Participant observation data are only as good as the researchers’ observations, descriptions, and notes, according to Natasha Mack et al. (2005). Participant observers must be prepared, know how to assess their behavior, be objective, take good notes, and use the data throughout all data collection activities, including those associated with other methods, in order to obtain these data.
How do I prepare for participant observation?
First, know what the research is about. A thorough understanding of the study will help you stay focused during participant observation. Once you have a clear idea of what the research is about, you can determine specific objectives for the participant observation activity. It may be useful to create a list of things to pay attention to, and either write it in your field notebook or keep it in your pocket for quick reference. Note, however, that it is most important to keep your eyes open for scenarios you had not expected to encounter, which may suggest new directions for the research.
In preparing for the participant observation activity, it is useful to find out as much as you can about the site where you will be participating or observing and about any activities in which you might participate. If necessary, visit the scene and make initial observations before you set up your official data collection time.
Also, take some time to rehearse how you will describe or explain yourself and your purpose, if necessary. Similarly, establish in advance your own personal shorthand conventions – that is, how you will indicate and abbreviate the words and concepts you are likely to use in your notetaking.
Know how you will separate your objective observations from your interpretations; how you will indicate men, women, and children, and their ages; and so forth. (More information on taking field notes is presented later in this section.)
How should I behave during participant observation?
The most important behavioral principle in participant observation is to be discreet. Try not to stand out or to affect the natural flow of activity. One way to do this is to behave in a way similar to the people around you, such as praying in a religious setting or drinking in a bar. It also helps to be aware of local meanings for particular body language (positions and gestures, for example) and tones of voice, as well as what types of physical and eye contact are locally appropriate in different situations.
Field staff engaged in participant observation always need to use good judgment in determining whether to participate in certain types of activities. You should not engage in illegal or sexual activities with study participants, for example. You should exercise caution about the amount of alcohol you consume in a social setting. It may be socially appropriate to buy a beer for someone or to accept their offer to buy you one, but it may not be necessary to actually consume alcohol in any quantity.
What should I document?
Simply put, document what you observe, taking care to distinguish it from both your expectations and your interpretation of what you observe.
It is important to document what is actually taking place rather than what you were expecting to see and to not let your expectations affect your observations. The purpose of participant observation is partly to confirm what you already know (or think you know) but is mostly to discover unanticipated truths. It is an exercise of discovery.
Also, avoid reporting your interpretation rather than an objective account of what you observe. To interpret is to impose your own judgment on what you see. For example, an interpretive description of a street corner might be that it was “dirty and overly crowded.” An objective description would be that “there was garbage everywhere and there were so many people around that it was difficult to move.” The danger of not separating interpretation from observation is that your interpretations can turn out to be wrong. This can lead to invalid study results, which can ultimately be damaging for the study population. You can work on reporting neutral observations by questioning yourself often about your assertions. Ask yourself, “What is my evidence for this claim?”
How do I take field notes?
Handwritten notes, later converted into computer files, are often the only way to document certain participant observation activities, such as informal or spontaneous interviews, observation, and generally moving about in the field. Notes from participant observation – like those from interviews and focus groups – are called “field notes,” and they are written directly into field notebooks. The tips on page 24 offers some suggestions for formatting and writing field notes.
How do I expand my notes?
Following each participant observation event, data collectors need to expand their notes into rich descriptions of what they have observed. This involves transforming your raw notes into a narrative and elaborating on your initial observations, a task most conveniently done using a computer. If no computer is available within a day or so, you should expand your notes by hand. expanding your notes involves the following:
- Scheduling time to expand your notes, preferably within 24 hours from the time field notes are made. If you cannot expand your notes the same day as data collection, try to do so first thing the next morning. This makes it less likely that you will forget what an abbreviation stands for or that you will have trouble remembering what you meant. Also, the sooner you review your notes, the greater the chance that you will remember other things that you had not written down. Good note-taking often triggers the memory, but with the passage of time, this opportunity is lost.
- Expanding your shorthand into sentences so that anyone can read and understand your notes. Use a separate page in your field notebook if necessary. Depending on circumstances, you might be able to expand and type your notes into a computer file at the same time.
- Composing a descriptive narrative from your shorthand and key words. A good technique for expanding your notes is to write a narrative describing what happened and what you learned about the study population and setting. This narrative may be the actual document you produce as your expanded notes. Be sure that you create separate, clearly labelled sections to report your objective observations versus your interpretations and personal comments.
- Identifying questions for follow-up. Write down questions about participant responses that need further consideration or follow-up, issues to pursue, new information, etc. This continual adjustment of the research questions and techniques is part of the iterative nature of qualitative research.
- Reviewing your expanded notes and adding any final comments. If you have not typed your expanded notes directly into a computer file, add any additional comments on the same page or on a separate page. If you use additional pages, be sure to clearly cross-reference new notes with the original pages in case another staff member types your notes.