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Participant Observation

Participant Observation

by James Spradley

read in May 2021

book info on goodreads

In this almost textbook like handbook Spradley presents his “Developmental Research Sequence” for doing participant observation and ultimately writing ethnography. He starts by giving a concise introduction of what ethnography is all about. The one systematic approach in the social sciences and humanities to study the cultural meanings and distinct realities of other people. His statement about the power of ethnography to reveal the cultural diversity of the human species resonates well with Ingold’s argument about anthropological research. He also argues that it is anthropology’s responsibility to embrace different cultures rather than trying to prove superiority of one over the other. Spradley makes a compelling argument for the impact of ethnography as a research technique. He describes how ethnography can help overcome the vulnerability of research as producing “knowledge for the knowledge’s sake”:

“That vulnerability makes our responsibility clearer if not easier. To ignore this vulnerability is like astronauts studying the effects of boredom and weightlessness on fellow astronauts while the spaceship runs out of oxygen, exhausts its fuel supply, and the crew verges on mutiny.”

The challenge for ethnography today is thus to integrate both aims of ethnographic research: understanding the human species and serving the needs of humanity.

After this general introduction into ethnography, Spradley goes on to present his “Developmental Research Sequence” in the main part of the book. Importantly, he presents this sequence as an “ethnographic research cycle” rather than a linear sequence. The basic principle of the technique rests on the questions-answers dyad. In doing participant observation one is discovering both questions and answers. As ethnographic research is based on a cycle, these questions and answers are not one off products. Instead they are iteratively refined as the scope of the ethnographic projects narrows from descriptive to focused to selective participant observation.

“Questions always imply answers. Statements of any kind always imply questions. This is true even when the questions or answers remain unstated. In doing participant observation for ethnographic purposes, as far as possible, both questions and answers must be discovered in the social situation being studied.”

The first step in Spradley’s development research sequence is to locate a social situation that one wants to observe. He defines three basic elements that define any social situation: place, actors, and activities. To choose a situation he offers five selection criteria based on simplicity, accessibility, unobtrusiveness, permissibleness, and frequently recurring activities.

Step two then is to start doing participant observation. As a participant observer one has to fulfill a dual role of at the same time participating in a social situation and observing others and oneself in this situation.

After the fieldwork, one needs to record observations in written fieldnotes. The key consideration for ethnographers is the language that one wants to write these fieldnotes in. Key to writing fieldnotes are thus three principles: the language identification principle, the verbatim principle, and the concreteness principle.

After the introduction to these initial observations Spradley presents the core of his approach based on an iteration of observations and analysis along a narrowing focus.

“In order to discover the cultural patterns of any social situation, you must undertake an intensive analysis of your data before proceeding further.”

Namely, he suggests a sequence of descriptive, focused, and selective observations interspersed with domain analysis, taxonomic analysis, and componential analysis. Only after one has gone through these multiple iterations of asking questions in participant observations and finding answers in analyses only to ask new, more focused, questions can the ethnographer move on to develop cultural themes. This, to me, was the most interesting and also most practical part of the book. There are so many steps that precede thematic analysis and make it much easier that I have not learned as such in my doctoral training. Qualitative data analysis is usually taught as starting with thematic analysis that leads to theory development. The steps that start with the basic domains of a social scene are often glossed over though. It is these domains with their cover terms, included terms, and semantic relationships though that serve as categories for cultural meaning.

“However, the meaning of each cultural domain comes from the differences as well as the similarities among terms. Now we shift our attention to asking, ‘How are all these things different?’”

Only based on these domains, their similarities captured in taxonomies and their differences revealed in contrasting questions can cultural themes be discovered.

“Themes not only recur again and again throughout different parts of a culture, but they also connect different subsystems of a culture. They serve as a general semantic relationship among domains.”

Ultimately, the cultural themes then inform the ethnographic writing. In this final step of writing ethnography the researchers main challenge is to keep a fine balance between universal statements and specific incident statements.

“In writing an ethnography, as a translation in the full sense, the concern with the general is incidental to an understanding of the particular. In order for a reader to see the lives of the people we study, we must show them through particulars, not merely talk about them in generalities.”

It is in these last steps of thematic analysis and ethnographic writing that the scope of the analysis is broadened again from the narrow focused and selective observations and analyses.

In the way “Participant Observation” is written almost in a textbook format (actually meant to be read while one does an ethnography) it is an invaluable resource for junior ethnographers. I regret not having read it before doing my first field research about digital nomads.