Andrew Lamont By Andrew Lamont, 28th May 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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The change undergone by participant-observation in the field of social anthropology as the definition and context of culture has changed into the modern day.

Participant-observation: A changing Methodology in Ethnographic Fieldwork

Participant-observation has changed over the years in response to the shifting understanding of a cultural paradigm and has become the most effective way of studying cultures and the people within them. Participant-observation has been used in ethnographic fieldwork (the research in the field done by social anthropologist) since its birth in the field between 973 and 1048 AD by Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī (Ashmed, S. A, 1984) who studied the cultures of Hindu in India. Participant-observation was not again picked up until 1922 when Bronislaw Malinowski began conducting fieldwork on the Trobriand people on the Kiriwina Islands northeast of Papua New Guinea. Through his writing, especially in his work Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Malinowski lays down a set of methodological rules for the use of participant-observation and fieldwork in general. Over the course of the 20th century we have seen a change in both the perception and definition of culture and this has led to an extremely flexible modernised version of the methodology.

The reason for these modernised forms of participant-observation is described in Bamford, S. & Robbins, J. (1997) who single out two main reasons for this change,
“the social, political and economic transformations we refer to as globalisation have changed the “object” fieldworkers set out to study. Second, the status of observation in the human sciences and of the concept of “culture” in western popular and academic culture have lately been topics of strenuous negotiations” (pp. 3).
This highlights the change in the cultures being examined as well as what we consider to be culture, however, because of the massive difference between cultures and our own understanding of what a culture is in the past and present, it is impossible to find research that describes the methodology and problems of modern day research, as Lareau (1996) points out, “these studies...rarely portray the process by which the research was actually done, nor do they give insight into the traps, delays and frustrations which inevitably accompany fieldwork.” (pp. 197) As Anthropologists we are faced with a fluid world and it is imperative that our methodologies are able to extract the information we need, however, discovering how we shape our methodologies, is extremely important before, during and after anthropologists carry out research.

Malinowski begins by giving the reader an in depth understanding of how to carry out anthropological fieldwork. Malinowski (1922) states, “First of all, naturally, the student must possess real scientific aims, and know the values and criteria of modern ethnography.” (Pp. 6) This highlights a point in the methodology - the ethnographer is there to understand truth and to do this they must leave behind any biases or beliefs so that they can see the world of the native people through a clear mind. However Krieger (1996) disagrees, stating that “we are not, in fact, ever capable of achieving the analytic “distance” we have long been schooled to seek.” In a way both writers are correct, being objective and free of own cultural ideas is extremely important, but it is also important to understand that as a human being it is not possible to say that we are not biased, no matter how objective we try to be.

This is apparent in Sterk (1996), who investigates an underground culture in New York, “I was involved in the groups I was studying, but I remained an outsider in many ways. I was an outsider not only because I was not an active participant or because of my Dutch accent, but also because frequently I was one of the few, if not only, white person in the area.” (pp. 91) This shows us that the anthropologist does not need to be cut off from her own culture, although, it is apparent that she is unable to connect completely with the prostitutes she is studying, however, she goes on to say “In short I was treated as a trusted outsider,” (Sterk, 1996, pp. 91). Sterk has accepted that she is distant from the prostitutes, however, this has allowed her to gather just as much, if not more, information from the people she is studying as she tells us that she is in fact a “trusted outsider”, therefore, it is highly possible that she had access to information that was not accessible from a completely integrated perspective. The method the ethnographer employs is entirely dependent on the context of the ethnographer and their relation to the subjects of their study. Without a perceived context the ethnographer is unable to produce a methodology or gather the information needed for the research at hand. An example of this is how Sterk (1996) was able to gain the trust of the subjects and eventually gain entree (acceptance) into the culture. Sterk describes how she familiarises herself with the area that the prostitutes work in and allows the regulars to get to know her face. This is important for giving the prostitutes time to feel comfortable with her presence; as we can see, if she had just walked up to a prostitute and told her of her research and started trying to interview her, the prostitute would have walked off and she would have never gained their acceptance. The fact that she took her time to get their attention shows the prostitutes that she is more interested in them than what they do and the context of their situations has been considered in Sterks methodology as she purposefully taken her time for the very reasons of entree.

