back to work and a word about participant observation

Yesterday was my first day back from maternity leave. The delightful Benjamin arrived in September. He and I are still getting the hang of things, but we’re well enough in control for me to attempt returning part-time.


The last post promised to provide details about the research methodologies I’d be attempting to use in my project. Despite the time delay between promise and fulfilment, let me continue where I left off with a discussion of the first method I will be using, known as ‘participant observation’.

Basically, ‘participant observation’ means walking alongside people, doing what they do and watching what’s going on. It involves interactive, firsthand experience with people in a social setting.

Participant observation has a kind of awkward relationship with notions of objectivity. At some level, participating is designed to try and make the researcher as invisible as possible, so that the people we’re working with behave as normal. Clifford suggests it “presuppose[s] a standpoint outside — looking at, objectifying, or, somewhat closer, ‘reading’, a given reality” (1986 p11). That is, it’s trying to make social observation as objective as possible. But no anthropologist fools themselves into thinking it is truly objective (or at least, I hope not!). Research using participant observation can never be reproduced.

Whatever its failings, participant observation is the bedrock of ethnographic practice. The purpose of this method and of ethnography more generally is, according to Clifford (1986 p2), to “make the familiar strange, the exotic quotidian” (quotidian is a fancy word meaning ‘everyday’). That is, I think, it draws our attention to what is surprising in the everyday and what is recognisable in that which appears at first to be incomprehensible. It’s about noticing what you wouldn’t usually spend the time or energy noticing.

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