Angrosino Rethinking Observation Essay

Volume 6, No. 2, Art. 43 – May 2005

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 exercises for teaching observation techniques to researchers-in-training.

Key words: participant observation, qualitative research methods, field notes

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 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 study (ERLANDSON, HARRIS, SKIPPER, & ALLEN, 1993). DeMUNCK and 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 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 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 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:

  • 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 invited.

  • It reduces the incidence of "reactivity" or people acting in a certain way when they are aware of being observed.

  • It helps the researcher to develop questions that make sense in the native language or are culturally relevant.

  • 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.

  • It is sometimes the only way to collect the right data for one's study (pp.142-3). [12]

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]

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 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:

  • 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.

  • 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 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.

  • 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."

  • 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 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]

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 collecting 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 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 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 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:

  • 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.

  • The second type, focused observation, emphasizes observation supported by interviews, in which the participants' insights guide the researcher's decisions about what to observe.

  • 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 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 agreement between the researcher and the participants as to what is going on. Sociologists, 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 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]

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 situation;

  • 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 insights.

  • 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:

  • 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]

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]

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 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 observes;

  • 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]

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 exercises 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 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]

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 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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Volume 12, No. 3, Art. 5 – September 2011

Observation of Online Communities: A Discussion of Online and Offline Observer Roles in Studying Development, Cooperation and Coordination in an Open Source Software Environment

Sladjana V. Nørskov & Morten Rask

Abstract: This paper addresses the application of observation to online settings with a special focus on observer roles. It draws on a study of online observation of a virtual community, i.e. an open source software (OSS) community. The paper examines general and specific advantages and disadvantages of the observer roles in online settings by relating these roles to the same roles assumed in offline settings. The study suggests that under the right circumstances online and offline observation may benefit from being combined as they complement each other well. Quality issues and factors important to elicit trustworthy observational data from online study settings, such as OSS communities, are discussed. A proposition is made concerning how threats to credibility and transferability in relation to online observation (i.e. lack of richness and detail, risk of misunderstandings) can be diminished, while maintaining the level of dependability (which is potentially high due to a greater degree of anonymity and "isolation" in online settings). The paper thus suggests that the less participative the researcher's online observer role is, the more s/he should consider introducing offline data collection techniques rather than adopting a more participative role in the observed online setting. This methodological discussion forms the basis for making a well-considered choice of online observer role rather than passively sliding into a role assigned by the setting.

Key words: online data; observation; observer roles; mailing lists; open source software communities

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Qualitative Participant Observation of Mailing Lists

3.Observer Roles Offline and Online

3.1The complete participant

3.2The participant-as-observer

3.3The observer-as-participant

3.4The complete observer

4. An Illustrative Case Study of Online and Offline Observation of an Open Source Software Community

4.1 Introduction

4.2 Findings

5. Discussion: Anonymity and Identity in Online Observation and their Effect on the Research Quality

6. Conclusion and Implications

6.1 Implications for further research






1. Introduction

This paper discusses online and offline observer roles in the study of open source software (OSS) development, cooperation and coordination. It meets the call for research into how OSS development is organized (KRISHNAMURTHY, 2005), especially in relation to the cooperation and coordination mechanisms used to manage distributed development teams (CROWSTON, 2005). Methodologically, it positions itself in a grounded, ethnographic research tradition (LIN, 2005). The inadequacy of traditional theories in explaining OSS (BITZER & SCHRÖDER, 2006a) testifies to the need for proper methodologies for studying the OSS phenomenon. As argued by CROWSTON, LI, WEI, ESERYEL and HOWISON (2007), the qualitative research method "aims at building understanding of, rather than just measuring, development practices" (p.564). In line with this argument, the paper focuses on qualitative research methods and in particular on a qualitative participant observation technique, as we find it most suitable for investigating social processes and practices in OSS development. [1]

The OSS phenomenon has been held up as one of the primary phenomena of the nascent networked information economy (BENKLER, 2006), which has given rise to new and effective, large-scale cooperative efforts through peer production of information, knowledge and culture. This new type of collaboration (BENKLER, 2006; FRIEDMAN, 2006; TAPSCOTT & WILLIAMS, 2006) is made possible by the availability of new, low-cost collaborative infrastructure of the Internet, which has been the critical tool for facilitating the OSS development (BITZER & SCHRÖDER, 2006b). Differently put, virtual communities, which are the natural context for OSS development, cooperation and coordination, are ideal settings for studying innovative ways of product development (VON HIPPEL, 2001; VON HIPPEL & VON KROGH, 2003). [2]

Observation as a method of data collection and analysis enables the researcher to gather data across perspectives, time and in the phenomenon's natural setting (BABBIE, 1986; PATTON, 2002). It may therefore reveal implicit problems and offer important insight into and information about informal aspects of interactions and relations, which can be difficult to obtain through, for example, interviews. The data collection technique in online observation is grounded in interactive Internet-based (i.e. virtual) communities. Data gathered through online observation is not merely disembodied exchanges of text. If online communities are capable of existing and growing (e.g. open source communities) when individuals electronically gather, exchange and share information and knowledge, cooperate and develop information and communication technology-based products, then it could be argued that the "texts" they exchange must contain information on the various aspects of the relations between the communicating individuals. This, in turn, can constitute the foundation for studying power relations, work coordination, cooperation, product development, conflict, work culture and many other aspects of professional work-related processes in virtual communities. [3]

