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Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method



Observation, particularly participant observation, has been used in a variety of disciplines as a tool for collecting data about people, processes, and cultures in qualitative research. This paper provides a look at various definitions of participant observation, the history of its use, the purposes for which it is used, the stances of the observer, and when, what, and how to observe. Information on keeping field notes and writing them up is also discussed, along with some exercises for teaching observation techniques to researchers-in-training. URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0502430
Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method
Barbara B. Kawulich
Abstract: Observation, particularly participant observation, has been used in a variety of disciplines
as a tool for collecting data about people, processes, and cultures in qualitative research. This
paper provides a look at various definitions of participant observation, the history of its use, the
purposes for which it is used, the stances of the observer, and when, what, and how to observe.
Information on keeping field notes and writing them up is also discussed, along with some exer-
cises for teaching observation techniques to researchers-in-training.
Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. Definitions
3. The History of Participant Observation as a Method
4. Why Use Observation to Collect Data?
5. Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Participant Observation
5.1 Limitations of observation
6. The Stances of the Observer
7. How Does One Know What to Observe?
8. How Does One Conduct an Observation?
8.1 Ethics
8.2 Gaining entry and establishing rapport
8.3 The processes of conducting observations
9. Tips for Collecting Useful Observation Data
10. Keeping and Analyzing Field Notes and Writing up the Findings
11. Teaching Participant Observation
12. Summary
1. Introduction
Participant observation, for many years, has been a hallmark of both
anthropological and sociological studies. In recent years, the field of education
has seen an increase in the number of qualitative studies that include participant
observation as a way to collect information. Qualitative methods of data
collection, such as interviewing, observation, and document analysis, have been
included under the umbrella term of "ethnographic methods" in recent years. The
purpose of this paper is to discuss observation, particularly participant
observation, as a tool for collecting data in qualitative research studies. Aspects
of observation discussed herein include various definitions of participant
© 2005 FQS
Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research (ISSN 1438-5627)
Volume 6, No. 2, Art. 43
May 2005
Key words:
research methods,
field notes
FQS 6(2), Art. 43, Barbara B. Kawulich: Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method
observation, some history of its use, the purposes for which such observation is
used, the stances or roles of the observer, and additional information about when,
what, and how to observe. Further information is provided to address keeping
field notes and their use in writing up the final story. [1]
2. Definitions
MARSHALL and ROSSMAN (1989) define observation as "the systematic
description of events, behaviors, and artifacts in the social setting chosen for
study" (p.79). Observations enable the researcher to describe existing situations
using the five senses, providing a "written photograph" of the situation under
SOBO (1998) describe participant observation as the primary method used by
anthropologists doing fieldwork. Fieldwork involves "active looking, improving
memory, informal interviewing, writing detailed field notes, and perhaps most
importantly, patience" (DeWALT & DeWALT, 2002, p.vii). Participant observation
is the process enabling researchers to learn about the activities of the people
under study in the natural setting through observing and participating in those
activities. It provides the context for development of sampling guidelines and
interview guides (DeWALT & DeWALT, 2002). SCHENSUL, SCHENSUL, and
LeCOMPTE (1999) define participant observation as "the process of learning
through exposure to or involvement in the day-to-day or routine activities of
participants in the researcher setting" (p.91). [2]
BERNARD (1994) adds to this understanding, indicating that participant
observation requires a certain amount of deception and impression management.
Most anthropologists, he notes, need to maintain a sense of objectivity through
distance. He defines participant observation as the process of establishing
rapport within a community and learning to act in such a way as to blend into the
community so that its members will act naturally, then removing oneself from the
setting or community to immerse oneself in the data to understand what is going
on and be able to write about it. He includes more than just observation in the
process of being a participant observer; he includes observation, natural
conversations, interviews of various sorts, checklists, questionnaires, and
unobtrusive methods. Participant observation is characterized by such actions as
having an open, nonjudgmental attitude, being interested in learning more about
others, being aware of the propensity for feeling culture shock and for making
mistakes, the majority of which can be overcome, being a careful observer and a
good listener, and being open to the unexpected in what is learned (DeWALT &
DeWALT, 1998). [3]
FINE (2003) uses the term "peopled ethnography" to describe text that provides
an understanding of the setting and that describes theoretical implications
through the use of vignettes, based on field notes from observations, interviews,
and products of the group members. He suggests that ethnography is most
effective when one observes the group being studied in settings that enable
him/her to "explore the organized routines of behavior" (p.41). FINE, in part,
defines "peopled ethnography" as being based on extensive observation in the
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field, a labor-intensive activity that sometimes lasts for years. In this description of
the observation process, one is expected to become a part of the group being
studied to the extent that the members themselves include the observer in the
activity and turn to the observer for information about how the group is operating.
He also indicates that it is at this point, when members begin to ask the observer
questions about the group and when they begin to include the observer in the
"gossip," that it is time to leave the field. This process he describes of becoming a
part of the community, while observing their behaviors and activities, is called
participant observation. [4]
3. The History of Participant Observation as a Method
Participant observation is considered a staple in anthropological studies,
especially in ethnographic studies, and has been used as a data collection
method for over a century. As DeWALT and DeWALT (2002) relate it, one of the
first instances of its use involved the work of Frank Hamilton CUSHING, who
spent four and a half years as a participant observer with the Zuni Pueblo people
around 1879 in a study for the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of Ethnology.
During this time, CUSHING learned the language, participated in the customs,
was adopted by a pueblo, and was initiated into the priesthood. Because he did
not publish extensively about this culture, he was criticized as having gone native,
meaning that he had lost his objectivity and, therefore, his ability to write
analytically about the culture. My own experience conducting research in
indigenous communities, which began about ten years ago with my own
ethnographic doctoral dissertation on Muscogee (Creek) women's perceptions of
work (KAWULICH, 1998) and has continued in the years since (i.e., KAWULICH,
2004), leads me to believe that, while this may have been the case, it is also
possible that he held the Zuni people in such high esteem that he felt it impolitic
or irreverent to do so. In my own research, I have been hesitant to write about
religious ceremonies or other aspects of indigenous culture that I have observed,
for example, for fear of relating information that my participants or other
community members might feel should not be shared. When I first began
conducting my ethnographic study of the Muscogee culture, I was made aware of
several incidents in which researchers were perceived to have taken information
they had obtained through interviews or observations and had published their
findings without permission of the Creek people or done so without giving proper
credit to the participants who had shared their lives with the researchers. [5]
A short time later, in 1888, Beatrice Potter WEBB studied poor neighborhoods
during the day and returned to her privileged lifestyle at night. She took a job as a
rent collector to interact with the people in buildings and offices and took a job as
a seamstress in a sweatshop to better understand their lives. Then, in the early
1920s, MALINOWSKI studied and wrote about his participation and observation
of the Trobriands, a study BERNARD (1998) calls one of the most cited early
discussions of anthropological data collection methods. Around the same time,
Margaret MEAD studied the lives of adolescent Samoan girls. MEAD's approach
to data collection differed from that of her mentor, anthropologist Frank BOAS,
who emphasized the use of historical texts and materials to document
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disappearing native cultures. Instead, MEAD participated in the living culture to
record their cultural activities, focusing on specific activities, rather than
participating in the activities of the culture overall as did MALINOWSKI. By 1874,
the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain had published a manual of
methods called Notes and Queries on Anthropology, which was subsequently
revised several times until 1971 (BERNARD, 1998). [6]
STOCKING (1983, as cited in DeWALT & DeWALT, 2002) divided participant
observation as an ethnographic method of data collection into three phases:
participation, observation, and interrogation, pointing out that MALINOWSKI and
MEAD both emphasized the use of observation and interrogation, but not
participation. He suggests that both MEAD and MALINOWSKI held positions of
power within the culture that enabled them to collect data from a position of
privilege. While ethnographers traditionally tried to understand others by
observing them and writing detailed accounts of others' lives from an outsider
viewpoint, more recently, sociologists have taken a more insider viewpoint by
studying groups in their own cultures. These sociological studies have brought
into question the stance or positioning of the observer and generated more
creative approaches to lending voice to others in the presentation of the findings
of their studies (GAITAN, 2000). By the 1940s, participant observation was widely
used by both anthropologists and sociologists. The previously noted studies were
some of the first to use the process of participant observation to obtain data for
understanding various cultures and, as such, are considered to be required
reading in anthropology classes. [7]
4. Why Use Observation to Collect Data?
Observation methods are useful to researchers in a variety of ways. They provide
researchers with ways to check for nonverbal expression of feelings, determine
who interacts with whom, grasp how participants communicate with each other,
and check for how much time is spent on various activities (SCHMUCK, 1997).
Participant observation allows researchers to check definitions of terms that
participants use in interviews, observe events that informants may be unable or
unwilling to share when doing so would be impolitic, impolite, or insensitive, and
observe situations informants have described in interviews, thereby making them
aware of distortions or inaccuracies in description provided by those informants
(MARSHALL & ROSSMAN, 1995). [8]
DeWALT and DeWALT (2002) believe that "the goal for design of research using
participant observation as a method is to develop a holistic understanding of the
phenomena under study that is as objective and accurate as possible given the
limitations of the method" (p.92). They suggest that participant observation be
used as a way to increase the validity1 of the study, as observations may help the
researcher have a better understanding of the context and phenomenon under
1 Validity is a term typically associated with quantitative research; however, when viewed in terms
of its meaning of reflecting what is purported to be measured/observed, its use is appropriate.
