Participant Observation and Researcher Identity

Something that stood out for me when reading Robert Stebbins article about participant observation was his brief discussion of the impact of ethnographic research on the identity of the researcher, specifically as a participant observer. He discusses participant observation as a humbling experience in which the researcher must admit a degree of ignorance and give up their role as a scholar to essentially become the student again. He says that in order to be successful in this research method the researcher needs to step out of their role as a professional and adopt a new identity.

William Shaffir also says that ethnography requires some degree of role playing or acting, that an important aspect of conducting this research is learning how to present a particular image of yourself in order to better fit in and achieve greater acceptance and therefore better results. In relation to participant observation Luker also mentions the effects of immersion in a different culture in terms of being off-kilter and living in an altered state of consciousness. She talks about the researcher having a new awareness of themselves as an observer.

I find it interesting to consider the effects of conducting ethnographic research on the researchers themselves. When conducting participant observation the researcher is at once a member and a non-member of the group they are studying. This weeks readings also talked about the risks of being too involved with the community they are studying. For instance overlooking important dynamics and taking things for granted. It seems like the researcher has to always be very aware of themselves and constantly framing and reframing their identity. They have to balance belonging to the community with remaining external enough to maintain the required objectivity. It makes sense that if the identity of the researcher has an influence on the research process, which it inevitably will, that the research itself will also affect the sense of identity of the researcher. It is interesting to consider how complex and probably daunting it is for researchers to establish themselves in the field.


One thought on “Participant Observation and Researcher Identity

  1. Jordan

    Ethnography is still something I’m approaching with curiosity rather than any expertise. It’s been talked about in a couple of my other classes as well, so I’m starting to understand the sort of research an ethnographic method undertakes, and what it accomplishes. But as I start to learn more and more about it, I get a sense of deja-vu. I’ve seen ethnographic research represented in books and movies. Researchers go and live among these tribes– and generally there are the good researchers, who are motivated by a humanist impulse, and the bad researchers, who think in terms of themselves, the civilized British, (they are always very properly British) and the “savages”– but they go and live with these tribes, and in the end, learn some valuable lesson about different modes of being human, and about the importance of understanding and exchange among cultures. It’s all really sentimental, but it underscores the value in ethnography, which lies in understanding different modes of humanity.

    I don’t know whether ethnography began from a humanist impulse—I just assumed it started from a racist area of anthropology– but it has been refined to the point that it seems to have a humanist function. The researcher must relax their ways of understanding or articulating the world but be careful of severing themselves from those modes entirely. There seem to be a lot of tensions centering on ethnographic researcher: balancing their values, their subjectivity, their personal feelings, which causes so much variation in the method. The only way to really understand ethnography is probably to experience it as a sort of active observation.


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