The Role of the Ethnographer as Participant Observer

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

How do ethnographers gain insight about other cultures - or even their own? Take a look at one approach known as participant observation, including the challenges faced by those who use this method.

Who Is an Ethnographer?

Have you ever found yourself in a strange new environment, where you were out of place? You watch the people around you and observe what they're doing, which is quite different from what you are used to doing in your own environment. This could happen anywhere. For me, it happened once when I attended a professional wrestling event for the WWE with a friend who was a fan. The event - Monday Night Raw - was completely new to me, so I just took it all in.

Anthropologists want to learn as much as they can about other human beings. One way they do this is through ethnography. An ethnographer is a researcher who studies a particular group of people in an effort to understand them and describe them to others as best they can.

So if I had purposely gone to the WWE event to study WWE culture and fans (and was trained in how to go about this), I would be acting as an ethnographer doing field work as a participant observer.

Methods of Participant Observation

Ethnographers put themselves in environments that are unfamiliar to them in order to gain new insights. To best accomplish this, they typically study a group of people over a much longer period of time than one Monday Night Raw. This could mean days, months, and even years of effort in one location and with one group of people.

Participant observation is primarily a qualitative method, as opposed to a quantitative method that includes compiling numbers and other measurable data (quantities of things). Participant observers are interested in documenting what they witness beyond what can be easily counted.

For instance, quantitative data would include counts of how many people at the WWE event were first-time attendees vs. repeat attendees. Qualitative data would include my notes about what phrases people were cheering, what I overhead from fans, and what happened in the ring. Participant observation is primarily about recording observations of what can be seen and heard by the researcher.

Cultures Near and Far

Your first instinct might be to laugh at the idea of an ethnographer studying the world of professional wrestling, but it's not so far-fetched. Participant observation can be used in a whole range of environments, from the isolated island in the Pacific to your own country. The purpose is to gain new perspective on the characteristics and values of those you are studying.

Ethnographers can choose to study a wide range of people.
professional wrestlers in action

This could even mean studying a group of which you already a part, and simply looking at that environment and people from a fresh perspective, what anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston called ''the spy-glass of Anthropology.''

Challenges of Field Research

Now let's ask: is participant observation accurate? Or can researchers easily miss nuances because they don't have all of the information?

In the example of WWE fans, for instance, a participant observer unfamiliar with the culture might note that the fans are deeply passionate about activities they believe are unscripted and that the competition is fierce. This would completely miss the point of what's really happening for most fans. They know there's a script, but it doesn't really matter. It's still thrilling to them to watch the fiction unfold.

Bias and Reliability

This brings up the issue of bias. We see another culture through our own eyes, which are limited by what we know from our past experience and research. An observer unfamiliar with professional wrestling might jump to conclusions that are simply untrue. Any participant observation is going to be limited: an approximation, but never really the full picture.

If I did use the WWE event to document my observations, is it fair for me to use something you, a fan, say to me in my notes and even my publications? What obligation do I have to the participants I'm observing? Do I need their consent to use the information they provide to me?

Ethnographers doing field work must assess how best to adhere to the professional standards of their field. For instance, the American Anthropological Association and the American Sociological Association have ethical restrictions that must be considered when doing this type of research.

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