Validity in this instance may refer to context validity, face validity or trustworthiness as described
by LINCOLN and GUBA (1994).
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study. Validity is stronger with the use of additional strategies used with
observation, such as interviewing, document analysis, or surveys, questionnaires,
or other more quantitative methods. Participant observation can be used to help
answer descriptive research questions, to build theory, or to generate or test
hypotheses (DeWALT & DeWALT, 2002). [9]
When designing a research study and determining whether to use observation as
a data collection method, one must consider the types of questions guiding the
study, the site under study, what opportunities are available at the site for
observation, the representativeness of the participants of the population at that
site, and the strategies to be used to record and analyze the data (DeWALT &
DeWALT, 2002). [10]
Participant observation is a beginning step in ethnographic studies. SCHENSUL,
SCHENSUL, and LeCOMPTE (1999) list the following reasons for using
participant observation in research:
to identify and guide relationships with informants;
to help the researcher get the feel for how things are organized and
prioritized, how people interrelate, and what are the cultural parameters;
to show the researcher what the cultural members deem to be important in
manners, leadership, politics, social interaction, and taboos;
to help the researcher become known to the cultural members, thereby
easing facilitation of the research process; and
to provide the researcher with a source of questions to be addressed with
participants (p.91). [11]
BERNARD (1994) lists five reasons for including participant observation in
cultural studies, all of which increase the study's validity:
1. It makes it possible to collect different types of data. Being on site over a
period of time familiarizes the researcher to the community, thereby facilitating
involvement in sensitive activities to which he/she generally would not be
2. It reduces the incidence of "reactivity" or people acting in a certain way when
they are aware of being observed.
3. It helps the researcher to develop questions that make sense in the native
language or are culturally relevant.
4. It gives the researcher a better understanding of what is happening in the
culture and lends credence to one's interpretations of the observation.
Participant observation also enables the researcher to collect both quantitative
and qualitative data through surveys and interviews.
5. It is sometimes the only way to collect the right data for one's study
(pp.142-3). [12]
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5. Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Participant Observation
DeMUNCK and SOBO (1998) provide several advantages of using participant
observation over other methods of data collection. These include that it affords
access to the "backstage culture" (p.43); it allows for richly detailed description,
which they interpret to mean that one's goal of describing "behaviors, intentions,
situations, and events as understood by one's informants" is highlighted (p.43);
and it provides opportunities for viewing or participating in unscheduled events.
DeWALT and DeWALT (2002) add that it improves the quality of data collection
and interpretation and facilitates the development of new research questions or
hypotheses (p.8). [13]
DeMUNCK and SOBO also share several disadvantages of using participation as
a method, including that sometimes the researcher may not be interested in what
happens out of the public eye and that one must rely on the use of key
informants. The MEAD-FREEMAN2 controversy illustrates how different
researchers gain different understanding of what they observe, based on the key
informant(s) used in the study. Problems related to representation of events and
the subsequent interpretations may occur when researchers select key
informants who are similar to them or when the informants are community leaders
or marginal participants (DeMUNCK & SOBO, 1998). To alleviate this potential
bias problem, BERNARD (1994) suggests pretesting informants or selecting
participants who are culturally competent in the topic being studied. [14]
JOHNSON and SACKETT (1998) discuss participant observation as a source of
erroneous description in behavioral research. They note that the information
collected by anthropologists is not representative of the culture, as much of the
data collected by these researchers is observed based on the researcher's
individual interest in a setting or behavior, rather than being representative of
what actually happens in a culture. For example, they report that more data has
been collected about political/religious activities than about eating/sleeping
activities, because the political/religious activities are more interesting to
researchers than eating/sleeping activities; yet, the amount of time the cultural
members spent on political/religious activities was less than 3%, while the amount
of time they spent eating/sleeping was greater than 60%. Such actions skew the
description of cultural activities. To alleviate this problem, they advocate the use
of systematic observation procedures to incorporate rigorous techniques for
sampling and recording behavior that keep researchers from neglecting certain
aspects of culture. Their definition of structured observation directs who is
observed, when and where they are observed, what is observed, and how the
observations are recorded, providing a more quantitative observation than
participant observation. [15]
2 Many years after MEAD studied the Samoan girls, FREEMAN replicated MEAD's study and
derived different interpretations. FREEMAN's study suggested that MEAD's informants had
misled her by telling her what they wanted her to believe, rather than what was truthful about
their activities.
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5.1 Limitations of observation
Several researchers have noted the limitations involved with using observations
as a tool for data collection. For example, DeWALT and DeWALT (2002) note
that male and female researchers have access to different information, as they
have access to different people, settings, and bodies of knowledge. Participant
observation is conducted by a biased human who serves as the instrument for
data collection; the researcher must understand how his/her gender, sexuality,
ethnicity, class, and theoretical approach may affect observation, analysis, and
interpretation. [16]
SCHENSUL, SCHENSUL, and LeCOMPTE (1999) refer to participation as
meaning almost total immersion in an unfamiliar culture to study others' lives
through the researcher's participation as a full-time resident or member, though
they point out that most observers are not full participants in community life.
There are a number of things that affect whether the researcher is accepted in
the community, including one's appearance, ethnicity, age, gender, and class, for
example. Another factor they mention that may inhibit one's acceptance relates to
what they call the structural characteristics—that is, those mores that exist in the
community regarding interaction and behavior (p.93). Some of the reasons they
mention for a researcher's not being included in activities include a lack of trust,
the community's discomfort with having an outsider there, potential danger to
either the community or the researcher, and the community's lack of funds to
further support the researcher in the research. Some of the ways the researcher
might be excluded include the community members' use of a language that is
unfamiliar to the researcher, their changing from one language to another that is
not understood by the researcher, their changing the subject when the researcher
arrives, their refusal to answer certain questions, their moving away from the
researcher to talk out of ear shot, or their failure to invite the researcher to social
events. [17]
SCHENSUL, SCHENSUL, and LeCOMPTE further point out that all researchers
should expect to experience a feeling of having been excluded at some point in
the research process, particularly in the beginning. The important thing, they
note, is for the researcher to recognize what that exclusion means to the research
process and that, after the researcher has been in the community for a while, the
community is likely to have accepted the researcher to some degree. [18]
Another limitation involved in conducting observations is noted by DeWALT,
DeWALT, and WAYLAND (1998). The researcher must determine to what extent
he/she will participate in the lives of the participants and whether to intervene in a
situation. Another potential limitation they mention is that of researcher bias. They
note that, unless ethnographers use other methods than just participant
observation, there is likelihood that they will fail to report the negative aspects of
the cultural members. They encourage the novice researcher to practice
reflexivity at the beginning of one's research to help him/her understand the
biases he/she has that may interfere with correct interpretation of what is
observed. Researcher bias is one of the aspects of qualitative research that has
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led to the view that qualitative research is subjective, rather than objective.
According to RATNER (2002), some qualitative researchers believe that one
cannot be both objective and subjective, while others believe that the two can
coexist, that one's subjectivity can facilitate understanding the world of others. He
notes that, when one reflects on one's biases, he/she can then recognize those
biases that may distort understanding and replace them with those that help him/
her to be more objective. In this way, he suggests, the researcher is being
respectful of the participants by using a variety of methods to ensure that what
he/she thinks is being said, in fact, matches the understanding of the participant.
BREUER and ROTH (2003) use a variety of methods for knowledge production,
including, for example, positioning or various points of view, different frames of
reference, such as special or temporal relativity, perceptual schemata based on
experience, and interaction with the social context—understanding that any
interaction changes the observed object. Using different approaches to data
collection and observation, in particular, leads to richer understanding of the
social context and the participants therein. [19]
SCHENSUL, SCHENSUL, and LeCOMPTE (1999) also suggest that observation
is filtered through one's interpretive frames and that "the most accurate
observations are shaped by formative theoretical frameworks and scrupulous
attention to detail" (p.95). The quality of the participant observation depends upon
the skill of the researcher to observe, document, and interpret what has been
observed. It is important in the early stages of the research process for the
researcher to make accurate observation field notes without imposing
preconceived categories from the researcher's theoretical perspective, but allow
them to emerge from the community under study (see Section 10). [20]
6. The Stances of the Observer
The degree to which the researcher involves himself/herself in participation in the
culture under study makes a difference in the quality and amount of data he/she
will be able to collect. GOLD (1958) has provided a description of observer
stances that extend Buford JUNKER's explanation of four theoretical stances for
researchers conducting field observations. GOLD relates the four observation
stances as follows:
1. At one extreme is the complete participant, who is a member of the group
being studied and who conceals his/her researcher role from the group to
avoid disrupting normal activity. The disadvantages of this stance are that the
researcher may lack objectivity, the group members may feel distrustful of the
researcher when the research role is revealed, and the ethics of the situation
are questionable, since the group members are being deceived.
