PARTICIPANT OBSERVATIONS Definitions The word participant observation was derived from the word participate and observe, which means the researcher using participant observation will participate and observe at the same time of the group being studied, in which it was historically associated with ethnography. Participant Observation was created during late 19th century as an ethnographic field method for the study of small, homogeneous cultures (Tedlock, 2009, in Denzin and Lincoln, 2009). It is also originally developed as a fieldwork technique by anthropologists such as Malinowski and Boas, and by researcher in urban studies (Bray, 2008).
Participant observation is one of the qualitative methods of gathering data in which the researcher becomes a participant in the social process being studied (Veal, 2006), with the objectives to better understand the study population and get the related information. The researcher using participant observation seeks to immerse him or herself in the daily lives of the group being studied, to the point that they become a member of the observed group and do not tell others that their prime motivation is to conduct a piece of research (Arksey and Harris, 2007).
The researcher also tries to become an accepted part of the group and to learn about the group as a member of it (Browne, 2005). Participant observation also requires involvement on the part of researcher with the community of people being studied, in their natural environment and over an extended period (Dewalt and Dewalt, 2002 in Bray, 2008). The researcher studies people in their own time and space, thereby gaining close and intimate familiarity with them and their practices (Rainbow and Sullivan 1987, in Bray, 2008).
In some cases, the researcher might also consider it necessary to learn the local language of study group in order to better understand people on their own terms and more effectively enter their frame of mind (Bray, 2008). Unlike non-participant observations (in which the researcher only observe but serve no role), the researcher in participant observation has a legitimate role in the process (Posavac and Carey, 2007), such as being a chef’s assistant to learn more about cooking.
In general, the researcher that uses participant observation tries to learn the life for an “insider” while remaining as an “outsider”. Participant observation always takes place in community settings, in locations that have relevance to the research being conducted. Purposes In leisure and tourism as well, elements of participant observation are common in many types of research, such as; for a researcher involved in studying the use of park or resort can easily spend periods as a user of the facility (a very minimalist view of participant observation).
In most of leisure and tourism research, it normally involved much more interaction of the researcher with the people being researched (Veal, 2006). Participant observations are normally used when the services of a program are too private to permit a non-participant observer (in which researcher just observe, without participating) to be present or when the staff members are so defensive that they would not be able to carry out their duties, it may be necessary to use a participant observer (Posavac and Carey, 2007). Methods
Participant Observation may be done to varying degrees, from regular formal contact with some members of a community to a lengthy full immersion. There is no standard way of doing it, as this depends on the researcher’s experiences in the field, how his research itinerary is determined by decisions he makes and by chance encounters and events while out in the field (Bray, 2008). Methods of participant observation are thus necessarily plural and in the fieldwork, the researcher must necessarily adopt a flexible approach in order to sensitively detect the factors of interest (Dal Lago and De Biasi, 2002, in Bray, 2007).
A complete participant observation (covert role) occurs when the researcher not only observes and interacts with the participants but also actively seeks to manipulate the participant’s activities (Wolfer, 2007). In many instances, to avoid the threat of reactivity, a researcher will hide his or her identity as a researcher when doing this type of research and instead, pose as a member of the group (Wolfer, 2007). This type of research also known as covert participation research (by social scientists), since the researcher is not really a group member (Wolfer, 2007).
A classical example of complete participant observations is Laud Humphrey’s study, Tearoom Trade (1970). Humphrey pretended to be a “watchqueen” (voyeur) who served as a lookout and hidden observer of a secret male homosexual behaviour in public restrooms (Wolfer, 2007). Examples for complete participant observation in Tourism and Hospitality industry include a hotel that hired a person to act and work as the employees of their competitor’s hotel in order to know how the competitor’s progress is and get related information.
However, this type of participant observation method, whereby the researcher uses participant observation without the knowledge of the participants, is unethical and incompatible with the philosophy of evaluation (Posavac and Carey, 2007). Whereas approaching evaluation without the agreement of the people whose work is being evaluated violates the spirit of mutual trust that is important in effectively functioning activities.
A better approach for participant observations would be to explain clearly the part or roles played by the participant observer in the evaluation, where cooperation often can be obtained (Posavac and Carey, 2007). Consequently, complete participation research is rarely the observational method of choice. It is really only appropriate in studying very marginalized groups or people who participate in marginalized and stigmatized behaviour who may not otherwise be willing to participate in a study (Wolfer, 2007).
