- Think Jane Goodall studying chimps
- Involves long term interaction and proximity with group being
- get close to people so they feel comfortable with your presence so
you can observe and record their lives
- Gain rapport and learn to act so that people go about their
business as usual when you are around
- don't go as far as going native -- the objective of research is
ultimately to understand the natives on your own terms. Even an emic
study is ultimately a model, in researcher's terms, of native point of
view. Once you go native you are no longer doing research -- you are
- Usually involves removing yourself daily from the research setting
to put it into perspective
- Doesn't rule out administering formal surveys or other structured
data collection tasks
- To understand how things work
- either etically or emically
- To understand how it feels to be a member of a given group
- Emic study tries to understand how natives are perceiving their
behavior, their world. What things mean for them, using their own
categories to understand the world
- Etic study explicitly uses researcher's constructs to understand the
field setting. An example is
analysis of Hindu Sacred Cow.
- A person in the midst of a group can occupy any position along a
continuum from pure observer to pure participant. The ethnographic field
researcher occupies a middle position, perhaps leaning toward observer
(participating observer) or toward participant (observing participant).
- Typically share most of the life the informants, but not all. If
studying hospital patients, don't need to pretend to be patient, or worse,
a nurse or doctor.
- Sometimes are forced by natives to take sides
- kornblum, studying gypsies, when his group was attached by a rival
group. The people he was living with "had no sympathy for the
distinction between participant and observer. She thrust a heavy stick
in my hand and shoved me toward the door.".
Who are you studying?
- Doctors and psychologists run subjects through their experiments.
Sociologists ask respondents to fill out surveys. Anthropologists (and
all ethnographers) learn from their informants, and managers consult
experts. All four (subjects, respondents, informants, experts) are
sources of information, but the attitude toward them is different.
- In general, terms like subject and respondent indicate an etic
approach in which the source of information is not expected to
understand the meaning of the information they are giving. The physician
doesn't think you know what's wrong with you, so he asks a bunch of
questions about symptoms and takes measurements of your blood, saliva
etc, and draws his own conclusion.
- In contrast, informants and experts are treated more like
co-investigators. One typically assumes that the informant actually
knows how and why he does this or that.
- This assumption is not necessarily warranted of course -- I'm
capable of producing grammatically correct sentences on demand, but in
truth I have no idea how I do it -- my own mental processes are mostly
hidden from me.
How long does it take?
- For very sensitive topics with real strangers, can take a year or
Studies show that ethnographies that took less time tend to make scant
reference to sensitive topics (sexuality, crime, witchcraft, political
- For "simple" settings with little that is sensitive (e.g., studying
what happens at a laundromat), a few weeks will do.
Importance of participant observation for scientific research
- Certain data are unobtainable by other means. Some groups won't let you
see anything until you become part of their lives,. as in the case of studying criminal
- Reduces reactivity (people changing behavior because they are
- Help you formulate survey questions that are sensible and
appropriately phrased. How many surveys have you seen by marketing
researchers that you can't answer because the questions don't really
apply to you?
- Intuitive understanding of the context that allows you interpret the
findings meaningfully. Example: Sarkar and Tambia study of Sri Lankan
village. Concluded that 2/3 of villagers were landless. But
anthropologists who did participant observation in the area knew that
the villagers had a patrilocal marriage system in which a son received
use of land but did not take legal ownership until the father died. In
addition, they defined household as a unit of people that cooked in same
pot. But in the local system, every married woman used own pot, so the
number of households appeared greater than it was.
- In some settings, you cannot be anonymous observer. To understand
local court, you must be in the courtroom, and the judge will soon want
to know who you are and why you are there.
- Participant observation is respectful of informants. You are not
just flying in with a questionnaire and taking their data. You are
investing your time in them and moderating your demands on their time.
- Among a set of reasonable sites, choose the one that is easiest to
- Be prepared with lots of written documentation about yourself and
your project. Grant proposals, resumes, examples of past work, and
letters of introduction from your university, granting agency, boss,
- Depend on social capital. Come with a list of specific people to
look up that are acquaintances of people you know. They can help in lots
of ways, including legitimizing your presence
- With organizations, start at the top and work down -- get to the
gatekeepers first. Assure them confidentiality, and don't offer a quid
quo pro that could harm your informants
- Have ready answers that describe your research, what will be done
with the results, etc.
- Do your homework and learn about the setting before you get there.
Get comfortable with the physical setting.