2. In the participant as observer stance, the researcher is a member of the group
being studied, and the group is aware of the research activity. In this stance,
the researcher is a participant in the group who is observing others and who is
interested more in observing than in participating, as his/her participation is a
given, since he/she is a member of the group. This role also has
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disadvantages, in that there is a trade off between the depth of the data
revealed to the researcher and the level of confidentiality provided to the
group for the information they provide.
3. The observer as participant stance enables the researcher to participate in the
group activities as desired, yet the main role of the researcher in this stance is
to collect data, and the group being studied is aware of the researcher's
observation activities. In this stance, the researcher is an observer who is not
a member of the group and who is interested in participating as a means for
conducting better observation and, hence, generating more complete
understanding of the group's activities. MERRIAM (1998) points out that, while
the researcher may have access to many different people in this situation
from whom he/she may obtain information, the group members control the
level of information given. As ADLER and ADLER (1994, p.380) note, this
"peripheral membership role" enables the researcher to "observe and interact
closely enough with members to establish an insider's identity without
participating in those activities constituting the core of group membership."
4. The opposite extreme stance from the complete participant is the complete
observer, in which the researcher is completely hidden from view while
observing or when the researcher is in plain sight in a public setting, yet the
public being studied is unaware of being observed. In either case, the
observation in this stance is unobtrusive and unknown to participants. [21]
Of these four stances, the role providing the most ethical approach to observation
is that of the observer as participant, as the researcher's observation activities
are known to the group being studied, yet the emphasis for the researcher is on
collecting data, rather than participating in the activity being observed. [22]
MERRIAM (1998) calls the stance of participant observer a "schizophrenic
activity" (p.103), because the researcher participates in the setting under study,
but not to the extent that he/she becomes too absorbed to observe and analyze
what is happening. The question frequently is asked, should the researcher be
concerned about his/her role of participant observer affecting the situation.
MERRIAM (1998) suggests that the question is not whether the process of
observing affects the situation or the participants, but how the researcher
accounts for those effects in explaining the data. Participant observation is more
difficult than simply observing without participation in the activity of the setting,
since it usually requires that the field notes be jotted down at a later time, after
the activity has concluded. Yet there are situations in which participation is
required for understanding. Simply observing without participating in the action
may not lend itself to one's complete understanding of the activity. [23]
DeWALT and DeWALT provide an alternative view of the roles the participant
observer may take, by comparing the various stances of observation through
membership roles described by both SPRADLEY (1980, pp.58-62) and ADLER
and ADLER (1987). SPRADLEY describes the various roles that observers may
take, ranging in degree of participation from non-participation (activities are
observed from outside the research setting) to passive participation (activities are
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observed in the setting but without participation in activities) to moderate
participation (activities are observed in the setting with almost complete
participation in activities) to complete participation (activities are observed in the
setting with complete participation in the culture). ADLER and ADLER similarly
describe the range of membership roles to include peripheral membership, active
membership, and full membership. Those serving in a peripheral membership
role observe in the setting but do not participate in activities, while active
membership roles denote the researcher's participation in certain or all activities,
and full membership is reflected by fully participating in the culture. The degree to
which the researcher may participate may be determined by the researcher or by
the community (DeWALT & DeWALT, 2002). [24]
Other factors that may affect the degree to which one may participate in the
culture include the researcher's age, gender, class, and ethnicity. One also must
consider the limitations of participating in activities that are dangerous or illegal.
"The key point is that researchers should be aware of the compromises in access,
objectivity, and community expectation that are being made at any particular place
along the continuum. Further, in the writing of ethnography, the particular place of the
researcher on this continuum should be made clear" (DeWALT & DeWALT, 2002
p.23). [25]
7. How Does One Know What to Observe?
MERRIAM (1998) suggests that the most important factor in determining what a
researcher should observe is the researcher's purpose for conducting the study in
the first place. "Where to begin looking depends on the research question, but
where to focus or stop action cannot be determined ahead of time" (MERRIAM,
1998, p.97). [26]
To help the researcher know what to observe, DeWALT and DeWALT (2002)
suggest that he/she study what is happening and why; sort out the regular from
the irregular activities; look for variation to view the event in its entirety from a
variety of viewpoints; look for the negative cases or exceptions; and, when
behaviors exemplify the theoretical purposes for the observation, seek similar
opportunities for observation and plan systematic observations of those
events/behaviors. Over time, such events may change, with the season, for
example, so persistent observation of activities or events that one has already
observed may be necessary. [27]
WOLCOTT (2001) suggests that fieldworkers ask themselves if they are making
good use of the opportunity to learn what it is they want to know. He further
advises that fieldworkers ask themselves if what they want to learn makes the
best use of the opportunity presented. [28]
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8. How Does One Conduct an Observation?
WHYTE (1979) notes that, while there is no one way that is best for conducting
research using participant observation, the most effective work is done by
researchers who view informants as collaborators; to do otherwise, he adds, is a
waste of human resources. His emphasis is on the relationship between the
researcher and informants as collaborative researchers who, through building
solid relationships, improve the research process and improve the skills of the
researcher to conduct research. [29]
Conducting observations involves a variety of activities and considerations for the
researcher, which include ethics, establishing rapport, selecting key informants,
the processes for conducting observations, deciding what and when to observe,
keeping field notes, and writing up one's findings. In this section, these aspects of
the research activities are discussed in more detail. [30]
8.1 Ethics
A primary consideration in any research study is to conduct the research in an
ethical manner, letting the community know that one's purpose for observing is to
document their activities. While there may be instances where covert observation
methods might be appropriate, these situations are few and are suspect.
DeWALT, DeWALT, and WAYLAND (1998) advise the researcher to take some
of the field notes publicly to reinforce that what the researcher is doing is collect-
ing data for research purposes. When the researcher meets community members
for the first time, he/she should be sure to inform them of the purpose for being
there, sharing sufficient information with them about the research topic that their
questions about the research and the researcher's presence there are put to rest.
This means that one is constantly introducing oneself as a researcher. [31]
Another ethical responsibility is to preserve the anonymity of the participants in
the final write-up and in field notes to prevent their identification, should the field
notes be subpoenaed for inspection. Individual identities must be described in
ways that community members will not be able to identify the participants.
Several years ago, when I submitted an article for publication, one of the
reviewers provided feedback that it would be helpful to the reader if I described
the participants as, for example, "a 35 year old divorced mother of three, who
worked at Wal-Mart." This level of detail was not a feasible option for me in
providing a description of individual participants, as it would have been easy for
the local community members to identify these participants from such specific
detail; this was a small community where everyone knew everyone else, and they
would have known who the woman was. Instead, I only provided broad
descriptions that lacked specific details, such as "a woman in her thirties who
worked in the retail industry." [32]
DeWALT, DeWALT, and WAYLAND also point out that there is an ethical
concern regarding the relationships established by the researcher when
conducting participant observation; the researcher needs to develop close
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relationships, yet those relationships are difficult to maintain, when the researcher
returns to his/her home at a distant location. It is typical for researchers who
spend an extended period of time in a community to establish friendships or other
relationships, some of which may extend over a lifetime; others are transient and
extend only for the duration of the research study. Particularly when conducting
cross-cultural research, it is necessary to have an understanding of cultural
norms that exist. As MARSHALL and BATTEN (2004) note, one must address
issues, such as potential exploitation and inaccuracy of findings, or other actions
which may cause damage to the community. They suggest that the researcher
take a participatory approach to research by including community members in the
research process, beginning with obtaining culturally appropriate permission to
conduct research and ensuring that the research addresses issues of importance
to the community. They further suggest that the research findings be shared with
the community to ensure accuracy of findings. In my own ongoing research
projects with the Muscogee (Creek) people, I have maintained relationships with
many of the people, including tribal leaders, tribal administrators, and council
members, and have shared the findings with selected tribal members to check my
findings. Further, I have given them copies of my work for their library. I, too,
have found that, by taking a participatory approach to my research with them, I
have been asked to participate in studies that they wish to have conducted. [33]
8.2 Gaining entry and establishing rapport
Regarding entering the field, there are several activities that must be addressed.
These include choosing a site, gaining permission, selecting key informants, and
familiarizing oneself with the setting or culture (BERNARD, 1994). In this process,
one must choose a site that will facilitate easy access to the data. The objective is
to collect data that will help answer the research questions. [34]
To assist in gaining permission from the community to conduct the study, the
researcher may bring letters of introduction or other information that will ease
entry, such as information about one's affiliation, funding sources, and planned
length of time in the field. One may need to meet with the community leaders. For
example, when one wishes to conduct research in a school, permission must be
granted by the school principal and, possibly, by the district school
superintendent. For research conducted in indigenous communities, it may be
necessary to gain permission from the tribal leader or council. [35]
One should use personal contacts to ease entry; these would include key
informants who serve as gatekeepers, but BERNARD cautions against choosing
a gatekeeper who represents one side of warring factions, as the researcher may
be seen as affiliated with that faction. He also cautions that, when using highly
placed individuals as gatekeepers, the researcher may be expected to serve as a
spy. AGAR (1980) suggests that the researcher be wary of accepting the first
people he/she encounters in the research setting as key informants, as they may
be "deviants" or "professional stranger handlers." The former may be people who
live on the fringe of the culture, and association with them may provide the
researcher with erroneous views of the culture or may alienate the researcher
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from others who might better inform the study. The "professional stranger
handlers" are those people who take upon themselves the job of finding out what
it is the researcher is after and how it may affect the members of the culture.
