Approaches to as: Participant observation and interview

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Approaches to AS: Participant observation and interview

  • Walder, Andrew G. “ The Hong Kong Interviews: An Essay on Method”. Walder, Andrew G. Communist Neo-Traditionalism: Work and Authority in Chinese Industry. Berkeley, UC Press, 1986.
  • Adler, Patricia A. and Peter Adler (1994). Observational techniques," In Handbook of qualitative research. Norman Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincon. Newbury Park: Sage, 1994, 377-392.
  • Bogdan, Robert (1972). Participant Observation in Organizational Settings. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  • nikki

What is participant observation/ interview

  • Participant observation is a straightforward technique: by immersing him- or herself in the subject being studied, usually over a long period of time, the researcher is presumed to gain understanding, perhaps more deeply than could be obtained, for example, by questionnaire items. Arguments in favor of this method include reliance on first-hand information, high face validity of data, and reliance on relatively simple and inexpensive methods. The downside of participant observation as a data-gathering technique is increased threat to the objectivity of the researcher, unsystematic gathering of data, reliance on subjective measurement, and possible observer effects. (distortion)
  • The objectivity issue. Participation is a form of investment of time, energy, and self, and as such it raises obvious questions of possible bias. However, defenders of participant observation find greater bias in allegedly neutral instruments such as survey questionnaires. These, they say, involve the imposition of an externally conceived "scientific" measuring device (the questionnaire) on individuals who do not perceive reality according to that external conception (Bruyn, 1966).

What is PA cont

  • 4 elements of PA
  • Awareness of time: Record the temporal phases of research according to the sequence of experience of the observer in relation to the milieu (ex., newcomer, provisional member, categorical member, personalized rapport, and imminent migrant -- that is, as the researcher is about to leave the community).
  • Awareness of the physical environment: Record the relations of people to their physical environment as they perceive it, not as the researcher conceptualizes or even experiences it.
  • Awareness of contrasting experiences: Record the experiences of people under contrasting social circumstances; meanings cannot be assessed under one set of circumstances because they are relative to the setting.
  • Awareness of social openings and barriers: Record the changes in meaning as the participant observer is admitted into narrower social regions, transitioning from stranger to member to insider. Determining vocabulary concepts is a major focus of participant observation, seeking to illuminate the inter-subjective meanings of critical terms.
  • The empirical approach to participant observation emphasizes participation as an opportunity for in-depth systematic study of a particular group or activity.
  • Enumeration of frequencies of various categories of observed behavior, as in interaction analysis. Often there is an explicit schedule of observation geared to hypotheses framed in advance of participation. But participation may lead to alteration of hypotheses and observation schedules, the attempt to observe systematically is ongoing.
  • Informant interviewing to establish social rules and statuses. There may be systematic sampling of informants to be interviewed, content analysis of documents encountered, and even recording of observations in structured question-and-answer format.
  • Participation to observe and detail illustrative incidents.

Case study of PA/Interview: Hong Kong Interviews

  • Aim; gather information about emigrants in Hong Kong and their relationship between work, authority and politics from the early 1940s to mid 1980s
  • Their perceptions about mainland China and their reasons for emigrating to HK.


  • Methodological discussions of émigré interview are usually influenced either consciously or unconsciously by the logic of survey research.
  • Émigré population are self selected rather than randomly sampled and as such are an atypical sub-group especially in regard to their political attitudes
  • For many research topics and styles of interviewing, the survey research model and its logical approach to the problem of reliability and the drawing of inferences are conceptually and practically inappropriate.

Émigré interviews as a field method

  • Survey research model are fruitful and studies that which has been devised as survey or quasi survey.
  • Some scholars have interviewed émigré population about their attitude or political activities but carefully avoiding inferences that would be unwarranted.
  • Semi-structured interviews have been used to tabulate family life, employment, income, social mobility, neighborhood organization, village customs and other subjects as a substitute for a field survey.
  • This strategy requires a standard list of ?s even when responses are open-ended. As such set ?naires and tabulations of frequencies are vital operations.
  • however in many instances they are not because interviewing research can also be an open-ended process of discovery in which one encounters unexpected insights and new kinds of data and in so doing re-defines the concept of the research problem itself.
  • This is not due to any lack of preparation on the part of the researcher, it is part and parcel of field research, whether carried on site or solely through interviews.
  • Most social scientists in field work expect their concept of the research to change during its course, it is a sign that one is learning something.
  • This raises the ? Of reliability of the data the same way that other field researchers do but with an eye to the peculiarities of émigré interviewing, this set back can be reduced.

