Anthropologists in the field – Cases in Participant Observation

Edited by Lynne Hume and Jane Mulcock

INTRODUCTION: Awkward Spaces, Productive Places

Ethnographic research involves the use of a variety of techniques for collecting data on human beliefs, values, and practices. The ethnographer’s core methodology, participant observation, requires that researchers simul- taneously observe and participate (as much as possible) in the social action they are attempting to document. The rationale for this approach is that; by “being there” and actively taking part in the interactions at hand, the researcher can come closer to experiencing and understanding the “insider’s” point of view. At the same time, the practice of ethnography also assumes the importance of maintaining enough intellectual distance to ensure that researchers are able to undertake a critical analysis of the events in which they are participating. This means that they should be willing, and able, to take a step back from the relationships they form with the people they encounter in the field for long enough to identify and reflect upon some of the taken-for-granted rules and expectations of the social world they are studying. The ethnographer must be able to see with the eyes of an outsider as well as the eyes of an insider, although both views are, of course, only ever partial. Good participant observation thus requires a self- conscious balance between intimacy with, and distance from, the individuals we are seeking to better understand. By definition, participant observers deliberately place themselves in a series of very awkward social spaces, some of which are more difficult to inhabit than others.

The uncomfortable and contradictory nature of these fieldwork relationships has long been acknowledged in anthropological and sociological literature (e.g., Powdermaker 1966; Malinowksi 1967; Golde 1986 [1970]; Hammersley & Atkinson 1995 [1983]) through a discourse of reflexivity that has become increasingly “mainstream” over the last three decades. This collection of sixteen original papers, by anthropologists and one religious studies scholar (Harvey), differs from similar publications in that it highlights the potential productivity of such ethnographic discomfort and awkwardness. The contributors describe a range of fieldwork experiences that left them feeling, at different stages in their academic careers, as though they had at least partially failed to achieve their goals as professional researchers. Each author also shows how careful reflection on these same experiences eventually allowed them to gain important insights into the nature of the social settings they were documenting. Together their work contributes to the important ongoing project of developing a candid and intellectually rigorous “ethnography” of participant observation.

This volume is intended to help normalize the occasional (or frequent) feelings of personal inadequacy and social failure that are, perhaps, an inevitable part of successful participant observation; deliberately attempting to simultaneously position oneself as both insider and outsider is, after all, socially disruptive. By resisting total integration and commitment to the social domains we are researching, by attempting to maintain our intellectual distance while also indicating our desire to “belong,” we choose a socially anomalous identity that is fraught with inconsistency and ambiguity, both for ourselves and for our research participants. The personal and emotional costs of inhabiting such a space are often high. They also tend to be undertheorized. The papers included here combine to reveal some of the reasons why participant observation remains a powerful and seductive research tool, and why many of us continue to be committed to it, despite its deeply personal challenges and its often unexpected costs. Participant observation is primarily an “advanced” exercise in forming and maintaining intimate relationships for professional purposes. And therein lie its greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses—as the stories that fill these pages so clearly show.

Our own awkward fieldwork experiences provided the initial impetus for this book. We describe them briefly here in order to illustrate the sort of research processes that we want to unravel in the hope that our read- ers may be better able to bypass some of the methodological anxieties and self-doubts that shape so many fieldwork encounters.