2.2 Participant observation and field notes

Participant observation is the central research method of ethnography. It requires a researcher to engage with people in as many different situations as possible to look at what people actually do as well as what they say they do (as in interviews or documents) in their everyday lives. EAR researchers use field notes to document all of this; they are a key resource for EAR research. They also provide opportunities to reflect on research ideas, findings and insights for the duration of the research.

Everyone, including us, will often say one thing about their behaviour, but do something different. This is a part of human nature. We must therefore listen to what people say, but also observe what they do in order to get a complete picture of how culture works.

The basic idea of ethnographic fieldwork is that 'everything is data' and should be recorded in field notes. Even the most apparently trivial detail can help develop understanding - like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

Points of view

It is important to recognise that everyone has their own set of beliefs and preconceptions, including EAR researchers. Any researcher will bring these preconceptions to the research. The idea behind participant observation in particular and EAR in general, is to understand other points of view, and to challenge preconceptions:

Researchers might think that they already know about the lives of local people.

An EAR researcher will endeavour to identify these preconceptions and put them aside.

An EAR researcher will learn to ask basic questions, even if they think they already know the answer.

Researchers are often surprised by answers to basic questions - they thought they knew the answer, and nearly didn't ask the question. It is experiencing this surprise that allows us to become more perceptive and effective researchers.

As an EAR researcher you must

  • Learn to observe everything around you as if you have never experienced it before.
  • Put as much detail as you can in your field notes.

In ethnography, participant observation will include both formal and informal events. Formal events include:

  • a computer class
  • a radio show
  • a wedding
  • meetings
  • decision making processes

And informal events such as:

  • casual conversations
  • socialising
  • routine work

By conducting participant observation, an EAR researcher learns about what is going on at the same time as he or she is building strong and informative relationships with people.

Participant observation relies heavily on the researcher's subjective understandings of research situations. Because of this you must be aware that it requires a careful balance. You are both a participant AND an observer. The people who are being researched are the experts on their own lives, experiences and situations. An EAR researcher is learning from them.

An EAR researcher is:

  • Participating in and observing what is happening and what is being said.
  • Building a research relationship with people.
  • Part of the situation that s/he is observing.
  • Having some impact upon what is happening.

An EAR researcher accepts that they are a part of the research situation and will reflect upon and consider their role in events. They write about all of this in field notes.

The difference between a participant observer and a 'normal' participant is simply reflection and awareness:

  • A 'normal' participant will take a lot for granted - this is just how things are done; it's obvious!
  • The participant observer tries not to take anything for granted. They need to keep the attitude of someone entering a new and strange situation, someone who is trying to understand how things work . Nothing is obvious!

The ultimate objective of the ethnographic part of EAR is to participate in and observe social situations to the extent that in time a researcher will learn how that situation works and how people understand what is going on. You will be able to understand cultures, social situations, practices and relationships from the points of view of the people you are researching, yet at the same time be able to maintain enough objectivity to record the details of any situation and use them to help your initiative develop.

An EAR researcher will also learn about him or herself, and learn to challenge their own assumptions.