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Module 1: Observations of Ethnography

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Participant Observations

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We have earlier described participant observation. It is a method of learning in which we
participate in the everyday and occasional activities of the phenomena that we want to study.
By participating in a phenomenon, we try to learn the meanings that the other associates with
it.
(Refer Slide Time 00:25)

Let us refer to my research with Bhil artists, in which I collaborated with them on an
animated film. As part of the research, I focused on the traditional art of the Bhils, I wanted
to understand the reasons that motivated them to practice their art. And, I wanted to learn
what the art meant to them since it is also a part of their rituals. I realised that this would be
difficult to understand simply by observing them paint.

(Refer Slide Time 01:04)

And it was difficult for the Bhil artists to explain in words how they practice their art so I
decided to participate in the art making, learning to paint in the style of the Bhils. In the
process of learning I came to imbibe the sense of color and form that define Bhil paintings. I
also learned the techniques, skill and discipline that goes into making these paintings. While
painting together, we had several informal conversations about why they paint.
These learnings, combined with knowledge gathered from conversations and readings, helped
me understand the relationship between the Bhil artists and their art form. The ideas for our
film emerged from these conversations. So just like observation is about seeing and trying to
make sense of what we are looking at, participant observation is about trying to understand a
phenomenon as we take part in it.
(Refer Slide Time 01:48)

Some ethnographers consider participant observation as the core of ethnographic practice.
And as the primary way of immersing ourselves in the context.
(Refer Slide Time 02:06)

Whether we agree with this or not, participant observation is an invaluable method, which
enriches our research engagements in many ways. Let us elaborate. Participant observation
enables us and our participants to shift out of roles of observer and observed. We become
participants, sometimes even collaborators in a shared activity. This collaboration makes the
researcher more of a member of the community and not someone observing from the outside.

(Refer Slide Time 02:41)

Video: “Okay, this hand and that hand will go for rice. Good.”
While we may still be outsiders, we take on the role of someone who is learning to be a part
of the context.
(Refer Slide Time 03:42)

This blunts the power hierarchy that may otherwise exist between the observer and the
observed. And we are able to develop a more equal relationship that of co-participants. As I
participated with the Bhil artists, we took on the roles of teacher and learner with Sher Singh
teaching me, and eventually, we became fellow artists and collaborators.

In becoming the learner, I opened myself up to trying something new and making mistakes at
a task, which the Bhil artists were already adept at. This helped create a sense of empathy
between us. They were able to identify with the difficulties I was facing. And I was able to
appreciate their skill and craftsmanship and the values they attached to their work.

(Refer Slide Time 04:37)

Participating in an activity enables us to access tacit knowledge, a knowledge that cannot be
articulated in words. This is the kind of knowledge that is often learned through practice and
experience.

(Refer Slide Time 04:47)

In the Bhil form of painting, each image is composed of several dots. As I learned to paint in
that style, I realised that this process puts the painter in an almost meditative state. Perhaps
that is one of the reasons why for the Bhils, the act of painting is a sacred one. I may not have
understood this had I not participated with the Bhil artists. This is the value of participation.

By participating in activities and routines that make up our participants' lives, we place
ourselves in the physical and emotional conditions that they experience. It is like the old
adage of understanding someone by walking in their shoes. Here, we may not be walking in
the shoes of our participants, but we are often quite literally walking with them to wherever
they might be going.

This brings us to the key question, how to do participant observation or rather how to be a
participant-observer? It requires us to do two tasks simultaneously! This is very similar to
asking to immerse oneself in the context. In fact, the practice of participant observation is
quite similar to immersion.

Participant observation, like immersion, is an attempt to find a role and place for ourselves
among our participant community. But there is also a significant difference. In participant

observation, the emphasis is on participating, not simply on spending time in the context. A
good way to learn how to do participant observation is to look at the work of other
ethnographers who have used this method.

