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Participant Observation Field Guide

Types of Observation

Complete Observer – no interaction with those being studied
Observer as Participant
– informal interaction with participants.
Participant as Observer
– participate in the study while at the same time observing those around you (people are aware you are a researcher).
Full Participant
– complete immersion into a group or environment while at the same time observing and collecting information (people are unaware you are a researcher)
(Glesne, 2011, p. 64 – 65).

What is the goal of participant observation?
The ultimate goal of participant observations is to understand the behavior and environments as well as the participants themselves. Researchers should also try to understand all faces of participant environment as well as question any preconceived notions they may have (Glesne, 2011, p. 66 – 67).

How do I gain access to participants?
1) Receive permission to complete your study. 2) Get to informally know your environment. 3) Befriend those who seem warm or welcoming. 4) Let them get to know you and your presence around. 5) Arrange introductions if need be. 6) Guard against preconceived notions. 7) Do not overstep your bounds (Glesne, 2011, p. 68 – 69).

Questions about Preparation, Yourself, and Interacting with other People
Who should I get to know to better understand the environment?
is this subject interesting?
are the social norms of the environment (attire, speech, interests)?
do most social interactions take place (learning new information)?
can I make myself a part of this environment
I choose to participate or keep a distance?
equipment will you take with you while you are observing?
do the observed activities typically take place?
What are my preconceived notions about this subject (Glesne, 2011, p. 93 - 97)??

Taking Notes
Notes should be descriptive and analytical . Descriptive notes should be detailed, accurate. Focus on what people are saying, how they are saying it, their body language, take notes that will help you visualize the experience months down the road. Analytical notes, however, are digging beneath the surface. You want to jot down your impressions, feelings, speculations, or emotions that arise during your observations. As a researcher you want to understand patterns in observation (Glesne, 2011, p. 73 – 75).

Tools of the Trade
Field Notebook
– a primary resource for live action documentation. It should be filled with descriptions of people, places, things, and key themes.
Research Diary – a tool you should use to reflect on your day’s findings. This allows you to process information at a later time and plan your next steps (Glesne, 2011, p. 71, 77)

Tips on Staying Organized
- Leave ample room in your notebook for afterthoughts
- Create a shorthand to help you document information more efficiently
- Re-read your notes from the day. Add in any information you may have missed
- Utilize your field notes as a guide to the next step in your observations
- Include date, time, and location information (Glesne, 2011, p. 78 – 79)

What is the role of the observer?
The role of the observer is to be fully aware of the environment around them. Their job is to understand the patterns, behaviors, and motivations of the environment and people they are studying in an ethical manner; typically this takes place either by participating in their pursuits or by documenting from a distance depending on the type of study. They should also keep documented and detailed accounts of these observations and allow time to reflect on the actions they are studying (Glesne, 2011, p. 63, 79).

Ethical Considerations
Informed Consent
– awareness to a participant that research is occurring, their participation is voluntary, and they may end participation at any time.
– trying to intervene in activity which may deemed as wrong or illegal
– protecting the privacy of participants in a study
Exploitation – not using your status as a research to control or change a person or environment (Glesne, 2011, p. 166 – 169)

Exiting the Field
The process of
exiting the field can be a difficult process for some. Researchers should be forthright and upfront about their intentions and involvement with those they are studying. There may also be cult ural implications – if there is a specific ritual pertaining to how one exits; try and go through the process. Just as you want to respect the culture before and during the study, the same should be said when you are leaving (Bernard, 2011, p. 288).

Closing Advice
Be aware of yourself and your surroundings - Take extensive field notes
Follow up on your field notes – Avoid preconceived notions
Be flexible during your observations – Respect the culture of the environment
Consider ethical implications – Be judicious in your gathering of data
Be prepared for unplanned observations (Glesne, p. 68 - 70, 79, 96 - 98)

Bernard, H. R. (2011). Research methods in anthropology .

Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

Glesne, C. (2011). Becoming qualitative researchers .

Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

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