Computer mediated communication (CMC) has been studied from various perspectives and with a variety of methods relevant to the focus of this paper, including, among others: ethnographic accounts of specific virtual places (KLINE & MYERS, 1999), analysis of intra-organizational networks (COHEN & SPROULL, 1995), laboratory experiments comparing face-to-face and CMC (KIESLER, SIEGEL & McGUIRE, 1984; DUBROVSKY, KIESLER & SETHNA, 1991), electronic surveys used to investigate work organization in OSS communities (LAKHANI & VON HIPPEL, 2003) and observation in textual online settings (MARKHAM, 1998; HINE, 2000; LEANDER & McKIM, 2003; HOURAHINE & HOWARD, 2004). Much research has addressed the complexities and issues related to the adoption of offline social science-research methodologies to online settings (e.g. JONES, 1995, 1997, 1998; MANN & STEWART, 2000; DOMÍNGUEZ et al., 2007). Surprisingly, less specific work has been done on issues relating to the researcher/observer roles in online observation. Participation and isolation as the central design characteristics of the different observer roles are likely to have distinct implications in online compared with offline conditions. As the Internet becomes more and more integrated into our everyday lives, the importance of applying and adapting research methodologies to virtual communities increases as well. It is important to emphasize that the Internet is interactive by nature (TSOUKAS, 1997), which makes it imperative to understand the assimilation of the observer into the observed field in an online setting. For example, although the role of an investigator observing websites may, at first, be perceived as a complete observer role, the existence of personalized dynamic interactive websites like, which configure the website based upon earlier interaction, makes it questionable whether a complete observer role is attainable in similar cases. Consequently, the interactivity of the Internet may lead to unnoticed and unintended changes in observer roles. [4]

This paper systematically compares qualities of online and offline observation methods with the help of a case study of an OSS community. It is thus a meta-study of observation as a research method. In particular, the paper discusses issues connected to the application of observation in general and the observer roles in online mailing lists in particular. Mailing lists have been chosen, since they are the primary communication media in OSS communities. As such, they intimately reflect the nature of organizational practices, process and structures of those communities. This paper draws upon a study of an OSS community to illustrate and discuss general and specific implications of applying this method in online environments. This case study employed both offline and online observation, and it thus illustrates the role of the complete observer in an online setting and the role of the observer-as-participant in an offline setting. The study revealed the issues of anonymity and identity control as particularly relevant for judging the quality of research based on observation method. Online observation roles are thus elaborated and discussed in relation to anonymity and identity control in online settings, and their implications for dependability, credibility, transferability and confirmability—the widely acknowledged criteria for assessing the trustworthiness of qualitative research (LINCOLN & GUBA, 1985). Overall, the paper finds that studies may benefit much from combining offline and online methods of observation, as each contributes to the uncovering of different aspects of collaboration in online communities, and each offers different levels of analytical detail. [5]

The next section introduces a qualitative participant-observation technique and considers this technique in relation to research of online settings and mailing lists in particular. Section 3 outlines four specific offline observer roles and discusses how they can be applied in studying OSS communities. An illustrative case study of online and offline observations of an OSS community is presented in Section 4. Based on the findings and insights from the case study, Section 5 discusses and elaborates on the implications of aspects of anonymity and identity control on the four quality criteria in relation to the observation roles in online settings. Lastly, Section 6 presents the conclusion and implications for further research on online observer roles. [6]

2. Qualitative Participant Observation of Mailing Lists

The literature distinguishes between two overall types of observation: 1. unstructured observation and 2. structured observation. The former is a qualitative technique often unstructured in nature, and it seeks to uncover the subtle nuances of meaning in the behavior of social actors; the latter is a quantitative technique concerned with the frequency of actions (SAUNDERS, LEWIS & THORNHILL, 2000). The degree of predetermined structure is hence a particularly noteworthy difference between these two types of observation (ROBSON, 2002). Another related difference concerns their degree of formality. Whereas a formal approach to observation entails a large degree of structure and coding schemes containing predetermined categories for recording the observations, the informal approach involves less structure and allows the researcher substantial flexibility and freedom regarding data collection and recording, as no categories are predetermined (ibid.). Although unstructured observation often makes use of the informal approach, it can at the same time be systematic—not by virtue of its predetermined observational categories, but by virtue of its logical inference system (BØLLINGTOFT, 2005). This paper focuses on the qualitative unstructured observation technique applicable in a particular type of online setting: mailing lists. [7]

Online observation refers to textual exchanges that can be of both a synchronous (i.e. simultaneous, such as chat) and an asynchronous nature (i.e. non-simultaneous, such as e-mail). It takes place within mailing lists (discussions lists), chat, wikis, blogs with their commenting systems, and other interactive social media platforms. This paper is interested in asynchronous textual exchanges on mailing lists as a site for observational research, because mailing lists are the primary communication media for hundreds of thousands of production communities, such as OSS communities (GUTWIN et al., 2004; SHIHAB et al., 2010). In spite of this empirical limitation, our paper is indeed relevant for both the pre-Web 2.0 and the Web 2.0 types of interactive social media, because both are capable of facilitating participatory user-centered collaboration, as the example of OSS so finely proves. [8]