(Refer Slide Time 06:43)

And there are some standard ways in which researchers participate. Apprenticeship or
learning is a great way to be a participant observant.
(Refer Slide Time 06:53)

An example of this is the work of Robert Desjarlais among Yolmo community in Nepal.
Desjarlais was studying healing practices that the community follows. In the process of this
research, he trained to become Yolmo shaman or healer. This is participating through
learning. It is similar to my work with the Bhil artists, where I participated in their world by
learning their art form.

(Refer Slide Time 07:24)

My work with the Bhils is also an example of collaboration as participant observation. In
working together to make a film about their art tradition, we became collaborators.
(Refer Slide Time 07:37)

This gave me a new way of participating and learning about the Bhils, and the film became a
shared project, which each of us owned and worked on.

(Refer Slide Time 07:48)

Volunteering or working with the community we want to study is another way of
participating. Researchers studying buying behaviour, for example, often play the role of
salespersons at shops, assisting customers and learning about the factors that drive buying
decisions.

(Refer Slide Time 08:07)

Qualitative researcher, Amir Marvasti, in trying to work with homeless people took on the
job of a volunteer staff at the homeless shelter. Even though he was not living as them or with
them, he was able to play a certain role in their world of which the shelter was a part

(Refer Slide Time 08:27)

Sometimes there are more structured or formal groups within the participants' community
that we can become a part of.
(Refer Slide Time 08:34)

In conducting research on British migrants to Spain, Karen O'Reilly found clubs which some
of the migrants were a part of. These clubs played an important role in their social lives.
O'Reilly joined some of these clubs as a way of accessing her participants. By becoming a
part of the club's activities, she automatically became a part of participants' social lives. Let
us take a minute to revise what we have learnt. Over the course of this section, we have been
discussing different ways of doing participant observation. I would like you to make a
diagram or a mindmap of these. Here is how you can go about it.

(Refer Slide Time 09:19)

Go to this mind map tool, or take a sheet of paper and some pens.
(Refer Slide Time 09:23)

Think of the different ways of doing participant observation that we have discussed. Map
these onto your mindmap, for each way of doing participant observation note down one
distinguishing feature. Then take a picture or a screenshot of the map you have created and
post it on our discussion forum. Take a minute to make your notes.

(Refer Slide Time 09:57)

Here is a collection of case studies of participant observation. Go through these and then you
can take a quiz to revise and test what you have learnt just like with immersion, there are also
degrees of participant observation. We will discuss this in our next section.We can participate in different ways in the lives of our participants. We can be less or more
involved and participate in tasks that are peripheral or central to their lives.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:17)

For the sake of explanation, we can say there are different degrees of participation. Sometimes
we find ethnographers taking on the roles of very people they are interested to learn from. In
these instances, the researcher attempts to experience the way of life, the daily activities and the

tasks of the participants. So we see ethnographers taking on the role of taxi drivers, factory
workers, musicians, midwives, and so on. By critically reflecting on their own experiences in this
new role, they try to understand the perspectives of their participants. Some ethnographers
choose to live in the context but maintain their own personal space within it.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:01)

Laura Ring's work in Karachi is such an example. For the period of her research, Ring lived in
the apartment in the very building that formed the location of her fieldwork. She lived alongside,
but not with her participants. Doing this enabled her to maintain a boundary between her
personal life and her research.

(Refer Slide Time: 01:24)

There are also plenty of cases where researchers step in and out of the context. The work of
Beatrice Potter Webb is one such example. Potter Webb is considered among the earliest of
participant-observers. She was interested in studying the lives of working-class people in newly
industrialised England. So, she would take on certain jobs that enabled her to gain access and
study the lives of her participant population. She is known to have worked as a rent collector and
as a seamstress in the working-class neighbourhoods of London.

She would do these jobs for brief periods of time, such as a few weeks, or a few months. During
the period in which she was employed in one of these jobs, she would go do her research in
working-class neighbourhoods, in the daytime. And in the evening, she would return to her home
in an affluent part of the city. In this way, she would step in and out of the life of the rent
collector and her own life, and her engagement remained limited to the working conditions and
not the living conditions of her participants.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:37)

Ethnographers may also participate in tasks that are peripheral to the phenomenon.
Anthropologist James Laidlaw spent many years living in Jaipur, studying the Jain community.
Laidlaw was interested in exploring how religious ideas of the Jains intermingled with their
social and economic practices. And so he became quite familiar with Jain philosophy and
religion. He was not living with his participants. Nor was he partaking in their religious
practices.