Methodologically, entree cross-culturally requires a methodological framework that is reliant on context; as we saw in Sterk, but methodology also changes cross-culturally, due to, how the culture perceives the ethnographer. If we look at other ethnographies we can see that they employ different methodological techniques, dependant on the context of the culture. Horowitz (1996), talks about the specific groups of people when she was conducting fieldwork on the neighbourhood of 32nd street of Chicago. In her writing she specifically identifies how she dresses, her height and skin colour, her socio-economic status and education level, she writes “the research role I developed through interaction with the youth varied from one group to another and was significantly influenced by some of my personal characteristics” (Horowitz, 1996, pp. 43). This shows how different groups and cultures of people, in her case, specifically gang members, women gang-affiliates, women who were less involved in the street and college students perceived her differently due to her own characteristics and shows us that as ethnographers, how we are perceived by the subject is a major variable in how our methodology should be structured and what ethnographic information is made available to the ethnographer during their study. This raises new questions about how the ethnographer is to remain objective and connects back to Krieger’s (1996) argument against objectivity. Even if the ethnographer tries to be objective, perception of the ethnographer by the subject is always going to affect the behaviour of the subjects towards the ethnographer and therefore, the ethnographic information recorded. In
Malinowski’s (1922) in research on the tribal Trobriand people, he speaks about how he totally immerses himself in the culture, looking forward to village festivals and living within the confines of the village. He tells of how the villages regard him “as part and pastel of their life, a necessary evil or nuisance, mitigated by donations of tobacco” (Malinowski, 1922, Pp. 8). This shows that he gained acceptance of the village people through the methodological techniques of familiarity and reciprocity. Reciprocation is a social psychological phenomenon that states that if someone does gives one a gift, then one must give one back (Cialdini, 2009). As we can see from these examples how the ethnographer acts and looks is a major part of what sort of ethnographic information they are privy to, as well as how the structure of methodology changes due to the perception the subjects have of the ethnographer.

As we can see one of the most important, and difficult parts of participant-observation is our acceptance into the cultures we wish to study. There is however, another major part of acceptance which is the importance of prior knowledge of a culture, which is also highlighted by Sterk (1996). Sterk also gives an example of how she was able to gain the trust of a subject (regardless of her different skin colour and accent to the subject), by displaying her knowledge of a card game called the three-card monte. Hockey (1993) discusses the importance of familiarity when forming bonds, reducing culture shock, and also increasing the likelihood of the subject revealing more intimate details about their lives. This may also change between cultures as we see in Malinowski (1922) he has little knowledge of the tribal people he is studying before he enters into their culture however. This may once again have simply been a case perception. Sterk was seen as an outsider to the culture because of her lack of participation while Malinowski participated fully in the culture of the tribal people and it may have been the perception of the people and the dynamics of the culture, such as acceptance of differences or suspicion of treachery, which, in the end, created the difference in participant-observer methodology.