Whereas in another form of participant observation, overt role (also known as participant as observer), the researchers also participate fully with the people being studied, but they make their identity as researchers known (Robson, 2002 in Arksey and Harris, 2007). The researcher would make it clear to the group right from the start that they are there as an observer for research purposes (Robson, 2002 in Arksey and Harris, 2007). This is one of the benefits of participant observation research.
The researcher can observe subjects in their natural setting, but the researcher does not involve in any unethical or dangerous behaviour since the participants recognize the identity of the researcher (Wolfer, 2007). Furthermore, the participants know they are being studied, have the ability to decline to participate in the study or withhold information they prefer not to let the researcher know, and thereby enacting their right to privacy (Wolfer, 2007). For example, a researcher may want to conduct a research on the quality of services provided by the front office employees of a hotel, the researcher ill inform and get permission from the management level (such as front office manager first) before conducting the research. When conducting participant observation, selection of informants is an issue to be addressed by the participant observer in the same way that sampling must be considered by the survey researcher (Wolfer, 2007). This is because the members of the study group who are most friendly and talkative may be the easiest to communicate with, but may give a biased picture of the views and the behaviour of the group (Wolfer, 2007).
Therefore, wrong informants will lead to inaccurate information and affect the results of the research. In the process of participant observation, the task of recording can involve a wide range of data collection methods including on-the-spot notes, journals or diaries containing notes made after the event, photographs, video recordings and speech recordings (Arksey and Harris, 2007). Researchers can quickly amass a huge disparate unstructured data base, which somehow has to be organised and analyzed (Arksey and Harris, 2007).
Some good researchers (such as Becker et al. , 1995) make a particular point of noting whether responses were spontaneous or made as the result of prompts and they also took care to record ambiguous or unusual statements or behaviours so they could test their explanations (Arksey and Harris, 2007). The Strengths and Weaknesses of Participant Observation In participant observation, people can be studied in their normal social situation or normal setting, rather than in the somewhat artificial context of an interview or questionnaire (Browne, 2005).
The researcher will get valuable information too as the researcher gain first-hand knowledge of the group being studied. He or she sees the world through the eyes of members of the group. This provides much more detail and depth methods than other methods like questionnaires and interviews (Browne, 2005). Via participant observation too, the researchers are able to acquire deeper knowledge of the issues concerning the society under study, enable the researchers to get closer to the root of the research study (Bray, 2008).
The researcher also will able to produce more valid results. This is because with other methods, the researcher has already decided on a hypothesis, which affects what questions are asked and therefore what is found out (Browne, 2005). With participant observation, interesting new ideas to explore may emerge during the research itself and the researcher may discover things that he or she would not even have thought of asking about, and therefore producing more valid results (Browne, 2005).
Besides that, questionnaires and interviews tend to provide information at one point in time, whereas participant observation takes place over a long period and can therefore give much fuller and more valid account of a group’s behaviour (Browne, 2005). Furthermore, the Participant observation may be the only possible method of research too. In many cases, some sort of participant observation is the only way of researching particular phenomena (Veal, 2006). For instance, it would be difficult to study a criminal gang, or what really goes on in a drug sub-culture (Browne, 2005).
These types of gang is hardly likely to answer questionnaires or do interviews for fear of the consequences , and a group like gypsies may well see an interviewer as ‘official’ and prying, and may fear harassment by councils, police and other official bodies (Browne, 2005). Therefore, by adopting a covert role (keeping his or her identity a secret) and becoming part of the group, the researcher may be able to study and investigate such groups (Browne, 2005). Even if the group knows who the researcher is (overt role), the researcher may, after a time, win the trust of the group (Browne, 2005).
By taking part in social interaction while conducting participant observation method, the researcher is able to make better sense of it (Bray, 2008). The researcher can discover discrepancies between what participants say and believe should happen and what actually does happen, or between the different aspects of the formal system (Bray, 2008). This contrasts with the quantitative method of carrying out one-time survey of people’s answer to a set of questions (Bray, 2008).
While these may be consistent at the particular moment in time, they are likely to give only partial view of reality because they may involve conflict between different aspects of the social system, or between conscious representations and less conscious behaviour in further exploration (Bray, 2008). Although there are many advantages using Participant Observation methods, however, there are limitations as well. First, it is very time consuming and expensive compared to other methods, as it involves the researcher to participate in a group for long periods (Browne, 2005).