A mailing list has been defined as "a group of email addresses that can be contacted by sending a single message to one address: the list's address" (MANN & STEWART, 2000, p.12). It is a discussion group where a particular topic is discussed via e-mail distribution. Some mailing lists have restricted access, as participants need to be moderated before joining the exchange of messages. [9]

Accepting that the Internet as a technology has limitations as a communication medium and as an arena for qualitative methods of data collection and analysis (MANN & STEWART, 2000), this paper focuses on one of the ways the Internet lends itself to social inquiry through qualitative observation. Qualitative research uses many methods to collect contextually situated, rich and descriptive data with the purpose of gaining an understanding of human experience or relationships within a culture or a system (SILVERMAN, 2000). Observation is one of the ways to generate qualitative findings. It has been characterized as "fieldwork descriptions of activities, behaviour, actions, conversations, interpersonal interactions, organizational or community processes, or any other aspect of observable human experience" (PATTON, 2002, p.4). This definition is also applicable to the online environment, which allows the researcher to study a multiplicity of social phenomena through a variety of online communication media. [10]

Acquiring a basic understanding of a particular phenomenon is often accomplished in isolation from the natural context, which prevents the researcher from obtaining a complete picture of that phenomenon. This situation is remedied by the method of data collection and analysis presented here, which enables the researcher to gather data from multiple perspectives at different times and in the phenomenon's natural setting (BABBIE, 1986; PATTON, 2002). Using CMC as a means of studying human behavior and interaction has been found to minimize the constraints of time and space (MANN & STEWART, 2000). Thus, geographical distance is overcome, and individuals who would otherwise not be reached are significantly easier to get into touch with using this approach. In this case, CMC is seen as a tool for studying the virtual trace and outline of individuals, their representations (MARKHAM, 1998). However, it can also be viewed as a place to meet and interact with others, or as a way of being, since Internet users express their self through text (ibid.). CMC can accordingly be studied as a cultural sphere where individuals develop specific forms of communication, practices and/or specific identities. Embarking on a research journey into these new social dimensions generates a set of questions about how existing (offline) research methods will apply. Considering vast research populations, multiple sites of interaction and often anonymous informants, these methods ought to be adapted. [11]

3. Observer Roles Offline and Online

To fully grasp online observation as a data collection technique, we present and discuss observer roles in relation to offline observations. In general, observation can be either 1. overt or 2. covert (STAFFORD & STAFFORD, 1993). The research is considered overt when the researcher makes his/her intentions and objectives known and obtains permission to observe a situation, i.e. the subjects are thus aware that they are being observed/studied (ibid.). The research is considered covert when the researcher becomes an insider, i.e. the subjects are unaware of the researcher's identity and consider him/her as a group member (JORGENSEN, 1989). In between these two extreme roles, i.e. covert (complete insider) and overt (complete outsider), the investigator can assume hybrid observer roles, i.e. be an outsider or an insider to different degrees. Accordingly, four general options for (offline) observational approaches are found in the literature. They differ in terms of the degree of the observer assimilation into the observed field and fall into the following categories:1. the complete participant, 2. the participant-as-observer, 3. the observer-as-participant and 4. the complete observer (GOLD, 1958; SPRADLEY, 1980; BABBIE, 1986; JORGENSEN, 1989; STAFFORD & STAFFORD, 1993; FRANKFORT-NACHMIAS & NACHMIAS, 1996). [12]

3.1 The complete participant

The complete participant assumes an investigative role by becoming a full member of the observed group without revealing his/her own identity. One of the main reasons for choosing this observational approach is to avoid unduly influencing the observed setting (BABBIE, 1986), i.e. when individuals are aware that they are being observed, they may alter their behavior because to observe is to inevitably interact at some level. The data are also expected to be of greater value as the researcher can obtain more accurate information having been a member of the group for an extended period (STAFFORD & STAFFORD, 1993). However, this observer role raises ethical concerns, as the researcher is not honest about his/her real identity. Furthermore, another two issues in relation to this role are that: 1. the researcher may be so self-conscious about accidentally disclosing his/her true identity that s/he may fail to perform convincingly in the chosen role, and 2. the researcher may "go native," i.e. the informants' views become the researcher's and thereby the observer role is violated (GOLD, 1958, p.220). [13]

This observer role is also applicable in online settings. For example, a researcher studying the authority structure and power mechanisms in OSS communities would become a participant in and contributor to such a community. Depending on the type of mailing lists (restricted or public access) the researcher can, more or less easily, act as a participant by raising and answering questions as part of the mailing list dialogue. A basic requirement is, of course, that the researcher is familiar with the particular topic of the discussions. This provides the researcher with an opportunity to reach a deeper understanding of the investigated phenomena and uncover aspects that s/he would not be able to uncover through other means, e.g. interviews. [14]

3.2 The participant-as-observer

The participant-as-observer conducts the observations while acting as a full group member, but lets the subjects/informants know that they are under observation. Two potential problems may apply to this role according to GOLD (1958, p.221): 1. through interaction and subsequent identification with the researcher, the informant may become "too much of an observer," and 2. the researcher may over-identify with the informant, lose perspective, and thus "go native." These observations can be either informal or formal. [15]

