Fieldwork: to participate or not to participate…

This is my last post about fieldwork. This final one is about observations, and whether and how to participate or not participate in what you are observing. In my case I was observing classroom teaching, but I think these comments could also apply to tutorials, meetings, workshops – any kind of encounter where there is an opportunity for you to be present, watching and taking notes, and in some cases also participating.

I have read a little bit about participant and non-participant observations, and the relative pros and cons of each. I chose non-participant observation, and in the spirit of this blog, I want to add my own voice on what it was actually like to sit in lectures for 14 weeks and not participate very much at all, what eventually tipped me from being totally quiet to venturing a little participation, and why I think non-participant observation can be a challenge.

I decided not to participate in the classes I was sitting in on for one big reason and a couple of smaller ones. The big reason was that I had majored in the one subject I was including in my study (Politics), and I have worked for 4 years with lecturers teaching the other particular course  (Law) so I have come to know a fair bit about the knowledge and I find it very interesting. I was worried, in short, that if I participated I would ask too many questions or make comments that would in some way silence the voices of legitimate students or perhaps lead to the lecturer and I engaging in a conversation or debate in class that might exclude students. I have been in higher education as a student and tutor for a long time and these students are by-and-large in their first year of study. I felt I had no right, really, to come into their classroom and take up their time with their lecturers. 

One smaller reasons were that I thought I would be able to capture more accurate and objective fieldnotes if I was not too involved in the course. The more you participate, I reasoned, the more you perhaps want to agree with the lecturer, or the less you want to make a note of things that could be negative or less flattering, so your fieldnote data can be skewed or incomplete. I think that this ties in with my first post on fieldwork, where I talked about the Trowler and Williams’ articles on doing research in your ‘backyard’ and the possibility of finding out knowledge that can put you as a researcher in a tricky position in relation to your participants or your university/organisation. I felt that participating might tip my own personal scales in a too-subjective direction. I can’t here go into a full conversation about whether research like mine can be called fully objective (suffice to say it can’t be because there is always some researcher bias in qualitative studies like mine), but I will say that I was trying to record, as verbatim and as faithfully as possible everything that went on in the lectures without trying to pre-judge or pre-organise my data into categories or decide what had to stay and what could go, and I felt that being too involved in the lectures would hinder and further bias this process.

Another smaller reason was a little more vain: I simply wanted to be invisible. I didn’t want to call attention to myself because  after all my years of studying and teaching, I still get palpitations when I have to speak up in class or ask a question in a meeting where people will look at me. So I liked the quietness of non-participant observation, even though I had introduced myself to the whole class at the start of lectures and they knew who I was and why I was there.

However, being that quiet, especially when I really had a question to ask or an answer to a question posed by the lecturer, was really difficult. At times my notes record this frustration: ‘I really want to join in the discussion. So hard not to comment’. I felt, especially in Politics, that I had some useful thoughts to share, but I resisted the urge to call out answers because I felt it was unfair. I did this course when I was an undergrad so answering would have felt a bit like cheating on a test. Right at the end of both courses, though, I gave up resisting and I asked a couple of questions in Law lectures, and at least raised my hand to vote on issues in Politics although I did not ask questions there. I was nervous about doing that, but the lecturers included me as a student and did not offer any special treatment which allayed at least my worries about taking over a student space.

This year, I am participating a little – as a very-semi-participant observer – in my post-doc data gathering. I am doing it partly to try out a different way of doing observations like this, and partly because I have learned that limited and careful participation does not necessarily lead to the issues I was concerned about, like skewing my data or distracting the lecturer or muscling in on students’ space. But I do think if you are going to be a participant observer you have to be careful and keep a record of your participation in your fieldnotes. You need at all times to be the researcher first and the participant second. You need to check with those you are observing if it is okay, and to what extent you could or should participate.

It is in many ways easier and less fraught to stay silent in the background and just watch and make notes, but participating can be more fun even if it brings possible complications with it. It’s up to the researcher considering the situations in which data are being gathered to decide what will work best. Be pragmatic, take careful notes and be open, and don’t forget to tell your readers why you made the decisions you did when you get to your methodology chapter!


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