Advantages of interviewing

  • Understanding the concrete activities taking place in the field is largely grounded upon what members have to say about what such activities mean to them.
  • Because there are always part of the social system that a field worker can never penetrate because she/he is an outsider, informants are the only source of info. Because informants are drawn from a large number of similar settings, the findings are more readily generalizable than those obtained in conventional field ethnography.
  • A researcher can develop intuitive understanding of culture through participant observations. The more the researcher becomes familiar with people’s lives, the more he or she can effectively read the meanings of the data collected. This ability leads the researcher to draw reliable conclusions from the research.

Some drawbacks

  • The crux of the problem of émigré interview is that, unlike the ethnographer in the field, one has a set of informants who are self-selected in the sense that all have chosen to leave their homeland (selection bias problem) – could lead to a one-sided perspective and distortions.
  • This is same with ethnographers who get tied with key informants or with authority figures who gave permission to conduct the research
  • To reduce the incidence of distortion- interview people with different statues and positions and search out those with different view points- because they are from a uniform population (managers, wkers, employees of different generations, pay level, skilled, unskilled, intellectuals and functionally illiterate, former political activist, political skeptics – they all have their reasons for leaving main land China to HK.

Drawbacks cont

  • How can we determine that informants are telling the ‘truth’? Informants often lie to field wkers or they give self serving interpretations of events and practices (Van Maanen, 1983).
  • 1st rule for assessing an informant’s reliability is whether he/she can be expected to know what they are reporting on (maybe that is why most field wkers ask ?s about education but this does not mean that the un-skooled are not reliable)
  • 2nd rule is to follow up with ?s for details, consistencies and clarity.
  • 3rd rule; compare on a continuous basis the infos an informant gives on a certain topic with what others have said, and pay close attention not only to what they say but who they are and how they say it. The problem is really not so much how to tell if an informant is telling the truth but how to reconcile the different ‘truths’ that informants present.

Drawbacks cont

  • Because the date collected from PA/Interview are not a set of responses to standard ?s, the problem of reliability cannot be addressed through the logic of survey research. The data are complex and variegated and one must delve into this complexity and variety in order to assess their reliability.
  • The result of such a study is a conceptualization of social processes or a new theoretical statement that is grounded directly in research.

Émigré interviews in Hong Kong

  • Study the shift from refugee status to emigrant status between 1960 ~1984
  • 1st wave of Chinese moving to HK- mostly young people from the country-side of Guangdong which borders HK. They reported to International relief agencies and where placed in resettlement camps.
  • 2nd wave- legal applicants; middle-aged, urbanites, higher education and specialized.
  • This was only possible after China loosen its emigration laws designed (1978) in part to be considered a ‘most favored nation’ trading status with the US.
  • 1st consequence of this shift from refugee to émigré was a marked change in the work experience and geographical origins of the informants.
  • A 2nd consequence was a change in the method of selecting potential informant. Pre- 1970 – through resettlement agencies and post-70s- placing classified ads in HK newspapers.

Locating and selecting informants

  • Short classified ads in the employment section of 2 Chinese language dailies, Cheng Bao and Xing Ribao.
  • ‘A foreign scholar needing help temporary or part time basis in completing a research project on the Chinese economy and people with working experience in mainland industrial enterprises should apply.
  • The use of a research assistant – Canton native fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese
  • Not based on fixed ?naires but were semi-structured sessions that varied considerably in length and content.
  • Different ?s for different people- production wkers, staff technicians, line managers etc
  • By the end of Walder’s study, the émigré population from the study 3rd wave of emigrants from China. The 3rd wave did not have the same characteristics as earlier emigrants; they were neither dispossessed classes, nor illegal escapees, and they were not considered defectors by the government.
  • The sample of informants represented a wide array of occupation, industries and geographical regions.
  • All of these different variables of time and circumstances offer another set of information even if the questions were the same.