For instance, the participant-as-observer studying an online OSS community would develop relationships with informants (i.e. other community members) over time. This would make him/her inclined to spend more time participating in than observing the interaction in the community. In formal observations s/he would, for example, conduct planned online interviews with the informants and make more or less structured observations of the communication on the community's mailing lists. On the other hand, there would be instances where s/he would engage in informal conversations and discussions and thereby make informal and unscheduled observations of informants online. Such informal observation could also include social events connected to the community conferences. [16]

3.3 The observer-as-participant

The observer-as-participant assumes the role of an observer through social interaction with the informants, but does not pretend to be an actual group member (BABBIE, 1986). In this role, the researcher's relationship to the informants remains strictly research-related and does not develop into a relationship (ADLER & ADLER, 1994). [17]

This role may also be put into practice in online settings, for example by observing the mailing list interaction of an OSS project in order to identify and learn more about the kinds of project roles assumed and exhibited by those on the list. Taking up the observer-as-participant role would involve more observation than participation and often short, structured one-visit interviews. Because of this brief and perhaps also superficial contact with the informants, there is an augmented risk of misunderstandings (GOLD, 1958). On the other hand, as pointed out by PEARSALL (1970), this role enjoys two advantages: 1. informants may be more willing to talk to "attentive strangers" than to individuals whom they know better, and 2. there is less "temptation either for the observer to go native or for the natives to try to include him permanently in their lives" (p.342). [18]

3.4 The complete observer

Finally, the complete observer avoids influencing the observed activities, keeping a distance to the observed interactions, thus approximating the traditional idea of the "objective" observer (ADLER & ADLER, 1994). This role is the common hands-off role where no interview is conducted. [19]

An example of the application of this role in online environment may be the investigator who observes how tasks are assigned in an OSS community. Hence, the investigator would follow the community's mailing lists and observe without taking part in the group's activities. The investigator would observe, for example, whether the tasks are assigned to the developers by others and, in that case, by whom, or whether the developers choose tasks on their own (i.e. self-assignment). The Internet creates the ideal conditions for unobtrusive observation as demanded by the complete observer role. However, this detachment from the observed interaction increases the risk of misunderstanding the observed and it involves a greater possibility of ethnocentrism (GOLD, 1958; BABBIE, 1986). It can be difficult to overcome one's prejudices against others' behavior, customs, etc. without the option of two-way dialogues. [20]

4. An Illustrative Case Study of Online and Offline Observation of an Open Source Software Community

4.1 Introduction

In a recent study, VUJOVIC (2007) examined how CMC affects work performance and coordination in an OSS community, and how such effects are dealt with. The OSS community investigated in this study is called TYPO3, and it has been public since the year 2000 and it is published and distributed under the GNU GPLv31). The TYPO3 system is a small to midsize enterprise class Content Management System (CMS) offering out-of-the-box operation2) with standard modules, such as news listing and archiving, events calendar, indexed search within PDF and Word files, e-commerce, e-mail newsletter facility, forum, guestbook, etc. TYPO3 is aimed at two different groups: authors as well as administrators and content managers. [21]

This project was chosen as an information-rich case, which could be studied in-depth in accordance with the study's research objective. According to the documentation available on the TYPO3 homepage, TYPO3 began experiencing fast growth in 2003 when the number of registered developers began to double on a yearly basis. This made it a suitable case for our study. Furthermore, its size and growth can be assumed to place an even greater demand on the communication within the project. TYPO3's Core Team members have played a central role in the community, since they contribute most of the source code and administer the design and development of the project on a voluntary basis. At the time when the study started, approximately half of these Core Team members (i.e. nine individuals) made up the project's Research & Development (R&D) Committee. This committee was the project's central coordination body as their responsibilities included supervising and coordinating development of the software; providing knowledge, contacts and financial support; and supervising and supporting community-driven teams. The R&D Committee members have been at the same time members of and contributors to the project's other teams and working groups. They were therefore found to be the most appropriate and crucial source of data for the purposes of this study. The informants were all male, all aged between mid 20s to late 30s, except one who was around 20. The youngest one was a student, while the rest of them were software developers and consultants. [22]

To examine how CMC affects work performance and coordination in an OSS community, and how such effects are dealt with, the study employed: observation of a two-day face-to-face meeting of the project's R&D Committee, observation of the interaction and communication within the R&D Committee on their mailing list (otherwise not open for public) during a period of five months and phone interviews with some of the R&D Committee's members. [23]

First, more than 18 hours were spent over a two-day period observing face-to-face (FTF) meetings between the R&D Committee members. This allowed the researcher to become familiar with the project, their discussion topics, issues they deal with, decision-making processes, problem-solving, etc. During the breaks, a number of short conversations were initiated. Detailed notes were taken after each break. The observations, together with the conversations, provided the researcher not only with an overview of the issues regularly addressed by the members, but it also accentuated various communication issues and thus provided important input to the subsequent identification of themes to be built into the semi-structured interviews. The investigator assumed the role of the observer-as-participant (GOLD, 1958; STAFFORD & STAFFORD, 1993; SAUNDERS et al., 2000), i.e. the investigator unobtrusively observed the Committee members and their communication during the meetings. However, during the breaks, the members approached the investigator who then engaged in short conversations, which were then used to diminish the probability of misunderstanding the observed (GOLD, 1958; BABBIE, 1986). Thus, it was difficult to maintain the role of the complete observer—the benefits and shortcomings related to this will be discussed in the findings section. Although it was highly useful to observe these face-to-face meetings, an online OSS community also needed to be studied in its natural environment. [24]