AGAR suggests finding a key informant to sponsor the researcher to facilitate his/
her meeting those people who can provide the needed information. These key
informants must be people who are respected by other cultural members and
who are viewed to be neutral, to enable the researcher to meet informants in all
of the various factions found in the culture. [36]
The researcher also should become familiar with the setting and social
organization of the culture. This may involve mapping out the setting or
developing social networks to help the researcher understand the situation.
These activities also are useful for enabling the researcher to know what to
observe and from whom to gather information. [37]
"Hanging out" is the process through which the researcher gains trust and
establishes rapport with participants (BERNARD, 1994). DeMUNCK and SOBO
(1998) state that, "only through hanging out do a majority of villagers get an
opportunity to watch, meet, and get to know you outside your 'professional' role"
(p.41). This process of hanging out involves meeting and conversing with people
to develop relationships over an extended period of time. There are three stages
to the hanging out process, moving from a position of formal, ignorant intruder to
welcome, knowledgeable intimate (DeMUNCK & SOBO). The first stage is the
stage at which the researcher is a stranger who is learning the social rules and
language, making herself/himself known to the community, so they will begin to
teach her/him how to behave appropriately in that culture. In the second stage,
one begins to merge with the crowd and stand out less as an intruder, what
DeMUNCK and SOBO call the "acquaintance" stage. During this stage, the
language becomes more familiar to the researcher, but he/she still may not be
fluent in its use. The third stage they mention is called the "intimate" stage, during
which the researcher has established relationships with cultural participants to the
extent that he/she no longer has to think about what he/she says, but is as
comfortable with the interaction as the participants are with her/him being there.
There is more to participant observation than just hanging out. It sometimes
involves the researcher's working with and participating in everyday activities
beside participants in their daily lives. It also involves taking field notes of
observations and interpretations. Included in this fieldwork is persistent
observation and intermittent questioning to gain clarification of meaning of
activities. [38]
Rapport is built over time; it involves establishing a trusting relationship with the
community, so that the cultural members feel secure in sharing sensitive
information with the researcher to the extent that they feel assured that the
information gathered and reported will be presented accurately and dependably.
Rapport-building involves active listening, showing respect and empathy, being
truthful, and showing a commitment to the well-being of the community or
individual. Rapport is also related to the issue of reciprocity, the giving back of
something in return for their sharing their lives with the researcher. The cultural
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members are sharing information with the researcher, making him/her welcome in
the community, inviting him/her to participate in and report on their activities. The
researcher has the responsibility for giving something back, whether it is
monetary remuneration, gifts or material goods, physical labor, time, or research
results. Confidentiality is also a part of the reciprocal trust established with the
community under study. They must be assured that they can share personal
information without their identity being exposed to others. [39]
BERNARD states that "the most important thing you can do to stop being a freak
is to speak the language of the people you're studying—and speak it well" (1994,
p.145). Fluency in the native language helps gain access to sensitive information
and increases rapport with participants. Learn about local dialects, he suggests,
but refrain from trying to mimic local pronunciations, which may be misinterpreted
as ridicule. Learning to speak the language shows that the researcher has a
vested interest in the community, that the interest is not transient, and helps the
researcher to understand the nuances of conversation, particularly what
constitutes humor. [40]
As mentioned in the discussion of the limitations of observation, BERNARD
suggests that gender affects one's ability to access certain information and how
one views others. What is appropriate action in some cultures is dependent upon
one's gender. Gender can limit what one can ask, what one can observe, and
what one can report. For example, several years after completing my doctoral
dissertation with Muscogee (Creek) women about their perceptions of work, I
returned for additional interviews with the women to gather specific information
about more intimate aspects of their lives that had been touched on briefly in our
previous conversations, but which were not reported. During these interviews,
they shared with me their stories about how they learned about intimacy when
they were growing up. Because the conversations dealt with sexual content,
which, in their culture, was referred to more delicately as intimacy, I was unable to
report my findings, as, to do so, would have been inappropriate. One does not
discuss such topics in mixed company, so my writing about this subject might
have endangered my reputation in the community or possibly inhibited my
continued relationship with community members. I was forced to choose between
publishing the findings, which would have benefited my academic career, and
retaining my reputation within the Creek community. I chose to maintain a
relationship with the Creek people, so I did not publish any of the findings from
that study. I also was told by the funding source that I should not request
additional funds for research, if the results would not be publishable. [41]
8.3 The processes of conducting observations
Exactly how does one go about conducting observation? WERNER and
SCHOEPFLE (1987, as cited in ANGROSINO & dePEREZ, 2000) focus on the
process of conducting observations and describe three types of processes:
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1. The first is descriptive observation, in which one observes anything and
everything, assuming that he/she knows nothing; the disadvantage of this
type is that it can lead to the collection of minutiae that may or may not be
relevant to the study.
2. The second type, focused observation, emphasizes observation supported by
interviews, in which the participants' insights guide the researcher's decisions
about what to observe.
3. The third type of observation, considered by ANGROSINO and DePEREZ to
be the most systematic, is selective observation, in which the researcher
focuses on different types of activities to help delineate the differences in
those activities (ANGROSINO & dePEREZ, 2000, p.677). [42]
Other researchers have taken a different approach to explaining how to conduct
observations. For example, MERRIAM (1988) developed an observation guide in
which she compiled various elements to be recorded in field notes. The first of
these elements includes the physical environment. This involves observing the
surroundings of the setting and providing a written description of the context.
Next, she describes the participants in detail. Then she records the activities and
interactions that occur in the setting. She also looks at the frequency and duration
of those activities/interactions and other subtle factors, such as informal,
unplanned activities, symbolic meanings, nonverbal communication, physical
clues, and what should happen that has not happened. In her 1998 book,
MERRIAM adds such elements as observing the conversation in terms of
content, who speaks to whom, who listens, silences, the researcher's own
behavior and how that role affects those one is observing, and what one says or
thinks. [43]
To conduct participant observation, one must live in the context to facilitate
prolonged engagement; prolonged engagement is one of the activities listed by
LINCOLN and GUBA (1994) to establish trustworthiness. The findings are
considered to be more trustworthy, when the researcher can show that he/she
spent a considerable amount of time in the setting, as this prolonged interaction
with the community enables the researcher to have more opportunities to observe
and participate in a variety of activities over time. The reader would not view the
findings as credible, if the researcher only spent a week in the culture; however,
he/she would be more assured that the findings are accurate, if the researcher
lived in the culture for an extended time or visited the culture repeatedly over
time. Living in the culture enables one to learn the language and participate in
everyday activities. Through these activities, the researcher has access to
community members who can explain the meaning that such activities hold for
them as individuals and can use conversations to elicit data in lieu of more formal
interviews. [44]
When I was preparing to conduct my ethnographic study with the Muscogee
(Creek) women of Oklahoma, my professor, Valerie FENNELL, told me that I
should take the attitude of "treat me like a little child who knows nothing," so that
my informants would teach me what I needed to know about the culture. I found
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this attitude to be very helpful in establishing rapport, in getting the community
members to explain things they thought I should know, and in inviting me to
observe activities that they felt were important for my understanding of their
culture. DeWALT and DeWALT support the view of the ethnographer as an
apprentice, taking the stance of a child in need of teaching about the cultural
mores as a means for enculturation. KOTTAK (1994) defines enculturation as
"the social process by which culture is learned and transmitted across
generations" (p.16). Conducting observations involves such activities as "fitting in,
active seeing, short-term memory, informal interviewing, recording detailed field
notes, and, perhaps most importantly, patience" (DeWALT & DeWALT, 2002,
p.17). DeWALT and DeWALT extend this list of necessary skills, adding MEAD's
suggested activities, which include developing tolerance to poor conditions and
unpleasant situations, resisting impulsiveness, particularly interrupting others, and
resisting attachment to particular factions or individuals. [45]
ANGROSINO and DePEREZ (2000) advocate using a structured observation
process to maximize the efficiency of the field experience, minimize researcher
bias, and facilitate replication or verification by others, all of which make the
findings more objective. This objectivity, they explain, occurs when there is agree-
ment between the researcher and the participants as to what is going on. Sociolo-
gists, they note, typically use document analysis to check their results, while
anthropologists tend to verify their findings through participant observation. [46]
BERNARD (1994) states that most basic anthropological research is conducted
over a period of about a year, but recently there have been participant
observations that were conducted in a matter of weeks. In these instances, he
notes the use of rapid assessment techniques that include
"going in and getting on with the job of collection data without spending months
developing rapport. This means going into a field situation armed with a lot of
questions that you want to answer and perhaps a checklist of data that you need to
collect" (p.139). [47]
In this instance the cultural members are taken into the researcher's confidence
as research partners to enable him/her to get the questions answered.
