. For his research into casual sex between men in public toilets – the ‘tearoom trade’ – Humphreys (1970) acted as a lookout. By performing this useful and accepted role, he gained the trust of those he observed without having to join their sexual activities. On other occasions, researchers have to participate more directly in order to gain entry. Dick Hobbs (1988) wanted to research the relationship between criminals & detectives in the East End of London. He agreed to a coach a local soccer team when he discovered that Simon, a detective was the father of one of the players. He developed a friendship with Simon who provided him with introductions & vouched for him (said he was OK).
Hobbs also drank in The Pump, a local pub that was frequented by several detectives. These contacts enabled Hobbs to gain entry into the world of the detectives – he joined their conversations & observed their activities. Sometimes researchers are forced into even greater participation to gain entry. Festinger (1964) found that the only way to observe a small religious sect was to pretend to be a believer & become a member of the sect. The above examples are of covert research where the identity & purpose of the researcher are kept hidden. Overt researcher, where those being studied are aware of the researcher’s role and purpose, has its own problems of access and acceptance. People often reject what they see as nosy, interfering outsiders, unless they are sponsored by a trusted member of the group who grants the researcher entry. This happened in Judith Okely’s (1983) study of traveller-gypsies. Entry was a long and difficult process until she gained the friendship and trust of a family who had recently suffered a tragic death. The sympathetic and understanding relationship she developed with members of this family provided entry to rest of the group.
Looking and listening Participant observation involves looking and listening. The general rule is to ‘go with the flow’ rather than forcing the pace and influencing peoples behaviour. Since the aim is to observe people in their normal setting, the research must not disturb that setting. Blending into the background is usually recommended, though this is not always possible. For example, a participant observer in a classroom can stand out like a sore thumb. This can result in an ‘artificial’ lesson. However, its surprising how soon he or she becomes invisible and taken for granted. In his study of a secondary school, Walford (1933) found that it took four weeks of observation before any class misbehaved. However, the situation changed rapidly after this time and Walford was soon watching ‘mock wrestling’ and chairs flying around the classroom! Asking Questions Watching and listening are not always adequate for the researcher’s purposes. Sometimes a participant observer must take a more active role in order to obtain information. This usually involves asking questions. In such cases, the diving line between participant observation and unstructured interviews is blurred.
For example, William Whyte (1955) discussed his observations with Doc; the leader of the gang Whyte was studying, to the point where Doc became ‘a collaborator in the research’. The key informant Doc became a key informant – a member of the group who has a special relationship with the researcher and provides vital information. As noted earlier, Dick Hobbs developed a friendship with a detective called Simon. In Hobbs’ (1988) words, Simon ‘emerged as my principal police informant, granting me formal and informal interviews, access to documents, and introductions to individuals and settings that would otherwise be inaccessible. Hanging around A good deal of participant observation is informal, unplanned and unstructured – it consists of ‘hanging around’.
In his study of pilferage from the docks in St Johns, Newfoundland, Mars (1982) wandered round the wharves and sheds chatting to the Dockers, and hung round bars drinking with them in the evening. Recording observations recording the findings of participant observation can be a problem, especially when the research is covert. Researchers usually write up the day’s findings each evening whilst events are still fresh in their mind. In some cases the toilet has proved a useful place to make brief notes, which are written up in a more detailed from later. However, a lot relies on the researcher’s memory which is inevitably selective.
In the field Participant observation can be a long process with a year or more being spent ‘in the field’. It can require dedication, stamina and courage. Researchers are often cut off from the normal supports of the family and friends, sometimes living a double life in an alien setting. And participant observation can be dangerous. For example, Haralambos (1994) was threatened with guns on more than one occasion during his research into African-American music on the south side of Chicago. Many of the advantages and disadvantages of participant observation have been mentioned already. Some of the more important will now be summarised.