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Participant Observation

by James P. Spradley

Last tended to July 18, 2020

There is a difference between Ethnography and Fieldwork.

Both are essential techniques for Anthropologists, but should not be confused. Ethnography is a piece of written work describing a culture.

Fieldwork (also called Participant Observation) is the purposeful study of a community and worldview that sees, hears, speaks, thinks, and acts differently to your own.

Doing fieldwork means "participating in activities, asking questions, eating strange foods, learning a new language, watching ceremonies, taking Field Notes, washing clothes, writing letters home, tracing out genealogies, observing play, interviewing informants, and hundreds of other things"

When doing fieldwork, there's three main elements of culture we must pay attention to - cultural behaviour, cultural knowledge, and cultural artefacts. What people do, what they know, and what they make and use.

Behaviours and artefacts point to deep reservoirs of cultural knowledge. The knowledge is hidden from view, but guides all our behaviour and interpretations. We always need to seek the meaning beneath the surface.

Spradley defines culture as "the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behaviour"

We have two kinds of cultural knowledge - explicit and tacit

Explicit knowledge is all the behaviours, and traditions we are consciously aware of - the proverbs we recite, stories we tell, rituals and ceremonies we perform.

Tacit knowledge is the things we don't know we know. How far away to stand from someone else on the train, how often and when to speak in a conversation, how to arrange furniture, appropriate ways to eat and sleep.

Edward Hall has written extensively about our tacit knowledge in books The Silent Language and The Hidden Dimension


Symbolic Interactionism is a Sociological theory that tries to explain all human behaviour in terms of symbolic meanings

Proposed by George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley, the theory argues...

  • "Humans act towards things on the basis of the meaning that the things have for them"
  • Meanings arise from social interactions. "Culture, as a shared system of meanings, is leaned, revised, maintained, and defined in the context of people interacting" (9)
  • Meanings are interpreted differently by each individual. It is as if culture is the cognitive map, but we can each choose to travel along different paths.

We make cultural inferences from what people say, do, and use - each is a hypothesis we repeatedly test.


"Culture is not simple a cognitive map that people acquire in whole or in part, more or less accurately, and then learn to read. People are not just map-readers; they are map-makers.

People are cast out into imperfectly charted, continually revised sketch maps. Culture does not provide a cognitive map, but rather a set of principles for map making and navigation.

Different cultures are like different schools of navigation designed to cope with different terrains and seas"

Charles O. Frake (Frake 1977)

The Ethnographic Research Cycle

"The ethnographers job is an exploration more than an investigation. Where other social sciences will establish a hypothesis then follow a linear path that attempts to give it a yes or no conclusion, the ethnographer is there to map create a tangible map of an unknown wilderness. Beginning with specific questions you cling to begins with inherent cultural assumptions and narrows the dimensions of what you're willing to see."(26)

The ethnographic process is inherently cyclical.
The classic social sciences work in a linear research process.
They define a problem, formulate a hypothesis, construct a research plan, gather data, analyse that data, draw up conclusions and report the results.

Ethnography does not fit into that model. Instead Ethnographers begin with a defined scope - the field site of their research. It may be a location, an economy, a community, some central commonality to a set of people.

The field site can range from macro ethnography to micro ethnography; the scope of a single family or all the way up to a global economic trade flow across multiple communities.

Field sites could be bounded locations like streets and cafes, or institutions like companies, schools, and unions. Or they might be a common kind of social situation like greetings or community meetings or bus stop conversations.

Microethnography "of a single social situation can be done in a much shorter time" - makes it a better choice for novice ethnographers learning the skill set

After selecting an ethnographic project, they begin asking ethnographic questions, collecting ethnographic data, writing records and notes, analysing that data, and writing ethnographies. Which naturally leads back into asking questions and repeating the cycle. There is no starting hypothesis or set of assumptions that you enter the cycle with.

Ethnography usually start with a single problem in mind, and seeks to unravel the cultural knowledge that organises people's behaviour

keeping the goal general and flexible allows the ethnographer to adapt their focus to whatever their informants feel is important.

"comprehensive ethnography seeks to document a total way of life" - describes a wide range of customs. While "Topic-oriented ethnography narrows the focus to one or more aspects of life known to exist in the community," such as Kinship, drinking behaviour, or adoption.

asking ethnographic questions involves paying attention to implicit questions and answers. The questions that seem so obvious you would not ask them. Such as, how do people choose where to sit when they get on a train? how do they know they should sit down? What are people wearing on the train? how do you order a drink at a pub? or how do you know where to walk in a street?

often by describing the social situation in plain facts we come to see the implicit questions we're not explicitly asking.

In most other social science disciplines, researchers formulate questions outside of the cultural context they are studying. They pull down hypotheses and research questions from the upper lands of the academy, and stick them onto their "research subjects." This approach falls into the traps of cultural distortion and bias.

ethnography instead begins with the premise "the question-answer sequence is a single element in human thinking. questions always imply answers. Statements of any kind imply questions "

"both questions and answers must be discovered in the social situations being studied"

the ethnographer needs to know what questions are taken for granted because "obviously, everyone knows that"

discovering what relationships are conceptually meaningful to the people you're studying

Your task isn't to discover the right questions. You analyse your field notes regularly while doing participant observation, to find out what to look out for in the next period. Approaching ethnography linearly leads to masses of unorganised field notes and no insights. You cannot leave analysis until the end, it defeats the point of doing it.

Starting to write the ethnography early makes it a natural part of the research cycle. Not the final task at the end.

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Maggie Appleton © 2020