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Participant Observation as a Research Method: A flexible and rigorous strategy for understanding our world

Sampling and Methods

One of the more interesting and challenging pieces of a participant observation project is that many of the research questions and methods employed develop over the course of the project itself. If you go in with a very rigid plan about what you plan to do, chances are you may be frustrated by unexpected developments, or may wish that you had more freedom to explore new questions that have emerged.

With that in mind, one of the best ways to get started on a participant observation project is to find a field site that you find interesting or important for the work that you do. A field site can be any number of things – an actual place (like a park), an organization (like in an office or in a school), a group of friends or family, or even an online group (like a message board or online community). Your field site can also be situated in multiple places – if you are doing participant observation with a community-based organization, for instance, you might spend time at an office in addition to out in the community. Of course, if you are planning to conduct a participant observation project, you should receive full consent from those involved – you should let them know who you are, what you are doing, and why. Sometimes this can be accomplished in an informal conversation, but other times it might require a more formal document like a memorandum of understanding.

Get Participatory! Participant observation is one of the best methods to integrate participatory research methods. You might think of this project as a partnership and seek out collaborations with those under study throughout the process. What do people in your field site see as interesting or important research questions? Can they also take fieldnotes of their experiences as a way to give greater richness to your data? The possibilities for participation in this domain are endless!

Once you have your field site in place, the work can begin. Participant observation involves a good deal of time and effort – some of that time is spent out in the field with your research partners, but much of it is spent taking and analyzing notes about your experiences. Unlike some other research methods, where there is a clear distinction between data collection and data analysis, in most participant observation projects, you should be analyzing your data throughout the process. We'll dig deeper into that analysis later on.

You should enter the field with some basic but broad research questions. Let's return to the example of the Metamorphosis Project researcher doing work with urban farmers. At first, his main research question asked, why does this organization see urban farming as a key to social change and community development, and how do they go about pursuing those goals in this context? This was a fairly descriptive question that allowed him to initially observe and participate with some key questions in his head.

So what does participant observation actually entail? First, you have to show up! Take part in the activities of the group with whom you are working, look for opportunities to find out how they spend their time and why they spend their time the way that they do. Feel free to ask questions, but don't think of your participant observation as an interview – try your best to be a part of the group and to learn from the inside exactly what is going on.

As you begin to spend more time in the field, you should be developing and refining your key research questions. In the example of the Metamorphosis Project researcher, what started out as a question about why and how the urban farmers do the work that they do, developed into a question that asked, what are the challenges faced by organizations who do social change work in a multilingual and multicultural community, and how are these challenges dealt with? This research question emerged as the researcher continually noticed that issues of multiculturalism were key to the work and philosophy of the organization, and that this also presented some challenges and difficulties that the organization was often engaged with. It was similar to his initial question, but was more specific to the experiences of his early work in the field.

As you continue your work and your research question becomes more clear, you should seek out specific opportunities to participate and observe in instances that focus on those issues. In our example, the researcher was present in moments when the organization ran events or conducted work that brought people of different cultures into a common space. This allowed him to observe how these interactions went, as well as to participate in a way that gave him an insider's account of these interactions.

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