Another Important point relating to participant-observation is the issue of ethics while carrying out ethnographic research, a topic which has only recently been implicated to a larger extent. In Malinowski (1922), there is very little recognition of ethical issues as in 1922 there were no ethical guidelines and no legal reasons for them, however, in modern day ethnographic fieldwork, ethics plays a huge role in shaping the methodology of the research and without it the methodology would be less valid due to the ethnographers causation of extraneous variables. For example Sterk (1996) often deals with very delicate situations and some have the potential to be life threatening. For example, she speaks of often being asked to leave drug dealing situations and dangerous rumours about her apparent narcotics use circulate. If Sterk had not obeyed ethics and integrated completely with the culture by taking drugs with her subject it is likely that the subjects may have viewed her differently which may have caused confrontation with some of the subjects. Confrontation in such an underground culture could endanger the ethnographer’s life. An important point about ethics, as part of a methodology, is that it is dependent on the context it is subject to. As we see in Sterk (1996) she is faced with a dilemma where personal morals come into conflict with ethical procedure; “One of the ethical questions one faces as a researcher is what to do when an infected drug user continues to share hypodermic sets or an infected prostitute continues to have sex with her customers and/or boy-friend without using prophylactics” (Sterk, 1996. Pp. 93).This comment highlights a situation where the circumstances of the culture have changed during the study due to the increase in HIV/AIDS among the population of the subjects and this has led to a change in the methodological structure and the ethics that are part of it. The dilemma created by this change has lead Sterk to ask herself the question, should I follow ethics and continue with the study? Or, should I stop the study and help these people as a fellow human being? This dilemma leads her to continue the study but she tries to educate the prostitutes and drug users at the same time and in this way she is perceived differently by them, becoming more of an “on the stroll councillor”. The case, however, is not always as simple, as we see in Bourgois (1991) while carrying out preliminary research in a Salvadorian refugee camp in Honduras during the civil war he investigates El Salvador and is caught in a two week massacre of Salvadorian peasants by the Salvadorian army. Ethics meant that he is not meant to make the human rights abuses public due to privacy issues but he says, “my personal sense of moral responsibility obliged me to provide public testimony and I entered the media/political arena” (pp. 119). This is an example where methodology and ethics come into conflict with personal morals and it is important that we recognise that morality has a major effect on the ethics and methodology we adopt within participant-observation format and are largely affected by the contextual differences that cross cultures.

Participant-observation is the best known method used by anthropologist for conducting ethnographic fieldwork. It is important to note that there is very little information against it. It could be argued that this lack of literature is due to the fact that participant-observation is adaptive to almost any context that could arise in fieldwork. As long as we understand that as human beings we are unable to view the world objectively, it is an excellent tool for understanding how human cultures are formed and influenced.


Ashmed, S. A. (1984, February). Al-Beruni: The First Anthroplogist. RAIN , pp. 9-10.

Malinowski, B. (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York, E. P. Dutton & Co.

Sterk, C. (1996). Prostitution, Drug use and AIDS. In C. Smith & W. Kornblum (Eds.), From in the Field: Readings on the Field Research Experience (pp. 87-95).Westport: USA, Preger Press.

Kalow, N. (1996). Living Dolls. In B. Jackson & E. D. Ives (Eds.), The World Observed: Reflections on the Fieldwork Process (pp. 60–71). USA: The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Bamford, S. & Robbins, J. (1997). “Introduction” from Fieldwork Revisited: Changing Contexts of Ethnographic Practice in the Era of Globalisation. Anthropology and Humanism (Special issue), 22(1), 3–5.

Krieger, S. (1996). Beyond Subjectivity. In A. Lareau & J. Shultz (Eds.), Through Ethnography: Realistic Accounts of Fieldwork (pp. 179-194). USA: Westview Press.

Lareau, A. (1996). Common Problems in Fieldwork: A Personal Essay. In A. Lareau & J. Shultz (Eds.), Journeys Through Ethnography: Realistic Accounts of Fieldwork. (pp. 196-236). USA: westview Press.

Bourgois, P. (1991). Confronting the Ethics of Ethnography: Lessons from Fieldwork in Central America. In F. Harrison (Eds.), Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further towards an Anthropology of Liberation. (pp. 110-126). Washington, D.C: Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association.

Jordenson, D. L. (1989). Methods of Collecting Information. Participant Observation: A methodology for Human Studies. (v 15, pp. 22) Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.

Hockey, J. (June, 1993). Research Methods: Researching peers in familiar settings. Research Papers in Education. 8(2), 199-225.


Culture, Ethnographic, Fieldwork, Method, Participant Observation, Social Anthropology

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author avatar Andrew Lamont
Andrew grew up in Alexandra, New Zealand. He is currently living in Palmerston North, where he studies Anthropology and Psychology full time at Massey University.

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