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participant observation

  Originating in anthropological research on so-called \'traditional\' societies, participant observation is one of the principal qualitative methods for conducting ethnography. Based on prolonged and intensive first-hand fieldwork, participant observation involves a conscious and systematic attempt to understand the way of life of a group of people or a locality that is often significantly different from the researcher\'s own (Jackson, 1983). Participant observation frequently entails a year or more \'in the field\' (Burgess, 1982) and may require learning another language.

As the method has increasingly been applied in contemporary urban settings, studies using participant observation have become more common in sociology and geography (Cook, 1997; Walsh, 1998). Debates about the method have focused on whether participant observation is merely a technique that can be applied like any other, whether (and, if so, how) it is appropriate to use participant observation in association with more quantitative methods such as social surveys (cf. survey analysis), and on a wide range of associated ethical and moral issues (Spradley, 1980; see ethics, geography and).

Participant observation endeavours to interpret other cultures from a participant\'s perspective. This normally involves living with the people being studied and engaging as thoroughly as possible in their lives. Those employing the method usually keep a field diary (Sanjek, 1990), recording observations in a systematic fashion, constantly mediating between their \'insider\' and \'outsider\' roles. As with other ethnographic methods, participant observation is caught up in current debates about the politics of representation, including issues of ethnographic authority and positionality. (PAJ)

References Burgess, R.G. 1982: In the field. London: Allen and Unwin. Cook, I. 1997: Participant observation. In R. Flowerdew and D. Martin, eds, Methods in human geography. London: Harlow, 127-50. Jackson, P. 1983. Principles and problems of participant observation. Geografiska Annaler 65B: 39-46. Sanjek, R., ed., 1990: Fieldnotes. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Spradley, J.P. 1980: Participant observation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Walsh, D. 1998: Doing ethnography. In C. Seale, ed., Researching society and culture. London: Sage, 217-32.



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