Skills and Activities
- Learning the language. This is especially important for management
researchers working in their own countries, because they think they
already know the language. But typically they don't really know full
business language (e.g., terms from accounting, finance, marketing,
etc.) and they underestimate the unique meanings that words acquire in
any given organization
- Case of giving talk on networks at the Academy of Management. A
questioner said this was all well and good but she found that personal
relationships were a lot more important than networks. Since I thought
networks consisted of personal relationships this was confusing.
Eventually it came out that in her company, "networks" referred to
virtual groups participating in a listserv, and she didn't realize
that others use the term differently.
- You will need to adopt the language of the group you are studying
-- up to a point. When studying subcultures within your own culture,
imitating others' way of talking can seem insincere, silly or mocking
(e.g., White student trying to sound Black).
- Explicitizing. Becoming consciously aware of what people are doing
and saying. Otherwise you are taking in as much what you expected to see
as what you actually saw.
- Kronenfeld (1972) study asked diners leaving several restaurants
about the what the waiters and waitresses were wearing. Respondents
showed high agreement on both -- yet none of the restaurants had any
- In some ways, making a culture explicit is the whole purpose of
- Maintaining posture of apprentice. Treating the informant as an expert in her
own culture (although this may not be true), while making clear that you
are ignorant (but learning). You will learn more if you remember this
and don't become too cocky.
- On the other hand, while being clear about your ignorance, you also
want to behave in a way that is appropriate to the culture and does not
make people nervous about giving information away or letting you into
situations (e.g., boardrooms) to observe. If you are too naive people
won't trust you with the information.
- Storing information. The biggest challenge in ethnographic fieldwork
is remembering everything you are learning. There are a number of
strategies that can help:
- tape record what you can.
- take notes as you go along
- ALWAYS write up at least a page of notes each evening before going
to bed summarizing everything you can think of. This is super helpful
for inserting the information in your brain so that you can ask better
questions the next day.
- Patience. The whole idea of participant observation is that people
become comfortable with you and start revealing things they otherwise
wouldn't reveal. And, because you are learning like an apprentice, you
learn the answers to key questions at a time when you are ready to
understand the answers. Hand in hand with this is the fact that your
questions are better because you know enough to ask them properly. It
also shows respect for the informants that you are willing to wait for
the information you need.
- Practicing Objectivity. There is a Zen to ethnographic research and
part of this Zen is to hold beliefs lightly. It's not that you try to
empty your mind of pre-conceived notions (that would reduce you to the
intelligence of a table ), nor that you don't believe what you believe
(a bad psychological state) but that you are aware that alternative
views are possible.
- Be extremely wary of your own feelings of personal outrage. It is a
little known fact that outrage, indignation, and similar feelings are
pleasurable. They confer a sense of self-worth and purposefulness. You
WANT to believe things that make you feel that way, and so you can fool
yourself. Also, such feelings typically have something to do with social
competition -- your feelings about the exploited workers at your
research site have everything to do with your ongoing mental battle with
those mean Republicans that you are sure are ruining the planet.
How do you get started?
- It depends on the research question and research setting, of course.
But here are some generic strategies that may be helpful in many
- One approach is to start with the physical layout of the research
site. Create a map. Who is where? This can be the basis for your first
- Another approach is "a day in the life of ____" where you follow one
person or one group around all day and get an idea of what happens in a
day, what activities are engaged in.
- Another approach is the oral history. Asking individuals to tell you
their life histories that led to where they are today. This can also be
done at the organizational level by using informants or secondary data
to pull together a history of the organization
- Finally, there is the environmental scan, where you get an idea of
what is the environment that your research target is reacting and
adapting to. I.e., what are the key contextual factors.
- You may feel that for ethnographic research you should not have a
research question -- that this should emerge from the research itself.
This is not a good idea because it is a recipe for thrashing and/or going in
every direction at once. Better to have an idea, even some very specific
ideas, but allow the research question to change as you go along. This
provides forward movement.
- One kind of research question that is appropriate for ethnographic
fieldwork is "How do people in this group accomplish X?" For example,
see John Holt's ethnographic books on why children fail in school. More
generally, the research is specified by the dependent variable -- some
distribution of outcomes for which you are trying to understand the
mechanism that produces it
- Another kind of research question is centered on the independent
variable. For example, you are curious about how a person's position in
a social network affects what happens to them.
- The most productive kind of question, in my opinion, is one that
investigates the relationship between two pre-specified variables. For
example, you are interested in how attractiveness influences managerial
success. Or you want to know how a child's position in the classroom
friendship network affects their ability to succeed in school. The
objective is to understand the mechanism -- the series of causal links
-- that relates the independent variable to the dependent outcome.