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Participant Observation and Ethnography

February 17, 2012

Participant observation — studying groups by actually joining them — has a long and distinguished history within the study of groups.  W. F. Whyte’s Street Corner Society is a classic, of course, but others include Festinger’s foray into an unusual, cult-like group discussed in When Prophecy Fails, Don Roy’s “Banana Time,” and Tobias Schneebaum’s Keep the River on Your Right.

Over the years, as the social science of groups has shifted in method and orientation, the world of ethnographic study has become increasing diverse, as researchers grapple with issues of objectivity, epistemology, and ethics.  Some modern ethnographers adhere, primarily, to the method’s original form–for they strive to describe the dynamics of cultural groups by taking part in those group’s activities.  Gary Alan Fine’s Morel Tales, for example, describes how mushroom hunters negotiate the fine line between supporting each other’s searches but also keeping their own best patches secret. Jennifer Lois’s (2003) Heroic Efforts discusses the five and a half years she spent as member of a mountain search and rescue squad, and her work yields wonderful insights into group-level emotions, the social processes that influence status allocations in groups that face danger, and the relationship between individual self-conceptions and group-level acceptance.  Sudhir Vankatesh’s (2008) Gang Leader for Day describe the four years Vankatesh spent with the Black Kings, a group of young men living in public housing in Chicago.  His analysis describes their world from within, for he never became part of the gang, but he was permitted to act as the gang’s leader for a day.  In the The Warcraft Civilization William Sims Bainbridge (2010) discusses the thousands of hours he spent at Maxrohn (a priest) and Catullus (a blood elf) in the online game world of WarCraft, and explains the complex dynamics of altruism, competition, and leisure in a virtual world.

Their work yields a particularly rich type of data: the actual words used by members in their discussions and conversations, impressions drawn from nonverbal expressions, information about the member’s appearance and location in relationship to each other, and the sequences of behaviors that unfold within the group over time.From their work we learn first hand about how a group manages its emotions when it must deal with a crisis, the way in which inner city gangs negotiate conflicts so that everyone’s economic interests are protected, and the development of a culture in an entirely virtual community of people who never meet face-to-face.  These ethnographers, true to the methods basic tenants, also organize their observations within a theoretical framework, drawing out conclusions that are relevant to such theories of interpersonal processes as edgework theory, status congruity theory, and social identity theory.  Their descriptions are subjective accounts of what transpired, but their subjectivity is minimized through attention to the record keeping, extensive training in observational procedures, and an extraordinary investment of time in the groups they are observing.

All these works can be considered ethnographic, but they avoid the drivel often found in many contemporary ethnographic writings. These researchers spend no time moaning about how unfair the world of science is, boasting of the supremacy of ethnography as the only legitimate method (for it admits its biases instead of denying them), or cloaking their conclusions with such opaque postmodern speak as “compositional studies,” “critical humanism,” “interpretive practice,” “testimonio and subalaternity,” and “emancipatory discourse” (all from titles in Denzin & Lincoln’s Handbook of Qualitative Research).  Instead, they describe as clearly as possible what they saw during their time within the groups.  Unlike some in the field of ethnography–who seem to be writing to impress themselves and to confuse the reader with useless verbiage and conceptual clutter–the best ethnographic researchers pursue the one goal we all share:  the explanation of the causes and consequence of interpersonal processes in groups.

[Postscript: The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (edited by Denzin & Lincoln) runs to 1200 pages, with 45 chapters devoted to the “post-positivistic, hermeneutical approaches” to qualitiative research. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology (edited by Willig and Stainton-Roger) runs is a meager 600+ pages with some 30 odd (and I mean, odd) chapters.  Some of these chapters–the ones that avoid using terms such as “methodolatry,” “recontextualizing,” “Foucultian analysis,” and “refunctioning”–offer some reasonable ideas on how to conduct ethnographic studies. ]

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