As a result, the investigator contacted the project leader who subsequently discussed with the rest of the R&D Committee, whether the investigator could also observe their communication on the mailing list. They all agreed to grant her access to the mailing list because they perceived their work as highly valuable and hoped that the research results would assist them in coping with certain organizational issues they were experiencing. Hence, the group members were all fully aware that the observer was a researcher and they also knew the purposes of her study. The researcher herself never participated in the mailing-list communication, thus trying to observe unnoticed to avoid influencing the group's communication in any way. Hence, she assumed the role of a complete observer in this online setting. Nonetheless, knowing that one is being observed is already an influence; however, its effects were unlikely to be significant, since the communication revolved around technical issues and discussions about coordination, to which the researcher did not have anything to contribute. [25]

Online observation consisted of reading all postings to the mailing list of the project's R&D Committee for a five-month period. Reading these messages allowed the researcher to become familiar with the wider scope, content and frequency of discussions; the contributions and roles of different individuals; work coordination and delegation; and to obtain a deeper insight into communication aspects. [26]

Although vast amounts of online communication were gathered, which were a potential source of rich data, the process also included a number of challenges. One of these challenges was that some of the things "said" in the online conversations (i.e. in the mailing list) contained implicit meanings or messages that were not entirely clear or self-evident to the researcher/observer because the contributors used various communication media, not only the one observed by the researcher. The online communication media used by the Committee members (besides the mailing list) included IRC, instant messaging and VoIP (Voice over IP, e.g. Skype) for private discussions. Other types of communication included phone conversations and face-to-face meetings. Thus, the researcher found that observing online communication exclusively through only one communication channel (i.e. the mailing list) sometimes was not enough. If the researcher does not have access to the conversations that take place through other communication media, the interpretation of data may therefore sometimes be more difficult and it may easily entail misunderstandings. Nonetheless, it was not feasible to access all private conversations occurring spontaneously among the members. However, including face-to-face observation and phone interviews made it possible to overcome the interpretation challenges mentioned. [27]

Another challenge identified was that in virtual communication settings body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. are important but at the same time absent sense-giving dimensions. The investigator, for example, noticed clues to, e.g. facial expressions and/or emotions, through emoticons. However, these could not fully replace the various meanings an individual's facial expressions, tone of voice and body language can convey. [28]

These two factors (restricted access to communication/interaction and reduced cues and social presence) were found to increase the risk of making the potentially rich online observational data poor in two ways: firstly by overlooking important issues (in the communication taking place) and secondly by misinterpreting statements. This problem was, however, reduced because of the (offline) observation of face-to-face meetings undertaken before the online observation. It had been highly useful to get to know the individuals "behind the e-mail addresses" in person prior to the online observations, as it had provided extra insight into their personality and character as well as additional project-related information that made it easier to detect and identify various implicit aspects in the mailing list communication relevant to further inquiry. At this point, phone interviews were employed. In general, the triangulation of data sources increased the accuracy and trustworthiness of the findings by offsetting the risk of overlooking important issues and misinterpretation of statements in online data. To put it another way, the obstacles related to restricted access to communication/interaction (taking place among the R&D Committee members through other communication channels) and reduced cues and social presence in the online observation of the mailing list were significantly offset by the use of offline observation and phone interviews. [29]

Qualitative techniques were used to analyze the data (EISENHARDT, 1989; MILES & HUBERMAN, 1994; STRAUSS & CORBIN, 1998) with an overall focus on work practices and with specific attention to grounded theory concepts. The grounded theory approach was chosen because it emphasizes the actor's own emergent interpretations and meanings (GLASER & STRAUSS, 1967) and involves the possibility of discovering the unanticipated (VAN MAANEN, 1998). This process was based on a comparative analysis (LOCKE 2001; STRAUSS & CORBIN, 1998), which helped discover latent patterns (GLASER, 2002) in the observational data (i.e. the two-day meeting and mailing list) and the phone interviews. Raw data were purposively selected in order to identify concepts and relationships relevant to the questions raised (STRAUSS & CORBIN, 1998). The interviews, observation notes (from the face-to-face meetings) and mailing list data were analyzed to develop categories for information of interest. After each category was named, the data were reread to ensure that the codes were correct (i.e. that they describe what is actually going on in the selected part of the data). Furthermore, the data were iteratively re-examined to trace confirmatory or contradictory data fragments. The category was discarded or revised if no other instances emerged. On the other hand, categories that occurred repeatedly were refined by adding descriptors. After identifying and refining numerous categories, the next step was to understand how they were related to each other in order to explore underlying connectedness as an aspect of causality (STRAUSS & CORBIN, 1998). Hence, they were organized into an explanatory scheme to ascertain how different categories fitted into a coherent picture of theoretical logic. [30]