BERNARD notes that those anthropologists who are in the field for extended
periods of time are better able to obtain information of a sensitive nature, such as
information about witchcraft, sexuality, political feuds, etc. By staying involved
with the culture over a period of years, data about social changes that occur over
time are more readily perceived and understood. [48]
BERNARD and his associates developed an outline of the stages of participant
observation fieldwork that includes initial contact; shock; discovering the obvious;
the break; focusing; exhaustion, the second break, and frantic activity; and
leaving. In ethnographic research, it is common for the researcher to live in the
culture under study for extended periods of time and to return home for short
breaks, then return to the research setting for more data collection. When the
researcher encounters a culture that is different from his/her own and lives in that
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culture, constantly being bombarded by new stimuli, culture shock results.
Researchers react differently to such shock. Some may sit in their motel room
and play cards or read novels to escape. Others may work and rework data
endlessly. Sometimes the researcher needs to take a break from the constant
observation and note taking to recuperate. When I conducted my dissertation
fieldwork, I stayed in a local motel, although I had been invited to stay at the
home of some community members. I chose to remain in the motel, because this
enabled me to have the down time in the evenings that I needed to write up field
notes and code and analyze data. Had I stayed with friends, they may have felt
that they had to entertain me, and I would have felt obligated to spend my
evenings conversing or participating in whatever activities they had planned,
when I needed some time to myself to be alone, think, and "veg" out. [49]
The aspects of conducting observations are discussed above, but these are not
the only ways to conduct observations. DeMUNCK and SOBO use freelisting to
elicit from cultural members items related to specific categories of information.
Through freelisting, they build a dictionary of coded responses to explain various
categories. They also suggest the use of pile sorting, which involves the use of
cards that participants sort into piles according to similar topics. The process
involves making decisions about what topics to include. Such card pile sorting
processes are easy to administer and may be meaningful to the participant's
world and frames of reference (DeMUNCK & SOBO, 1998). [50]
A different approach to observation, consensus analysis, is a method DeMUNCK
and SOBO describe to design sampling frames for ethnographic research,
enabling the researcher to establish the viewpoints of the participants from the
inside out. This involves aspects of ethnographic fieldwork, such as getting to
know participants intimately to understand their way of thinking and experiencing
the world. It further involves verifying information gathered to determine if the
researcher correctly understood the information collected. The question of
whether one has understood correctly lends itself to the internal validity question
of whether the researcher has correctly understood the participants. Whether the
information can be generalized addresses the external validity in terms of whether
the interpretation is transferable from the sample to the population from which it
was selected. DeMUNCK and SOBO note that the ethnographer begins with a
topic and discusses that topic with various people who know about it. He/She
selects a variety of people who know about the topic to include in the sample,
remembering that not everyone has the same opinion or experience about the
topic. They suggest using a nested sampling frame to determine differences in
knowledge about a topic. To help determine the differences, the researcher
should ask the participants if they know people who have a different experience
or opinion of the topic. Seeking out participants with different points of view
enables the researcher to fully flesh out understanding of the topic in that culture.
DeMUNCK and SOBO also suggest talking with anyone who is willing to teach
you. [51]
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9. Tips for Collecting Useful Observation Data
TAYLOR and BOGDAN (1984) provided several tips for conducting observations
after one has gained entry into the setting under study. They suggest that the
researcher should:
be unobtrusive in dress and actions;
become familiar with the setting before beginning to collect data;
keep the observations short at first to keep from becoming overwhelmed;
be honest, but not too technical or detailed, in explaining to participants what
he/she is doing. [52]
MERRIAM (1998) adds that the researcher should:
pay attention, shifting from a "wide" to a "narrow" angle perspective, focusing
on a single person, activity, interaction, then returning to a view of the overall
look for key words in conversations to trigger later recollection of the
conversation content;
concentrate on the first and last remarks of a conversation, as these are most
easily remembered;
during breaks in the action, mentally replay remarks and scenes one has
observed. [53]
DeWALT and DeWALT (2002) make these suggestions:
Actively observe, attending to details one wants to record later.
Look at the interactions occurring in the setting, including who talks to whom,
whose opinions are respected, how decisions are made. Also observe where
participants stand or sit, particularly those with power versus those with less
power or men versus women.
Counting persons or incidents of observed activity is useful in helping one
recollect the situation, especially when viewing complex events or events in
which there are many participants.
Listen carefully to conversations, trying to remember as many verbatim
conversations, nonverbal expressions, and gestures as possible. To assist in
seeing events with "new eyes," turn detailed jottings into extensive field notes,
including spatial maps and interaction maps. Look carefully to seek out new
Keep a running observation record. [54]
WOLCOTT (2001) adds to the discussion of how to conduct observations. He
suggests that, to move around gracefully within the culture, one should:
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practice reciprocity in whatever terms are appropriate for that culture;
be tolerant of ambiguity; this includes being adaptable and flexible;
have personal determination and faith in oneself to help alleviate culture
shock. [55]
He further shares some tips for doing better participant observation (pp.96-100).
When one is not sure what to attend to, he/she should look to see what it is
that he/she is attending to and try to determine how and why one's attention
has been drawn as it has. One should take note of what he/she is observing,
what is being put into the field notes and in how much detail, and what one is
noting about the researcher's personal experience in conducting the research.
The process of note taking is not complete until one has reviewed his/her
notes to make sure that he/she is coupling the analysis with observations
throughout the process to keep the researcher on track.
The researcher should review constantly what he/she is looking for and
whether he/she is seeing it or is likely to do so in the circumstances for
observation presented. It may be necessary to refocus one's attention to what
is actually going on. This process involves looking for recurring patterns or
underlying themes in behavior, action or inaction. He/she should also reflect
on what someone from another discipline might find of interest there. He/she
should look at her/his participation, what he/she is observing and recording, in
terms of the kind of information he/she will need to report rather than what he/
she feels he/she should collect.
Being attentive for any length of time is difficult to do. One tends to do it off
and on. One should be aware that his/her attention to details comes in short
bursts that are followed by inattentive rests, and those moments of attention
should be capitalized upon.
One should reflect on the note taking process and subsequent writing-up
practices as a critical part of fieldwork, making it part of the daily routine,
keeping the entries up to date. The elaborated note taking also provides a
connection between what he/she is experiencing and how he/she is translating
that experience into a form that can be communicated to others. He/she
should make a habit of including in one's field notes such specifics as day,
date, and time, along with a simple coding system for keeping track of entries,
and reflections on and about one's mood, personal reactions, and random
thoughts, as these may help to recapture detail not written down. One should
also consider beginning to do some writing as fieldwork proceeds. One should
take time frequently to draft expanded pieces written using "thick description,"
as described by GEERTZ (1973), so that such details might later be
incorporated into the final write up.
One should take seriously the challenge of participating and focus, when
appropriate, on one's role as participant over one's role as observer.
Fieldwork involves more than data gathering. It may also involve informal
interviews, conversations, or more structured interviews, such as
questionnaires or surveys. [56]
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BERNARD notes that one must become explicitly aware, being attentive in
his/her observations, reporting what is seen, not inferred. It is natural to impose
on a situation what is culturally correct, in the absence of real memories, but
building memory capacity can be enhanced by practicing reliable observation. If
the data one collects is not reliable, the conclusions will not be valid. BERNARD
advises that the researcher not talk to anyone after observing, until he/she has
written down his/her field notes. He advocates that he/she try to remember things
in historical/chronological order and draw a map of the physical space to help
him/her remember details. He also suggests that the researcher maintain naiveté,
assuming an attitude of learner and being guided by participants' teaching without
being considered stupid, incompetent, or dangerous to their wellbeing.
Sometimes, he points out, one's expertise is what helps to establish rapport.
Having good writing skills, that is, writing concisely and compellingly, is also
necessary to good participant observation. The researcher must learn to 'hang
out' to enable him/her to ask questions when appropriate and to ask appropriate
questions. Maintaining one's objectivity means realizing and acknowledging one's
biases, assumptions, prejudices, opinions, and values. [57]
10. Keeping and Analyzing Field Notes and Writing up the Findings
KUTSCHE (1998) suggests that, when mapping out a setting, one must first learn
to put aside his/her preconceptions. The process of mapping, as he describes it,
involves describing the relationship between the sociocultural behavior one
observes and the physical environment. The researcher should draw a physical
map of the setting, using as much detail as possible. KUTSCHE suggests that
the researcher visit the setting under study at different times of the day to see
how it is used differently at different times of the day/night. He/she should
describe without judgment and avoid using meaningless adjectives, such as
"older" (older than what/whom?) or "pretty" (as compared to what/whom?); use
adjectives that help to describe the various aspects of the setting meaningfully
(what is it that makes the house inviting?). When one succeeds in avoiding
judgment, he/she is practicing cultural relativism. This mapping process uses only
one of the five senses—vision. "Human events happen in particular places,
weathers, times, and so forth. If you are intrigued, you will be pleased to know
that what you are doing is a subdiscipline of anthropology called cultural ecology"
(p.16). It involves looking at the interaction of the participants with the
environment. STEWARD (1955, as cited in KUTSCHE, 1998), a student of
KROEBER (1939, as cited in KUTSCHE, 1998), who wrote about Native
American adaptations to North American environments, developed a theory
called "multilinear evolution" in which he described how cultural traditions evolve
related to specific environments.
