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Ethnography and participant observation


Gaining access to the research site. Overt/covert research. Doing fieldwork: the researcher's roles. Sampling ... Research bargains. Fieldwork = constant interaction ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Ethnography and participant observation

Ethnography and participant observation
  • 4th February 2008
  • Marta Trzebiatowska

Lecture outline
  • What is ethnography?
  • Gaining access to the research site
  • Overt/covert research
  • Doing fieldwork the researchers roles
  • Sampling
  • How to take fieldnotes and what to do with them
  • Leaving the research setting
  • Bryman (2004), Ch 14

  • Ethnography an umbrella term for a family of
    qualitative research methods
  • Often used interchangeably with participant
  • The ethnographer immerses herself in a chosen
    setting for a prolonged period of time
  • Watching, participating, asking questions
  • Ethnography is both the method and the outcome
  • F.ex. An ethnography of a primary
    school/convent/nightclub etc.

Ethnography and fieldwork getting out there
  1. Developing a research problem (what will you
    study and why?)
  2. Choosing a setting (where?)
  3. Participants (who?)
  4. Access (how?)
  5. Fieldwork observation, field notes interviews,
    and focus groups (what?)

  • Why it may be hard to get in
  • Personal attributes (age, gender, skin colour,
    nationality, class, sexual orientation)
  • Research topic
  • First impression
  • Covert, overt, or semi-overt research?

Access (cont.)
  • Adjusting to the field
  • Power relations
  • Fairy Godmother (OReilly) is it always a
  • The power of neutral information
  • Learning from own mistakes and trying again
  • Official/unofficial route
  • Time
  • Learning the language
  • N.B. The process of gaining access never stops

Gaining access an example
  • Whyte (1955) Street Corner Society
  • A study of young men in Cornerville
  • A public setting/difficulties getting in
  • Whyte befriended Doc, who turned into his key
    informant and gatekeeper

Covert/overt research
  • Most ethnography nowadays is semi-overt
  • Covert the ethnographer does not reveal their
    true identity
  • Overt the participants are aware of the
    researchers motives and they grant their consent
    for the data to be used

Covert research an example
  • Humphreys, L. (1970) Tearoom Trade Impersonal
    Sex in Public Places. Chicago Aldine
  • Participant observation in public toilets
  • Humphreys was a watch queen
  • Obtained the mens personal details and
    subsequently interviewed them

Doing fieldwork the researchers roles
  • Feeling strange and insecure
  • I was afraid of everything at the beginning. It
    was just fear of imposing on people, of trying to
    maintain a completely different role than anyone
    else around you. Am I going to be rejected?
    Am I really getting the data I need? (Wintrob
    (1969) cited in Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995
  • Different roles (Gold, 1958)
  • Complete participant (covert)
  • Participant as observer (overt)
  • Observer as participant (overt)
  • Complete observer (overt)
  • This distinction is not always useful you are
    never simply an observer

Going native
  • When the ethnographer becomes a member of the
    studied group/ loses the sense of being a
  • May be dangerous but it happens
  • Religious conversion, romantic involvement with a
    research participant, taking on the views of the
    group studied

Hunter Thompson (1967) Hells Angels
  • By the middle of summer (1965) I became so
    involved in the outlaw scene that I was no longer
    sure whether I was doing research on the Hells
    Angels or being slowly absorbed by them. I found
    myself spending two or three days each week in
    Angel bars, in their homes, and on runs and
    parties. In the beginning I kept them out of my
    own world, but after several months my friends
    grew accustomed to finding Hells Angels in my
    apartment at any hour of the day or night. Their
    arrivals and departures caused periodic alarm in
    the neighbourhood and sometimes drew crowds.
    (Thompson, 1967 283)

Research bargains
  • Fieldwork constant interaction
  • Impossible to sail through without any problems
  • Fronts what you say, how you dress etc.
  • Mistakes and close calls are part of the
    process and your data use them to learn and
    enhance your research experience
  • Humility is the key

Examples of uncomfortable research
  • Fielding, N. (1981) The National Front
  • An ethnography Fielding befriended several
    activists, conducted participant observation and
    analysed the ideology of the movement
  • Patrick, J. (1973) A Glasgow Gang Observed.
    London Eyre Methuen
  • Patrick joined a gang but left when the level of
    violence escalated

Ethnographic fieldnotes
  • When? What? How?
  • When? ASAP, best during an observation but not
    always possible
  • How? Rushed and fragmented, key words, pictures
    and drawings, even elaborate notes need refining
  • CONSISTENCY! If in doubt, write it down

Ethnographic fieldnotes (cont.)
  • What?
  • Impossible to record everything
  • Sophistication comes with time
  • Detailed can be good
  • Especially if we are dealing with conversations
    and emotional situations

Types of fieldnotes
  • Jottings brief phrases to be developed
  • Description everything you recall about the
    occasion (time, place, people, surroundings,
    animals, smells, sounds etc.)
  • Analysis what have you learned so far?
  • Reflection what was it like for you?

  • Whatever is available
  • or
  • Convenience and snowball sampling
  • Or
  • Theoretical sampling gathering data in
    accordance with the emerging theory
  • From a general research question to a hypothesis

When does the ethnographer stop?
  • Data saturation OR the field disintegrates
  • Can be difficult because
  • Your participants do not wish you to leave
  • You find it hard to leave the setting
  • You may feel relieved,
  • Or sad,
  • Or guilty
  • Oritz, S. (2004) Leaving the Private World of
    Wives of Professional Athletes, Journal of
    Contemporary Ethnography, 33(4)
  • Hunter Thompson (1965) Hells Angels

  • Keeping in touch a moral obligation?
  • Feeding the data back to the participants
  • Follow-up research