4.2 Findings

The case study of online and offline observation in an OSS community illustrates the investigator's intention of becoming acquainted with OSS development primarily through observation in the natural context, namely the mailing list of the core developer group. The investigator acted as a complete observer as this role was the best alternative considering not only the possible (undesired) influence on the observed setting, but also her lack of technical knowledge and skills, which prevented her from assuming one of the fully participative roles. In other words, the complete observation was a learning process for the researcher. [31]

Throughout the research process, the investigator discovered the value and the usefulness of combining offline and online observation in order to minimize the disadvantages related to the online observation. This process involved two different observer roles, i.e. observer-as-participant and complete observer. The findings indicate that a researcher has better opportunities to proactively manage the observer role online than in an offline setting. For example, during the offline observations some committee members approached the researcher to provide her with their interpretations of what was going on at the meeting. One of them, for instance, felt that he was not being involved in decision-making and another one was distrustful of one particular member. While this can reveal valuable information, it can also increase the risk of taking sides and not remaining neutral when becoming an insider or a confidant. Here, a reflexive analysis of the context and the research process, including the techniques of decentering and recentering, were crucial for the research quality (BREUER & ROTH, 2003). These techniques involved creating a self-critical meta-perspective on the researcher's practices and reflecting upon and rearranging the research process (ibid.). [32]

Overall, the findings in the case study support the assumption of some similarity between the online and offline observer roles. Both as an offline and online complete observer, the researcher is observing from a distance and is isolated from the phenomena (i.e. no direct contact is permitted). In both roles/settings, the advantages are that the complete observer role most closely approximates the traditional ideal of the "objective" observer, while the potential disadvantages are lack of richness and detail, potential for misunderstanding and inaccuracy and the possibility of ethnocentrism, when one's prejudices cannot be confronted in two-way dialogues. However, the potential for incurring these disadvantages was found to be much greater in online than in offline observation due to the restricted access to communication/interaction, reduced social presence and reduced cues. [33]

In addition, this study found that it was more difficult to assume and maintain the complete observer role in an offline rather than in an online setting, where the actualized role became the observer-as-participant role. In this regard, the dissimilarities between the online and offline complete observer roles could be used to understand this need for role modification. Firstly, the social setting in an offline observation has a greater impact on the actualized observer role than in an online setting (as the above-mentioned example illustrates). In the offline setting in the presented case, direct contact and interplay were established immediately upon the investigator's arrival at the scene of the meeting, and she was no longer able to have the same level of control over participation. In the online setting, the observed social interaction was textual, which made it easier for the researcher to maintain a distanced complete observer role. Secondly, in an online setting, the researcher's presence and identity are more easily hidden than in an offline setting. This applies both in the case of covert and overt observation, which makes it easier for the complete observer role to remain "invisible." For instance, during the online observation the researcher was never addressed nor contacted. In contrast, in the offline setting in the present study, a covert observation was not possible and the observed actors then chose to interact with the researcher. [34]

To sum up, the case study illustrates that online and offline observation can be productive complementary methods whereby the researcher obtains more fine-grained control over identity and anonymity. This may improve dependability because in an online setting the researcher also enjoys more control over the communication process than in an offline setting as she can revise and reflect on her statements before articulating them. The credibility and transferability of the findings in an online setting can, nonetheless, be feeble because of potential lack of richness and detail and the potential for misunderstanding and inaccuracy. Offline observation can, to some degree, strengthen the credibility and transferability by allowing more direct contact or interplay with the observed group members. Based on this recognition, the argument can be made that combining offline and online observation may significantly improve the quality of the research. [35]

5. Discussion: Anonymity and Identity in Online Observation and their Effect on the Research Quality

Besides the fact that the online observation of mailing lists and forums is generally easier and involves less complicated access (for covert or overt observation) than many offline settings, the findings discussed above suggest that the aspects of anonymity and identity differ between online and offline observation, which has implications for credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability. This section will elaborate on the implications of these dimensions with respect to the four observation roles in an online setting only. [36]

Online observation allows a high degree of anonymity for all observer roles, when needed. MARKHAM (2004) notes that the anonymity granted by certain types of CMC allows individuals to create alternate identities online and the ability to disappear from interaction at any time. Hence, online settings enable participants to form their identities detached from their "real-world bodies" (TURKLE, 1995). MARKHAM (2004) furthermore argues that this leads to a feeling of increased control, e.g. control over the content and form of the message, over the presentation of oneself and over others' perceptions of the self. Identity thus seems to become a more controllable element in virtual rather than physical settings. This indicates that researchers can vary and adapt their observation roles more online than offline. Certain characteristics, which are found to disturb the observed interaction or to keep the researcher from accessing the setting, can remain unknown to the observed subjects. For instance, characteristics such as age, gender and race are invisible online, unless the researcher chooses to reveal them (MANN & STEWART, 2000). [37]

As a result, researchers have a high degree of control over their online identities, i.e. what and how much about themselves to reveal when they are assuming the online roles of complete participant, participant-as-observer, observer-as-participant and complete observer. However, this degree of control will also depend on the type of CMC utilized. In public forums and mailing lists, full control can be attained. The control over identity is less in a private/restricted mailing list setting, where the researcher can only get access by requesting permission, which would usually entail that the subjects will get somewhat acquainted with the researcher or, at least, with his/her purposes of research/observation. [38]

