Participant Observation – A Brief Primer

In interacting with Maori individuals, the indigenous people of New Zealand, I found a few techniques particularly helpful. First, being an anthropologist requires a degree of “suspension of disbelief.” You are there to learn other peoples’ stories, stories that will sometimes clash with what you yourself believe. People will be sensitive to your disbelief, so focus on trying to see through the eyes of multiple community members, attending to them and your memories of them more than to your personal reactions.

Of course, sometimes, silence is awkward. When you must take a personal stance, try to make it ecumenical. For example, in a meeting of a smaller Maori health trust, we had just had morning prayer (Pai Marire) and were discussing religious orientations. I am agnostic. I mentioned that when I prayed, I prayed as a calling out, without specifying to what or whom I was calling out, or how often I did so. My response was tailored to show spiritual focus without identifying myself as having distinct, potentially troubling, beliefs. If I had been a firm atheist, as opposed to an agnostic, I could have emphasized that I believed in certain values – and listed a set of generically acceptable values.

Most of the time, however, you should be listening intently, not talking. Pay active attention to their facial expressions and gestures. Let yourself mimic these expressions, subtly. You should also be comparing what they’re saying to what they’ve said and what other people have said. You can draw out a more in depth response by looking really excited by an idea or asking a clarifying question. Affirm their emotions by your facial expressions or, more rarely, by offering a label (which they then might accept or reject.)

Make sure every conversation is about them. The primary logic of the ethnographic process is that subtle, iterative, queries and challenges combined with careful observation over a long period of time gleans insight we cannot find elsewhere. When doing fieldwork, you’re constantly seeking a group’s intersubjectivity; their overlapping impressions of a topic. You want to describe that intersubjectivity and understand how it arises.

You, of course, may contribute to this intersubjectivity. However, if you are approaching a community in order to advocate for change, be honest from the beginning. An anthropologist tells a full story from the perspective of multiple community members. She does not spy. Doing so hurts not only your reputation but every anthropologist’s – I was actually called a “spy” by one gentleman. I nodded in acknowledgment of his concern and then continued listening and asking questions. By the end of my time in New Zealand, I had won his trust, but it would have been more efficient if he had not been biased by the actions of one of my predecessors.


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