Ethnography and Participant Observation

American Political Science Association Organized Section for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research, Qualitative Transparency Deliberations, Working Group Final Reports, Report III.3 (August 2018)

13 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2019

See all articles by Jillian M. Schwedler

Jillian M. Schwedler

Hunter College

Erica Simmons

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Nicholas Smith

City College of New York

Date Written: February 12, 2019

Abstract

Ethnographers routinely engage in important practices of research openness. For instance, ethnographers often describe how they accessed field sites or research interlocutors and what roadblocks prevented other potential research paths. Ethnographers consider the ways in which their subject position – for example, one’s gender, racial, or ethnic background, class position, or nationality – and enmeshment in webs of power may shape the kinds of insights they produce. They may discuss their prior theoretical assumptions and discuss how the experience of field work changed these assumptions. They may describe the emotional strains, challenges, or dangers they or their interlocutors experienced during research. They will typically discuss why and how they went about protecting research participants, potentially including choices for anonymization, data protection practices, data destruction after a certain period, and reasons why data may not be available for sharing. Yet even as ethnographers do engage in certain practices of research openness, as we discuss in greater depth below, such practices are rarely framed in terms of transparency. This is because the concept of transparency, as it is typically elaborated in positivist research traditions, often sits awkwardly against the practice of ethnography, which tends to require heavy amounts of improvisation in the field and usually privileges ethics protections for human subjects. Emblematic of this mismatch in our efforts to elicit a broad discussion among ethnographers about questions relating to transparency as a general concept, we were met with much resistance as to whether such a conversation should even take place. Some expressed that they were unwilling to participate in this process because “transparency” is not a meaningful concept for ethnography, at least not in the sense it is used in much positivist and quantitative research. Many also felt that participating in this conversation, and particularly engaging the terms of the DA-RT debate, would legitimize a set of critiques that are not only irrelevant to ethnographers, but also potentially destructive to the kind of work ethnographers do. Thus this statement aims to capture the full range of views on the issue, building from the open online discussions but including concerns and reservations expressed to us privately.

Keywords: qualitative methods, research transparency, research openness, ethnography, participant observation, interpretive methods, Qualitative Transparency Deliberations

Suggested Citation

Schwedler, Jillian M. and Simmons, Erica and Smith, Nicholas, Ethnography and Participant Observation (February 12, 2019). American Political Science Association Organized Section for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research, Qualitative Transparency Deliberations, Working Group Final Reports, Report III.3 (August 2018) . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3333465 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3333465

Jillian M. Schwedler (Contact Author)

Hunter College ( email )

695 Park Ave
New York, NY 10065
United States

Erica Simmons

University of Wisconsin - Madison ( email )

716 Langdon Street
Madison, WI 53706-1481
United States

Nicholas Smith

City College of New York ( email )

Convert Avenue at 138th Street
New York, NY 10031
United States

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