Yet, he was often a welcome observer in their temples, homes and shared spaces. He also
engaged in discussions on Jain philosophy and religion with many practitioners of Jainism. In
this way, he participated in the context, but in a peripheral way, basing most of his research on
observations and conversations.

(Refer Slide Time: 03:36)

Let us pause here for a moment and return to the mindmap you made earlier. Add to it the
different degrees of participant observation that we have discussed. And for each degree that you
note, write down one unique feature. Okay, let us return to our discussion. As we do our
fieldwork, we may feel overwhelmed or confused by all the different categories and ways of
engaging, active, partial, peripheral, and so on.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:09)

Sometimes it is hard to know if we are trying to gain access or immerse ourselves. Are we
observing our participants or participating with them? These are valid confusions and part of the
nonlinear structure of ethnographic research. There is a considerable overlap between one aspect
of the practice and another. And the degree of our involvement is also determined by the comfort
levels shared between participants and us. As we participate or immerse ourselves, we must be
careful not to overstep the line that may make us or the other uncomfortable.

(Refer Slide Time: 04:47)

You may recall the story of my interaction with the Fakirani Jats in Kutch. It is important to
remember that we may not be welcomed to participate in all phenomena and activities. We
should be aware of the role that we have acquired so far in our participant community, and
interact in accordance with that role. Let us look at an example to further understand this.

(Refer Slide Time: 05:12)

Karen O'Reilly wanted to study members of a formal club, so she joined in as a volunteer offered
to take on the task of making coffee for staff members before a big club meeting. Driven by her
enthusiasm, she stayed on to serve the coffee to the members who came for the meeting. After
the meeting, the manager of the club was quite upset with O'Reilly. She had upset the regular
staff by serving coffee during the meeting. This was supposed to be their job and not the job of
volunteers like O'Reilly. She learnt that enthusiasm in participating is not always a good thing.

(Refer Slide Time: 05:55)

It is also important to remember the differences between our belief systems and those of the
other, and then work in accordance with theirs. A researcher working in a village in North India
learnt this. She was invited to a dinner at the home of her participant, an agricultural
entrepreneur. She had only known the participant for a few days. So this invitation was an
important step in building the relationship. The meal went off just fine.

As she finished her food, the researcher insisted on putting away her used plate. In her logic, she
was being a well-mannered guest. But to her host, this was an insult to their hospitality and
against the norms of their home. Her small act of politeness resulted in an uncomfortable
situation; she did not even anticipate. In both these examples, we see that sometimes we need to
participate less and observe more.

(Refer Slide Time: 06:58)

As we observe, we are likely to learn the social behaviour of our participants, and we may act
accordingly. But there are also contexts where we cannot participate. These include areas of
highly specialised skills, such as that of a doctor or a surgeon a dentist. Or areas and activities
where outsiders are simply not allowed to participate, such as sacred rituals and religious
ceremonies.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:27)

The and don'ts of participant observation change as our role changes among our participant
community. For instance, recall the researcher who caused discomfort by putting away her used

plate. Perhaps if she had spent more time getting to know the household members, building
familiarity with them, her action may have been more acceptable. As someone familiar to them,
the participants may not have minded her entering the kitchen or the washing area to keep her
plate.
Or possibly if she had been invited to a meal with only the women of the house, she may have
been treated differently. Who knows she may have even been invited to help with cooking the
meal. Either way, when we feel that our involvement may discomfort participants, we should
focus on learning through other methods such as observation and listening. Let us take a moment
here and return to the mind map exercise.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:28)

Can you think of a few situations where you may not be able to do participant observation? Add
these to your mindmap, and note down possible reasons for not being able to participate. And
post this on the forum where we can discuss your answers.