"Cultural systems are not just rules for behavior, ways of surviving, or straitjackets to
constrict free expression ... All cultures, no matter how simple or sophisticated, are
also rhythms, music, architecture, the dances of living. ... To look at culture as style is
to look at ritual" (p.49). [58]
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KUTSCHE refers to ritual as being the symbolic representation of the sentiments
in a situation, where the situation involves person, place, time, conception, thing,
or occasion. Some of the examples of cultural rituals KUTSCHE presents for
analysis include rites of deference or rites of passage. Ritual and habit are
different, KUTSCHE explains, in that habits have no symbolic expression or
meaning (such as tying one's shoes in the same way each time). [59]
In mapping out the setting being observed, SCHENSUL, SCHENSUL, and
LeCOMPTE (1999) suggest the following be included:
a count of attendees, including such demographics as age, gender, and race;
a physical map of the setting and description of the physical surroundings;
a portrayal of where participants are positioned over time;
a description of the activities being observed, detailing activities of interest. [60]
They indicate that counting, census taking, and mapping are important ways to
help the researcher gain a better understanding of the social setting in the early
stages of participation, particularly when the researcher is not fluent in the
language and has few key informants in the community. [61]
Social differences they mention that are readily observed include differences
among individuals, families, or groups by educational level, type of employment,
and income. Things to look for include the cultural members' manner of dress
and decorative accoutrements, leisure activities, speech patterns, place of
residence and choice of transportation. They also add that one might look for
differences in housing structure or payment structure for goods or services. [62]
Field notes are the primary way of capturing the data that is collected from
participant observations. Notes taken to capture this data include records of what
is observed, including informal conversations with participants, records of
activities and ceremonies, during which the researcher is unable to question
participants about their activities, and journal notes that are kept on a daily basis.
DeWALT, DeWALT, and WAYLAND describe field notes as both data and
analysis, as the notes provide an accurate description of what is observed and
are the product of the observation process. As they note, observations are not
data unless they are recorded into field notes. [63]
DeMUNCK and SOBO (1998) advocate using two notebooks for keeping field
notes, one with questions to be answered, the other with more personal
observations that may not fit the topics covered in the first notebook. They do this
to alleviate the clutter of extraneous information that can occur when taking. Field
notes in the first notebook should include jottings, maps, diagrams, interview
notes, and observations. In the second notebook, they suggest keeping memos,
casual "mullings, questions, comments, quirky notes, and diary type entries"
(p.45). One can find information in the notes easily by indexing and cross-
referencing information from both notebooks by noting on index cards such
information as "conflicts, gender, jokes, religion, marriage, kinship, men's
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activities, women's activities, and so on" (p.45). They summarize each day's
notes and index them by notebook, page number, and a short identifying
description. [64]
The feelings, thoughts, suppositions of the researcher may be noted separately.
SCHENSUL, SCHENSUL, and LeCOMPTE (1999) note that good field notes:
use exact quotes when possible;
use pseudonyms to protect confidentiality;
describe activities in the order in which they occur;
provide descriptions without inferring meaning;
include relevant background information to situate the event;
separate one's own thoughts and assumptions from what one actually
record the date, time, place, and name of researcher on each set of notes. [65]
Regarding coding their observation notes, DeMUNCK and SOBO (1998) suggest
that coding is used to select and emphasize information that is important enough
to record, enabling the researcher to weed out extraneous information and focus
his/her observations on the type of information needed for the study. They
describe codes as
"rules for organizing symbols into larger and more meaningful strings of symbols. It is
important, no imperative, to construct a coding system not because the coding
system represents the 'true' structure of the process you are studying, but because it
offers a framework for organizing and thinking about the data" (p.48). [66]
KUTSCHE states that, when one is trying to analyze interview information and
observation field notes, he/she is trying to develop a model that helps to make
sense of what the participants do. One is constructing a model of culture, not
telling the truth about the data, as there are numerous truths, particularly when
presented from each individual participant's viewpoint. The researcher should set
out an outline of the information he/she has, organize the information according
to the outline, then move the points around as the argument of one's study
dictates. He further suggests that he/she organize the collected data into a
narrative in which one may tell the story of a day or a week in the lives of
informants, as they may have provided information in these terms in response to
grand tour questions, that is, questions that encourage participants to elaborate
on their description of a cultural scene (SPRADLEY, 1979). Once the data have
been organized in this way, there will probably be several sections in the narrative
that reflect one's interpretation of certain themes that make the cultural scene
clear to the reader. He further suggests asking participants to help structure the
report. In this way, member checks and peer debriefing occur to help ensure the
trustworthiness of the data (LINCOLN & GUBA, 1994). [67]
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When writing up one's description of a ritual, KUTSCHE advises the researcher
to make a short draft of the ritual and then take specific aspects to focus on and
write up in detail with one's analysis. It is the analysis that differentiates between
creative writing and ethnology, he points out. When writing up one's ethnographic
observations, KUTSCHE advises that the researcher follow the lead of
SPRADLEY and McCURDY (1972) and find a cultural scene, spend time with the
informants, asking questions and clarifying answers, analyze the material, pulling
together the themes into a well-organized story. Regarding developing models,
he indicates that the aim is to construct a picture of the culture that reflects the
data one has collected. He bases his model development on guidelines by Ward
H. GOODENOUGH, who advocates that the first level of development includes
what happens, followed by a second level of development which includes what
the ethnographer has observed, subsequently followed by a third level including
what was recorded in the field, and finally followed by a fourth level derived from
one's notes. He adds that GOODENOUGH describes a fifth level, in which
ethnological theory is developed from separate models of separate cultures.
KUTSCHE defines models as having four properties described by LEVI-
STRAUSS (1953, p.525, as cited in KUTSCHE,1998), two of which are pertinent
to this discussion: the first property, in which the structure exhibits the
characteristics of a system, and the fourth property, in which the model makes
clear all observed facts. [68]
WOLCOTT indicates that fieldworkers of today should put themselves into their
written discussion of the analysis without regaling the reader with self-reports of
how well they did their job. This means that there will be a bit of postmodern auto-
ethnographic information told in the etic or researcher's voice (PIKE, 1966), along
with the participants' voices which provide the emic perspective (PIKE, 1966).
