Edited by Larry Dwyer, Alison Gill and Neelu Seetaram
19 Participant observation Nuno F. Ribeiro and Eric W. Foemmel NATURE OF PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION AND ITS EVOLUTION A cornerstone research method of cultural anthropology and sociology, and widely used in a number of other social sciences, participant observation falls under the broad umbrella of ethnographic fieldwork (Bernard, 2006). Participant observation consists of engaging in regular and prolonged interaction with the people the researcher seeks to study – immersing oneself in the participants’ local environment – in order to learn more about obvious and not-so-obvious aspects of their lives and culture. DeWalt and DeWalt (2011, p. 1) define it as “a method in which an observer takes part in the daily activities, rituals, interactions, and events of the people being studied as one of the means of learning the explicit and tacit aspects of their culture.” Moreover, by observing and participating in daily life as much as possible, the researcher is able to overcome participants’ natural distrust towards outsiders, becomes part of the living landscape and as a result is able to collect a myriad of data that would be impossible to obtain otherwise. Thus the researcher is saddled with a dual task: she is at the same time the investigator and the data collection instrument. Both distinct from and complementary to other means of data collection such as semistructured and structured interviewing, questionnaire research, focus groups, and so forth, the nature of participant observation is primarily qualitative (Jennings, 2001; but see Schensul et al., 1999), although the data produced through participant observation...
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