Moreover, the control aspect is also pertinent to the possibility of revising and reflecting upon the researchers' statements before articulating them, thus controlling the meaning of their statements. This is important as the researchers' statements influence the images they create of themselves in the observed settings. [39]

ANGROSINO and MAYS de PÉREZ (2003) note that in offline observation studies "... the quality of what is recorded becomes the measure of usable observational data (because it can be monitored and replicated) rather than the quality of the observational data itself (which is, by definition, idiosyncratic and not subject to replication)" (p.676). In online observations of textual exchanges in mailing lists, the observational data are equivalent to the recorded data, since the social interaction and behavior exist in a written form. Data are hence easily separated from interpretation, which is rarely the case in offline observation. This has a positive impact on the dependability factor in online observation making. [40]

Dependability is greatest in the online complete observer role, as the researcher's presence is most often "invisible" and the observer does not interact with the subjects. In the other three roles, dependability is likely to be less because the researcher interacts with the subjects and may thus cause changes in the social process in the observed setting. Furthermore, the problem of "going native" is also present in these roles (but mainly in the roles of participant-as-observer and complete participant). This problem may affect the data interpretation, also. [41]

In addition, in the role of observer-as-participant, the investigator has more control over the communication process. Especially asynchronous online communication, such as mailing lists, provides that opportunity. In general, when the group members are aware of the online presence of an investigator (both in the role of observer-as-participant and participant-as-observer) is likely to disturb them less than offline/physical presence. [42]

The researcher evidently seeks to strike a delicate balance between observation and participation when collecting data (ANGROSINO & MAYS de PÉREZ, 2003). In effect, when discussing the credibility and transferability of the findings, the interaction and the relationships between the researcher and the objects studied are of utmost importance. [43]

A distinction has to be made between two interrelated potential sources of misunderstanding and inaccuracy in online observation: one is the lack of shared physical context in CMC, the other is the lack of subjective involvement in the observed interactions. The former is directly related to the inherent technical aspects of CMC (and non-existent in offline observation), while the latter is connected to the degree of participation, i.e. the observer role of the researcher (and the same holds true in offline observation). However, both of these problematic sources indicate that the less the researcher participates, the greater will be the risk of misunderstanding and inaccurate observation. In consequence, this raises questions pertaining to the discussion on whether observational objectivity is desirable as a goal. [44]

A potential third source of misunderstanding and inaccuracy is the fact that observation of only one online communication channel (e.g. a mailing list) may be insufficient for understanding what is actually going on in the observed online setting. It is possible that the subjects also use other communication channels (e.g. using other CMC media, via face-to-face communication and by telephone) besides the observed one, which may impede the uncovering of all relevant details and issues and prevent a coherent understanding of the phenomenon studied. The more the investigator participates in the observed group activities, the greater is the possibility to firstly learn about these other communication channels, and secondly to inquire about the matters discussed there and thirdly to obtain access to the communication that takes place in those other channels. [45]

In the literature about offline participant observation, participation and observation are viewed as competing and conflicting objectives (JORGENSEN, 1989). In consequence, the more the researcher participates in the observed setting/activities, the less s/he is able to observe. This problem is diminished in online observations based on textual exchanges, such as those in mailing lists, forums and IRC. Participating in communication and interaction in the observed setting allows the researcher to log the synchronous communication of IRC as well as the asynchronous communication of mailing lists. Consequently, the researcher can even use these logs to assess his/her own influence on the interaction in the observed setting. For instance, communication and activities where the researcher is only the observer could be compared with those where s/he acts as a participant. Although our empirical work did not deal with this, existing literature and our experience indicate that this comparison could improve the general trustworthiness of results. [46]

Lastly, which of the four online observer roles is chosen in a particular study will, as one would expect, depend on the research purposes and the phenomenon under study. However, as regards the study of online environments such as OSS communities, a proposition can be made about how threats to credibility and transferability in relation to online observation (i.e. lack of richness and detail, risk of misunderstandings) can be diminished, while maintaining the level of dependability (which is potentially high due to a greater degree of anonymity and "isolation" in online settings). The less involved the researcher's online observer role is, the more s/he should consider introducing offline data collection techniques rather than adopting a more participative role in the observed online setting (Figure 1). For instance, in studying OSS communities through a complete online observer role, the researcher should avoid becoming more participative (unless required for the purposes of research), because the dependability level might be compromised. Rather, obtaining the necessary details and eliminating potential sources of misunderstanding should take place through additional data collection via offline interviews and/or observations. Most OSS communities allow for such types of data collection, since these communities also often have a vibrant offline dimension—conferences, workshops and other types of face-to-face meetings are part of their community lives. Going offline will naturally increase the researcher's degree of participation in the community while decreasing his/her degree of anonymity. However, the researcher will avoid influencing the social process in the observed online setting, which is of primary relevance for the study. The most desirable scenario for data collection in these types of online communities would thus be to complete online observations in the role of a complete observer first and subsequently collect the necessary data offline.