Autoethnography, in recent years, has become an accepted means for illustrating
the knowledge production of researchers from their own perspective,
incorporating their own feelings and emotions into the mix, as is illustrated by
Carolyn ELLIS (i.e., ELLIS, 2003, and HOLMAN JONES, 2004). [69]
11. Teaching Participant Observation
Throughout the past eight or so years of teaching qualitative research courses, I
have developed a variety of exercises for teaching observation skills, based on
techniques I observed from other researchers and teachers of qualitative
research or techniques described in others' syllabi. Over time, I have revised
others' exercises and created my own to address the needs of my students in
learning how to conduct qualitative research. Below are several of those exer-
cises that other professors of qualitative research methods may find useful. [70]
Memory Exercise—Students are asked to think of a familiar place, such as a
room in their home, and make field notes that include a map of the setting and a
physical description of as much as they can remember of what is contained in
that setting. They are then asked to compare their recollections with the actual
setting to see what they were able to remember and how well they were able to
do so. The purpose of this exercise is to help students realize how easy it is to
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FQS 6(2), Art. 43, Barbara B. Kawulich: Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method
overlook various aspects that they have not consciously tried to remember. In this
way, they begin to be attentive to details and begin to practice active observing
skills. [71]
Sight without sound—In this exercise, students are asked to find a setting in
which they are able to see activity but in which they are unable to hear what is
being said in the interaction. For a specified length of time (5 to 10 minutes), they
are to observe the action/interaction, and record as much information as they can
in as much detail as possible. This exercise has also been done by turning off the
sound on the television and observing the actions/interactions on a program;
students, in this case, are instructed to find a television program with which they
are unfamiliar, so they are less apt to impose upon their field notes what they
believe they know about familiar characters or programs. This option is less
desirable, as students sometimes find it difficult to find a program with which they
do not have some familiarity. The purpose of the exercise is to teach the students
to begin observing and taking in information using their sight. [72]
Instructions for writing up their field notes include having them begin by drawing a
map of the setting and providing a description of the participants. By having them
record on one side of their paper what information they take in through their
senses and on the other side whatever thoughts, feelings, ideas they have about
what is happening, they are more likely to begin to see the difference in observed
data and their own construction or interpretation of the activity. This exercise also
helps them realize the importance of using all of their senses to take in
information and the importance of observing both the verbal and the nonverbal
behaviors of the situation. Possible settings for observation in this exercise have
included sitting inside fast-food restaurants, viewing the playground, observing
interactions across parking lots or mall food courts, or viewing interactions at a
distance on the subway, for example. [73]
Sound without sight—In this exercise, similar to the above exercise, students are
asked to find a setting in which they are able to hear activity/interactions, but in
which they are unable to see what is going on. Again, for a specified length of
time, they are asked to record as much as they can hear of the interaction,
putting their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about what is happening on the right
side of the paper, and putting the information they take in with their senses on the
left hand side of the paper. Before beginning, they again are asked to describe
the setting, but, if possible, they are not to see the participants in the setting
under study. In this way, they are better able to note their guesses about the
participants' ages, gender, ethnicity, etc. My students have conducted this
exercise in restaurants, listening to conversations of patrons in booths behind
them, while sitting on airplanes or other modes of transportation, or by sitting
outside classrooms where students were interacting, for example. A variation of
this exercise is to have students turn their backs to the television or listen to a
radio program with which they are unfamiliar, and have them conduct the
exercise in that fashion, without sight to guide their interpretations. [74]
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FQS 6(2), Art. 43, Barbara B. Kawulich: Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method
In both of these examples, male students are cautioned to stay away from
playgrounds or other settings where there actions may be misconstrued. They
are further cautioned against sitting in vehicles and observing, as several of my
students have been approached by security or police officers who questioned
them about their actions. The lesson here is that, while much information can be
taken in through hearing conversations, without the body language, meanings
can be misconstrued. Further, they usually find it interesting to make guesses
about the participants in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and relationship to other
participants in the setting, based on what they heard. [75]
In both of these examples, it is especially interesting when one student conducts
the sight without sound and another students conducts the sound without sight
exercise using the same interaction/setting, as their explanations, when shared in
class, sometimes illustrate how easy it is to put one's own construction on what is
actually happening. [76]
Photographic Observation—This exercise encourages students to use
photographs to help them remember activities, and photographs can serve as
illustrations of aspects of activities that are not easily described. Students are
asked to take a series of 12 to 36 photographs of an activity, and provide a
written description of the activity that tells the story of what is happening in the
activity, photo by photo. They are instructed to number the photographs and take
notes as they take pictures to help them keep the photos organized in the right
sequence. Several students have indicated that this was a fun exercise in which
their children, who were the participants in the activity, were delighted to be
involved; they also noted that this provided them with a pictographic recollection
of a part of their children's lives that would be a keepsake. One student recorded
her 6 year old daughter's first formal tea party, for example. [77]
Direct Observation—In this instance, students are asked to find a setting they
wish to observe in which they will be able to observe without interruption and in
which they will not be participating. For some specified length of time (about 15 to
30 minutes), they are asked to record everything they can take in through their
senses about that setting and the interactions contained therein for the duration
of the time period, again recording on one side of the paper their field notes from
observation and on the other side their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about what
is happening. Part of the lesson here is that, when researchers are recording
aspects of the observation, whether it be the physical characteristics of the
setting or interactions between participants, they are unable to both observe and
record. This exercise is also good practice for getting them to write detailed notes
about what is or is not happening, about the physical surroundings, and about
interactions, particularly conversations and the nonverbal behaviors that go along
with those conversations. [78]
Participant Observation—Students are asked to participate in some activity that
takes at least 2 hours, during which they are not allowed to take any notes.
Having a few friends or family members over for dinner is a good example of a
situation where they must participate without taking notes. In this situation, the
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FQS 6(2), Art. 43, Barbara B. Kawulich: Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method
students must periodically review what they want to remember. They are
instructed to remember as much as possible, then record their recollections in as
much detail as they can remember as soon as possible after the activity ends.
Students are cautioned not to talk to anyone or drink too much, so their
recollections will be unaltered. The lesson here is that they must consciously try
to remember bits of conversation and other details in chronological order. [79]
When comparing their field notes from direct observation to participant
observation, the students may find that their notes from direct observation
(without participation) are more detailed and lengthy than with participant
observation; however, through participation, there is more involvement in the
activities under study, so there is likely to be better interpretation of what
happened and why. They also may find that participant observation lends itself
better to recollecting information at a later time than direct observation. [80]
12. Summary
Participant observation involves the researcher's involvement in a variety of
activities over an extended period of time that enable him/her to observe the
cultural members in their daily lives and to participate in their activities to facilitate
a better understanding of those behaviors and activities. The process of
conducting this type of field work involves gaining entry into the community,
selecting gatekeepers and key informants, participating in as many different
activities as are allowable by the community members, clarifying one's findings
through member checks, formal interviews, and informal conversations, and
keeping organized, structured field notes to facilitate the development of a
narrative that explains various cultural aspects to the reader. Participant
observation is used as a mainstay in field work in a variety of disciplines, and, as
such, has proven to be a beneficial tool for producing studies that provide
accurate representation of a culture. This paper, while not wholly inclusive of all
that has been written about this type of field work methods, presents an overview
of what is known about it, including its various definitions, history, and purposes,
the stances of the researcher, and information about how to conduct observations
in the field. [81]
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Barbara B. KAWULICH teaches research methods
at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton,
Georgia (USA), in the College of Education. Her
research interests include qualitative research,
particularly ethnographic studies, and action
research. Her personal areas of research interest
involve issues affecting American Indian women,
specifically Muscogee (Creek) women.
Barbara B. Kawulich
University of West Georgia
Educational Leadership and Professional
Studies Department
1601 Maple Street, Room 153,
Education Annex
Carrollton, GA 30118, USA
Kawulich, Barbara B. (2005). Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method [81 paragraphs].
Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(2), Art. 43, http://nbn-
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... The use of participant observation in this study was done in combination with individual interviews and focus group discussions. It was utilised to enable learning about people in their natural setting through observing and participating in their activities to understand the social world from the participant's point of view (Kawulich, 2005). As a data collection method, participant observation is uniquely adapted to the distinctive character of human existence. ...
... Therefore, participant observation was used to develop an insider's perspective regarding meanings and interactions. This method enabled the researchers to check for definitions of terms that participants used in interviews and observe events that informants were unable to or unwilling to share and countercheck for distortions and inaccuracies in the process of the interviews (Kawulich, 2005). The power relationship in this study's development aid scenario is a good pointer that there could be a wealth of information not expressly available. ...
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This book analyses the diffusion and implementation of Aid Effectiveness Principles in Kenya’s agricultural sector. Although Aid Effectiveness Principles represent a significant step in aid and development discourse, studies on its implementation remain inadequate, especially in the African context. This book combines the perspectives of the Kenyan government, donor representatives and small-scale farmers. The discussion on Kenya brings in comparative perspectives and, therefore, would have broader relevance to the African region, in general. It highlights a disconnect between the government and farmers concerning the ownership concept, where farmers lack a voice in important policy matters. The book shows that donors have exploited the weaknesses in government responses to interpret The Principles in ways that suit their strategic interests. Consequently, the book argues that the diffusion of Aid Effectiveness Principles has taken the form of symbolic imitation – a form of policy diffusion where the policymakers choose policies for their symbolic value rather than their effectiveness.
... The document analysis is based on official documents and datasets of the SNAI, made publicly available by the Italian Agency for Territorial Cohesion. 2 Qualitative insights on the implementation of the strategy have been gained through participant observation (Kawulich, 2005) in three working tables of the SNAI process in one of the project areas (Valle Arroscia) and seven semi-structured interviews collected during the ESPON URRUC project 3 (Bacci et al., 2022;ESPON, 2019;Cotella and Vitale Brovarone, 2020a). The interviews concerned both general questions on the development of the SNAI, and questions more specifically related to accessibility, mobility, and their integration with the other axes, including tourism. ...
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Remote rural areas are often rich in natural and landscape assets, which are in turn used as the main focus of tourism development strategies aiming at reverting their decline. However, mono-functional strategies hardly manage to achieve this goal, as in order to restore those structural conditions that are essential to liveability and local development it is necessary to engage in a more comprehensive approach. Acknowledging this challenge, the paper reflects on the possibility to include tourism within multi-level development strategies aimed at tackling marginalisation, drawing on the case of the Italian National Strategy for Inner Areas. More in detail, the authors analyse how the latter enables the integration of tourism-related actions into more comprehensive, place-based development strategies that act upon the peculiarities of the territories they focus on through a mix of top-down and bottom-up logics.
... Con base en la literatura consultada, entendimos a la observación participante como una técnica de descripción y registro sistemático de datos sobre las prácticas y situaciones sociales mientras acontecen en sus escenarios naturales (Guber, 2001;Kaluwich, 2005;Jociles Rubio, 2018). En acuerdo con Guber (2001), el investigador necesita partir de una temática predeterminada, que puede ser provisoria, aceptar esta condición permite abrir la percepción del investigador a la emergencia de temáticas aparentemente inconexas con las dimensiones de observación iniciales. ...
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This article presents research on the experiences of high school students. The study's particular interest is to understand the configuration of subjectivities mediated by digital technologies. The theoretical perspective addresses experiences and is centered on exploring the logic of subjectivation and the notion of sociability. The fieldwork assumed a qualitative view through observation, focus groups, and photovoice. The findings show that digital technologies are more of a support of sociability, through which young people use their technology-mediated experiences to meet and talk, as well as to discuss and negotiate. Such sociability generates spaces for reflexiveness and action, and the configuration of processes of subjectivation.
