Ethnographic Research Methods

Participant Observation

Participation observation is one of the hallmarks of ethnology or cultural anthropology. In its early history, anthropologists went into the field but often did not have the language skills and/or lived apart from those they were studying. Bronislaw Malinowski in his study of the Trobriand Islanders, among others, went beyond the second-hand information of traders and colonial administrators to help establish participant observation as a method of research.

In participant observation, the ethnographer lives among those in his/her study and participates in the community’s round of activities over an extended period of time. Alice Reich has described participant observation as "a time-honored tradition of making a fool of oneself for a point" (Kutsche 1998:5). Why a fool? Generally, the ethnographer is not a member of his/her study community so s/he comes as a stranger. When in a totally foreign environment, one naturally expects that there will be misunderstandings. By overcoming these, we learn about those around us and ourselves.

As noted by Bohannan and van der Elst (1998:26), "Even the simplest of cultures is vastly more complex than the mind of any single person, whether native or observer can encompass." In other words, there is no one person who has experienced, and therefore knows; all there is to any culture.  Indeed, there may be some who know more than others and they are "found" treasures when undertaking any research. More likely, one will encounter an individual who has limited knowledge. Like those in one’s research, an ethnographer cannot possibly see and explain everything. One should be cognizant that the task ahead can be never-ending and certainly is not easy.

With the above in mind, your observations will be limited or affected by a number of factors. Where are you positioned within the setting/event? What kind of setting/event is this? Are you strictly an observer or are you a participant? If a participant, how so? How many people are there (do you have a full or obscured view)? How do the participants use the space? Is note-taking possible?  What effect, if any, does your presence have?

The Assignment

Pair up with a partner for this assignment. You are to select a public space where you are part of the local scene. Basically, you do as you typically do as a member of the public (you observe without drawing attention to yourself) but in this case you consciously evaluate the interaction(s) that you observe. Since you are not interviewing, you do not need a consent form. Observing does NOT mean stalking the individual(s)! One example of a public place might be a line to buy movie tickets (even waiting for the film to begin), or shopping, or sitting in the cafeteria at a table having lunch or studying.

During a sustained period of 5-20 minutes, make your observations as a pair, i.e., you and your partner should be together. Avoid being judgmental in your descriptions, i.e., be objective. If you write "international student," or "married couple," how do you know this? You are assessing data and coming to a conclusion—state what those bits of evidence are from which you are drawing. Be aware of verbal and nonverbal forms of communication, i.e., kinesics (body language) and proxemics (social distance). It is all data.


Describe the setting (a schematic drawing can be helpful).



Describe the individuals on which you are focusing. Who is a major or minor actor in this?



Describe the activity and/or interaction(s) observed?



Why did you focus on what you did?

After making your observations as a team, discuss the above event(s) with your partner. How did your observations compare—similar or different? How so? How would each of you interpret what you saw? What did you learn from this discussion? This commentary is to be part of your written assignment;  marks will be deducted without this aspect. Since everyone will have his/her own experience, you will be expected to contribute to class discussion on this topic.

Write up your observations. There is no set number of words or pages as the amount you write is reflective of the observation time and the activity.

It will be turned in on