Research Methods Intro: Participant Observation – A Brief Primer

In interacting with Maori individuals, the indigenous people of New Zealand, I found a few techniques particularly helpful. First, being an anthropologist requires a degree of “suspension of disbelief.” You are there to learn other peoples’ stories, stories that will sometimes clash with what you yourself believe. People will be sensitive to your disbelief, so focus on trying to see through the eyes of multiple community members, attending to them and your memories of them more than to your personal reactions.

Of course, sometimes, silence is awkward. When you must take a personal stance, try to make it ecumenical. For example, in a meeting of a smaller Maori health trust, we had just had morning prayer (Pai Marire) and were discussing religious orientations. I am agnostic. I mentioned that when I prayed, I prayed as a calling out, without specifying to what or whom I was calling out, or how often I did so. My response was tailored to show spiritual focus without identifying myself as having distinct, potentially troubling, beliefs. If I had been a firm atheist, as opposed to an agnostic, I could have emphasized that I believed in certain values – and listed a set of generically acceptable values.

Most of the time, however, you should be listening intently, not talking. Pay active attention to their facial expressions and gestures. Let yourself mimic these expressions, subtly. You should also be comparing what they’re saying to what they’ve said and what other people have said. You can draw out a more in depth response by looking really excited by an idea or asking a clarifying question. Affirm their emotions by your facial expressions or, more rarely, by offering a label (which they then might accept or reject.)

Make sure every conversation is about them. The primary logic of the ethnographic process is that subtle, iterative, queries and challenges combined with careful observation over a long period of time gleans insight we cannot find elsewhere. When doing fieldwork, you’re constantly seeking a group’s intersubjectivity; their overlapping impressions of a topic. You want to describe that intersubjectivity and understand how it arises.

You, of course, may contribute to this intersubjectivity. However, if you are approaching a community in order to advocate for change, be honest from the beginning. An anthropologist tells a full story from the perspective of multiple community members. She does not spy. Doing so hurts not only your reputation but every anthropologist’s – I was actually called a “spy” by one gentleman. I nodded in acknowledgment of his concern and then continued listening and asking questions. By the end of my time in New Zealand, I had won his trust, but it would have been more efficient if he had not been biased by the actions of one of my predecessors.

Research Methods Intro: Ethnography – How Do People Actually Talk, Think, and Behave With Regards To Race?

If we have the resources, it is helpful to start with a qualitative, particularly an ethnographic, perspective. This perspective helps us to generate a “thick description” of the phenomenon in question. This process provides inspiration for quantitative work and helps us to interpret quantitative results.

Relevant to our intervention-oriented research question – we can identify areas of contradiction and areas of lack awareness in the way that our participants think about race, which can then inform interventions. We can build upon their existing wisdom as well. We can then frame our interventions in a way that is accessible to participants – that shows an understanding of their perspectives.

Showing understanding can allow us to be supportive and affirming even as we challenge them in ways that could produce a general sense of threat. Our intervention depends on challenging, not threatening, our participants.

We could, for example, select two communities, one racially diverse and the other majority white. Then we could conduct a participant observation study – meeting with community members (white and non-white) and spending time with them formally and informally.

Formal contact might be in the form open-ended interviews in which we ask community members about racial attitudes, attitudes towards prejudice, interracial interaction, and discrimination. For my own experience as anthropologist, click here. We could also sit in on meetings in which community members are discussing related issues, including diversity but also including economic or political issues that they may see as relevant to race. Using both individual interviews and a record of public utterances, formal study can juxtapose public and private expression.

Informal contact may be more rare and will depend upon the rapport that you have built in formal interviews. In “hanging out” with community members, you may encounter a very different, more spontaneous, public and private expression. However, spontaneity does not mean that the expression of the attitude is “pure.” By talking with people and asking questions you inevitably influence what they later express and how they express it, at least to you. You’ve made ideas and the expression of ideas salient that may have only been inchoate before you began your research. Last, no matter how much rapport your develop, some ideas will not be expressed.

To get at those ideas, we can employ structured, interview, surveys, implicit attitudes tests, and behavioral experiments.

Research Methods Intro: Identifying Variables – Thinking About Race

What variables are relevant to my postulated practical question of how to change people’s use of stereotyping, with regard to racial attitudes?

Well, first I brainstorm a set of variables.

Let’s look at an output from that process:

What are the different characteristics of stereotyping that I see around me?:

  1. Thinking of individuals as belonging to the same “group” or being from the same category of people.
  2. Attributing traits to either a) all members of that group or b) most members of that group.
  3. Attributing traits based on a) observation of a single member of the group, b) observations from an initial encounter with multiple members of the group, c) observations based on the totality of encounters with group members, d) observation of representations of the group in the media, e) popular ways of talking about the group, f) traits attributed to the group that help justify group-based inequalities, g) traits that group members have by definition – believing in Jesus and being a practicing evangelical Christian, for example, h) observations based on a statistical average, i) observations based on a statistical average, taking into account the variability around that average.

With two ways of looking at 2 and nine ways of looking at 3, we already have 18 possible definitions of stereotyping, just from one brainstorming session by one person. In choosing to change the way people stereotype, we have to target a particular type of stereotyping and either eliminate it or change it into a different type of stereotyping.

For example, I might want to take someone who takes 3-d (observations of a group in the media) and infers 2-a (that all members of a group has that trait), and shift them to 3-i (data driven observations about the mean and standard deviation for that group) and 2-b (applied to the way they think about most people in that group).

Ok – we have a goal – now what are different ways of measuring these variables before we design our intervention?