Hospital waste is a special category of waste that is quite detrimental as it may contain infectious and contaminated substances thus posing serious threats to the environment and public health. The knowledge of quantities and characteristics of hospital waste, helps in proper management. This study aimed at waste quantification, characterization, and assessment of the general waste management patterns at Mulago referral hospital, Uganda. The experiment was carried out for 30 consecutive days and solid waste generated within 24 hours were collected from different departments of the Mulago hospital in designated containers, sorted and weighed then grouped into general waste and clinical waste. The study established that general waste comprises 72% while clinical waste is 28% of the total waste generated in the facility. The average solid waste generation rate was found to be at 111.4kg per day with wards producing the highest quantities, followed by operating theatres, kitchen, public areas, laundry, and administration. Using the individualized Rapid Assessment Tool (I-RAT), it was found that Mulago hospital's authorities are aware of policies surrounding the handling and disposal methods of waste and gaps were observed in compliance. The average solid waste sorting compliance in the hospital was found very low, 37.4%, with the highest compliance in operating theatres at 62.8%, followed by the administration 51.7%, kitchen 32%, wards 27.3%, public areas 25.6%, and laundry 25%. The analysis of the discharged liquid waste revealed that Lead, Nitrate, COD, and BOD concentrations were beyond the permissible limits. Therefore, we recommend commitment on compliance with policies and legislation measures to safeguard the workers and environment. Technically, we recommend a bio-chemical pre-treatment of wastewater for the abatement of the pollutants prior to discharging it into the environment. Also, to minimize waste mixing and spillage at the waste generation points as a result of inappropriate bins, we recommend a combined 0.062 m3 capacity containers for general waste and 0.024 m3 for clinical waste in all hospital units.
Philosophy is a science of knowledge, and it concentrates on epistemology, ontology, axiology, and methodology. However, researchers have understated the role of philosophy, even though it is very interwoven with research. This chapter is to position data analysis in philosophy and show its epistemological and ontological underpinnings using the philosophy of perception. The methods are a desk study, literature reviews, and lecture notes. Traditionally, the definition of knowledge is ‘justified true belief' (JTB). The JTB is placed in the context of empiricism, rationalism, and/or dualism. These are further linked to ontological materialism, idealism, and dualism. The chapter has tried to draw a relationship with perception's direct realism, indirect realism, and dualism respectively. In conclusion, knowledge is justified by good evidence (empiricism) and reason (rationalism). The chapter recommends researchers utilise the philosophy of the sciences in order to improve on their research.
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Background: Neonatal sepsis is responsible for a considerable burden of morbidity and mortality in sub-Saharan African countries. Outcomes from neonatal sepsis are worsening due to increasing rates of antimicrobial resistance. Sub-optimal Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) practices of health care workers and caregivers are important drivers of infection transmission. The Chatinkha Neonatal Unit at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Blantyre, Malawi has experienced multiple outbreaks of neonatal sepsis, associated with drug resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae. We aimed to understand the barriers to implementation of optimal IPC focusing on hand hygiene practice. Methods: We used a qualitative research methodology to meet the study aim. Combining participant observation (PO) over a seven-month period with semi structured interviews (SSI) to provide an in-depth understanding of activities relating to hygiene and IPC existing on the ward. Results: While most staff and some caregivers, had a good understanding of ideal IPC and understood the importance of good handwashing practices, they faced substantial structural limitations, and scarce resources (both material and human) which made implementation challenging. For staff, the overwhelming numbers of patients meant the workload was often unmanageable and practicing optimal IPC was challenging. Caregivers lacked access to basic amenities, including linen and chairs, meaning that it was almost impossible for them to maintain good hand hygiene. Limited access to soap and the erratic water supply for both caregivers and healthcare workers further worsened the situation. Communication challenges between different cadres of staff and with patient caregivers meant that those handling neonates and cleaning the wards were often unaware of outbreaks of drug resistant infection. Conclusion: For IPC to be improved, interventions need to address the chronic shortages of material resources and create an enabling environment for HCWs and patient caregivers.
This chapter analyses how the various donors structured their interventions (e.g. whether they worked through NGOs, projects or programmes or government ministries) to develop a balanced view of what implications this has on the implementation of PD. The focus here is on the three interrelated PD principles of ownership, alignment and harmonisation because of their particular relevance to donor actions. On ownership, for example, perceptions of how different donors support national development strategies and important policy processes are of interest. Under this principle, we also examine “control” aspects—how much discretion Kenya as a recipient has over donors’ decisions in the sector. In this case, a more substantial leadership role for the government would be more desirable. On alignment, analysis shifts to how well the designs of donors’ interventions fit in with the key elements of Kenya’s agriculture sector strategy. However, much less is expected from this alignment analysis because the different entities could legitimately choose different interpretations of the country’s development strategy. Lastly, the analysis on harmonisation examines the extent to which donors utilised the established government systems. Here, apart from using the country systems, donors have varying options to choose from—for example, some establish their mechanisms, others use the private sector or work through NGOs. In contrast, others select a hybrid arrangement that uses multiple mechanisms. Implications of the donors’ choices regarding the system of implementation are a significant part of the discussions in this chapter.
This chapter provides an overview of the leading players in Kenya’s agriculture sector who are also pivotal in the implementation of the aid-funded activities of the sector. Having dedicated the previous chapters to the details of PD, how it has become a central part of donor rhetoric, and the challenges affecting the state and policy-making, this chapter narrows into the actual practicalities of policy implementation. It details the views of diverse individuals at the heart of the sector. It provides an analysis of their understanding of the important issues surrounding the sector and operations of donor-funded programmes in particular. The chapter also attempts to situate the power dynamics in the decision-making hierarchy among different stakeholders and the broader lessons that this brings to understanding the diffusion of aid effectiveness principles. Of interest is to show how the agency is expropriated in the sector and the influence of context and structure on the abilities of different players in making feasible decisions for the sector.
This chapter is dedicated to examining the processes through which policy and comprehensive sector strategies are developed from the national development plan. The chapter begins with an in-depth discussion of the different processes that lead to agricultural policy initiation. It builds on the issues around the aid effectiveness architecture discussed in the previous chapter. Through this, we explore the roles of different stakeholders and the impact of their contribution to the policy processes and the principles of aid effectiveness in particular. In investigating agriculture policy-making processes, there was a realisation that policy is not limited to the formal public policy processes that lead to policy documents, bills or acts of parliament but that there were other ways (e.g. senior government officials’ pronouncements or in the course of implementation of the donor-funded programme) in which policies came to be spelt out and implemented. This particular aspect of agriculture policy is discussed in detail in this section, highlighting how different players have come to influence the agriculture sector. Next is an analysis of the public policy-making processes where the focus is on the role played by small-scale farmers compared to other sector actors. Finally, we also discuss the making of the country’s agriculture strategy. While policy spells out the general guidelines for the sector, the strategy articulates the government’s specific commitments and objectives for the sector to be achieved within a stated period. In Kenya, the agricultural strategy has often been lifted out of the country’s prevailing development plan. It is perhaps the only other major development blueprint that must be developed to guide the country in meeting agriculture sector obligations in the National Development Plan. Again in this section, I seek to elucidate the structure of the process, the roles assumed by the various players, their actions’ impact and the ensuing power relations. The last part is a conclusion in which the implications of the findings are further discussed.
This chapter explores the major issues that have shaped the dominant ideas around aid and aid effectiveness over the years. Of particular interest to this study is the emergence of the international activism on aid effectiveness which subsequently gave birth to aid effectiveness principles and what is now widely referred to as the Paris Declaration (frequently referred to as PD in this study). Although there is enormous scholarly work known collectively as Aid Effectiveness Literature (AEL), all of these have been preoccupied with whether aid is effective or, much less, on the more important question of theorising on how to make aid work more effectively. Consequently, despite being in the limelight of development practitioners and the subject of international forums, Paris Declaration has received much less attention in terms of scholarly inquiry. This chapter highlights the available literature, including what specifically applies to the African agriculture sector. The literature on international policy transfer/diffusion is also critically discussed. In this, we reflect on mechanisms such as coercion learning, competition, cooperative interdependence and symbolic imitation, among others and attempt to situate aid effectiveness principles in the operations of these mechanisms. Finally, the chapter contextualises PD on the broader development and post-development theory.
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This autoethnographic story shows the process of tending the graves of family members. In the past, the author reluctantly accompanied her mother on her visits to the family cemetery. Once there, she took on the role of distant observer as her mother took care of the family cemetery plots. When her mother becomes disabled, the author begins to arrange the flowers on the graves. Doing so leads her to examine the meaning of visiting the cemetery, feel and connect with her losses, and consider the customs she wants to be part of her own death. When her mother dies, the next generation of women in the family—the author, her sister, and sister-in-law—take on the role of tending the graves, connected in their love and respect for their mother and their feelings of family and family responsibility. This story examines the meanings of family rituals around death and how they are passed from generation to generation. URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0302285
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Rev.& expanded from Case study research in education,1988.Incl.bibliographical references,index