Figure 1: How to combine the researcher's online observer role with offline research techniques in order to diminish threats to credibility and transferability [47]

The above proposition is best suited to "non-sensitive" online settings such as OSS development communities where participants are open about their membership and contributions. In some vulnerable online environments where participants carefully guard their identities, the possibility of offline data collection is unlikely. [48]

6. Conclusion and Implications

Online observation is a method employed to study interactions in virtual communities in their natural setting. The multitude of activities (e.g. social interaction, production and development processes) that may be observed in these communities makes them relevant research-wise. With this in mind, it is essential to explicitly consider online observer roles in order to ensure the methodological quality of such studies. [49]

In online observations, the observational data are equivalent to the recorded data, since the social interaction and behaviors exist in a written form. Consequently, data are easily separated from interpretation, which is rarely the case in offline observation. This is likely to have a positive impact on dependability in online observation making. However, the paper identifies other aspects with a potentially negative impact on the accuracy of data and interpretation in online observation: firstly communication between the community members under investigation taking place through other online and offline communication channels (e.g. IRC, instant messaging, telephone and face-to-face meetings) than the one observed, secondly lack of shared physical presence (e.g. reduced social cues) and finally the degree of social involvement (i.e. participation in the observed group's activities). Their impact should be considered in order to elicit trustworthy data from virtual communities like OSS communities. [50]

Offline and online observations should therefore not be viewed as competing methods of inquiry, but as each other's supplements. Depending on the phenomenon investigated, a study may benefit a lot from combining the two methods of observation, since each contributes different aspects and provides different levels of detail. Finally, this paper proposes that during the online observation of settings such as OSS communities, threats to credibility and transferability can be diminished without reducing the objectivity level, through the introduction of offline data collection techniques rather than by adapting a more participative role in the observed online setting. [51]

6.1 Implications for further research

This paper suggests that online and offline observer roles complement each other in the study of virtual communities. However, several limitations of this study call for further research. First, we need to become familiar with the importance of the sequence of the offline and online observations. In other words, it should be determined which approach is most appropriate from the inception of the study. Moreover, the consequences of a particular order of sequencing should be examined in relation to anonymity, identity control and their effect on trustworthiness criteria. [52]

Second, it should be analyzed to what extent offline observation uncovers the same aspects of the phenomenon studied as online observation does. FALLOWS (2002) found that American workers perceive e-mail as a means of relaying facts, but 85% of workers using e-mail prefer to have face-to-face conversations when they are dealing with workplace problems, and fewer than 6% consider e-mail effective in these cases. Other studies have arrived at similar conclusions, i.e. when facts are in focus, e-mail is the preferable medium (HANSON, 1999). This suggests that different CMC methods are likely to convey different types of content, which may have important implications in regard to online observation studies and whether such studies should be combined with offline observation (when possible), or some other types of data sources. [53]

Third, an additional avenue for further research could be to examine the implications for observer roles in virtual communities that are based upon asynchronous and synchronous textual exchanges such as Wikipedia, Facebook, LinkedIn or MySpace, which are often used as exemplars of Web 2.0. Because of openness, peer production and global interaction and cooperation—characteristics of Web 2.0—participation is critical (RASK, 2008), and therefore it is likewise important to discuss the different observer roles in order to understand observation of online communities other than OSS environments. [54]

Finally, online observer roles ought to be investigated with regard to websites where it is open to debate whether complete observation is possible as the Web is interactive by nature. An example could be the observation of dynamic interactive websites like that configure the website based upon earlier interaction, which is explicitly stated with the welcome message "Hello, Morten Rask. We have recommendations for you." Also the discussion of online and offline observer roles is important because every website has a covert sender (LEVINE, LOCKE, SEARLS & WEINBERGER, 2000), where the interface is the website that acts as "the face between faces" (POSTER, 1996). [55]



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Sladjana V. NØRSKOVis an Assistant Professor at the Department of Business Administration, Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus University in Denmark.She received her Ph.D. from Aarhus School of Business. Her research interests include user-centered innovation processes, community governance and new organizational forms. She studies these issues using mainly theory building from cases.


Sladjana V. Nørskov

Department of Business Administration,Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus UniversityHaslegaardsvej 10, DK-8210 Aarhus VDenmark

Tel.: +45 8948 6477
Fax: +45 8615 3988



Morten RASKis Associate Professor at the Business Administration, Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus University in Denmark. His research focuses on the global dimension of sustainable business models, organizing industrial marketing, purchasing & supply management, e-markets, e-commerce and m-commerce. He has contributed to Electronic Markets, European Journal of Purchasing & Supply Management, First Monday, Marketing Intelligence & Planning, European Journal of International Management, Journal of Teaching in International Business, Energy Policy and to the Danish Management and Business Economics. He holds a Ph.D. from Aalborg University in Denmark.


Morten Rask

Department of Business Administration,Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus UniversityHaslegaardsvej 10, DK-8210 Aarhus VDenmark

Tel: +45 89486860

URL: &


Nørskov, Sladjana V. & Rask, Morten (2011). Observation of Online Communities: A Discussion of Online and Offline Observer Roles in Studying Development, Cooperation and Coordination in an Open Source Software Environment [55 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(3), Art. 5,

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