Observable details are better understood over a longer period too, just as more hidden details, like taboo behaviour and unravelling of some complexity, can be discovered only by time (Bray, 2008). Not surprisingly, the full ‘insider’ experience can be very onerous, demanding and time consuming for the researcher, as it takes in terms of months, and possibly even years (Arksey and Harris, 2007). This can be inappropriate for most of the applied research studies which require a shorter time period of data collection.
The presence of the researcher, if he or she is known by the group as researcher, may change the group’s behaviour too simply because they know that they are being studied and provide invalid information (Browne, 2005). This is the reason why in many instances, to avoid the threat of reactivity, a researcher will hide his or her identity (covert role) when doing this type of research and instead pose as a member of the group (Wolfer, 2007). In addition, with a covert role, the researcher has to be very careful when asking questions, in case his or her real identity is revealed or people become suspicious.
This will limit the information obtained (Browne, 2005). When the researcher’s identity has not been revealed, the taking of notes or the use of a tape-recorder may be impossible (Veal, 2006). While participating and observing, it is hard to write down or take notes everything that is important at the same time. The researcher must therefore rely on their own memory and discipline to jot down and report the observations and results as soon as possible after conducting it.
This will create practical problem or difficulty for the researcher to record and document the information obtained. As mention earlier, there is also other practical methodology issues arise since in complete participant observation, they cannot ask any questions that may arouse suspicion of their membership, even if these questions are important for the research (Wolfer, 2007). Plus, it is difficult to know how a member of a group would act at all times (Wolfer, 2007). For example, for obvious reasons, there is not much research about the satanic cults.
Thus, the researcher has to pretend and disguise his identity to be fit in such a cult in order to study the cult’s members. This can be problematic for the researcher if his or her identity becomes known (Wolfer, 2007). In the process of participant observation, the researcher necessarily develops a degree of empathy with the object of study (Bray, 2008). The endeavour is for the researcher to become ‘part of the community’, rather than seeing it as a mere ‘other’ object of study, to better understand it (Bray, 2008).
This issue, however, can easily involve a personal dilemma for the researcher when he or she undertake total mimesis and try to become like his informants. Such engagement risks the researcher losing his own identity and thus the ability to analyze rationally his object of study (Bray, 2008). When the researcher to become so involved with the group and developing such loyalty to it, he or she may find it difficult to stand back and report his or her observations in a neutral way (Browne, 2005).
For this reason, it cannot be stressed enough that the researcher must have strong but open understanding of himself, or who he is and how to place himself with his informants in order to mostly appreciate them, with empathy and sensitivity, without sacrificing own independent thinking (Hastrup and Hervik, 1994 in Bray, 2008). It is crucial that the researcher preserve a degree of detachment so that he or she may eventually produce an impartial analysis (Hastrup and Hervik, 1994 in Bray, 2008).
It may be useful for the researcher to occasionally take a break from long periods of fieldwork and return to an academic environment (Bray, 2008). This separation enables the researcher to regain a sense of perspective and to minimize emotional involvement in the subject (Bray, 2008). The shifting from practice to theory also enables the researcher adequately to re-evaluate each (Briggs, 1996 in Bray, 2008), to reflect on the observations made during fieldwork in an appropriate objective-subjective fashion and to reconsider the theoretical frames with a view to refining them.
Coming back to the field at regular intervals also enables the researcher to see object of study with a fresh eye, to notice aspects the researcher may well have not noticed earlier or to observe the changes that will most certainly have taken place (Wengle, 1998, in Bray, 2008). Besides, to create more valid results, it also depends a great deal on the personality of the researcher or investigator to fit in the community and with the group of people (Browne, 2005).
There may be a problem for the researcher in gaining the group’s confidence or trust (getting into the group) and maintaining it (staying in the group), especially if criminal and other deviant activities are involved. Failure to take part or fit in these deviant activities may results in the group’s loss of confidence and trust, and the effective end of the research (Browne, 2005). Finally, there is no real way of checking the findings of a participant observation study, since there is no evidence apart from the observations of the researcher , and hat one researcher might regard as important may be missed or seen as unimportant by another (Browne, 2005). Conclusions Participant Observation is very useful for gaining more in depth understanding of a particular community, including their relationship among people, cultures, behaviours and much more. It is very useful especially in Ethnographic research to people’s ethnics and cultures. However, to conduct participation observation, the researchers should make the identities of the people or group being studied private and confidential in order to protect them.