John Middleton, “The End of Fieldwork.” Cole, Johnnetta B. (ed.). Anthropology for the Nineties: Introductory Readings. New York: Free Press, 1988, pp.14-29

  • John Middleton, “The End of Fieldwork.” Cole, Johnnetta B. (ed.). Anthropology for the Nineties: Introductory Readings. New York: Free Press, 1988, pp.14-29

Plan of presentation

  • Introduction
  • Observation
  • Interviews
  • Role of fieldworker
  • Conclusion


  • Characteristics of doing field research from researcher point of view, the difficulties researcher can have, as well as the process of better understanding of the differences
  • Changing role a field research in Host community
  • (or changing perception of the role of field researcher by the Host community)
  • Newly arrived stranger – no friends, no “kin”, relatively lower understanding of the community in general
  • Differences
  • between culture of researcher’s study and his own
  • Cultural variation within one region is as great as between different regions
  • Language proficiency
  • Importance of language in observation / gathering data ex) difficulty in understanding local dialect
  • Social integration
  • involves getting to know local people
  • great help locating right people and accessing bulk of the worthwhile information ex) Maraca where he had relations people of the community
  • Consequent Better understanding of community that led to substantial field work
  • comprehending totality
  • Understanding interrelationships
  • Knowing totality of cultural detail and variation


  • Four Kinds of Interview
  • 1) Interview-situation
  • Interview in which observer participates among a mass of people engaged in social activity such as drinking beer or performing a ceremony or ritual where his presence matters little.
  • Objective : to observe the whole process and flow of activity in a given situation However, this does not preclude later questioning

2. Discussion with small number of people

  • 2. Discussion with small number of people
  • In which the observer would sit with two or three people, perhaps a man, his wife, and children or a couple of men working in a field, and would discuss matters o interest with some care and with myself asking fairly carefully thought out questions
  • Objective : 1. filling in gaps of information and could ask for more detailed accounts than would be possible to obtain in general discussions with large numbers of people present. 2. Make friends and to see the main lines of the community culture open out to a researcher

3. Long discussion with one person

  • 3. Long discussion with one person
  • Most profitable way to fill up notebooks – having community member to play a role of inseparable confidant
  • As other anthropologists, the author faced difficult problem of “living among people who are themselves living out their every lives as does everyone in any society anywhere, but at the same time trying hard to remain outside these local relationships and to be an impartial observer of them.”
  • Therefore, a researcher should observe common sense and good manners and maintain a sense of decency and of understanding the weaknesses of other people.

4. Interviewing a person while filling in a questionnaire

  • 4. Interviewing a person while filling in a questionnaire
  • Case by the author -Was To obtain some basic demographic information with emphasis on the patterns of marriage within the group and with its neighbors. - Had trained assistants who were paid, spoke the language, and filled the forms for interview
  • Objective : not to elicit fresh cultural details but rather to provide quantitative demonstration of processes of which researcher already knew the outlines

Criticism against some Anthropologists

  • Criticism against some Anthropologists
  • on how they approach their informants
  • Ex. Some researchers take advantage of their authority by knowing chiefs and others to punish informants if they refuse to give information
  • Ex. Some get them drunk to elicit them to talk of secret information that they wouldn’t tell to strangers

Role of a Fieldworker

  • The stage of social integration of a fieldworker
  • First, Human being
  • Second, semi-status of an immature social being, a stranger
  • Last, full status social or socialized being
  • Quasi-kinship
  • As time went on, his status became that of quasi-kinship by participating community activities such as waragi drinking which resulted in simultaneous loss of “European” status
  • Story of Childbirth
  • “now we know you are not a European but a good person, and we are glad you are here as sister’s son,”

Significance of anthropologist’s changing role

  • Significance of anthropologist’s changing role
  • His behavior in the role he is given by his hosts is determined-or should be determined- by this single aim.
  • However, the crucial question is how and when does one know that one has a reasonable idea of the culture and organization that one is studying.
  • Furthermore, how does one estimate the accuracy, relevance, and completeness of the information given by informants. (sometimes on is deliberately misled or more often, due to incomplete information through no bad intention or fault of informants.

Anthropologist is engaged in an arduous task of trying to understand and interpret a culture other than hi own, and must retain this as being his only task for a period of two years.

  • Anthropologist is engaged in an arduous task of trying to understand and interpret a culture other than hi own, and must retain this as being his only task for a period of two years.
  • Is two years the appropriate?
  • when one can predict what is likely to be the answer given to questions about them.
  • One cannot predict the events of a given situation but one can see the structure or pattern within the scene that is part of a total drama; and one then knows that one understands as much of another culture as one can hope to understand.

Challenges facing fieldworkers

  • 1. pressure and uncertainty
  • His own professor warned him that there would be a time when one thinks one is wasting one’s time and is a failure.
  • Uncertainty of one’s role in a host society leads to much frustration
  • Even though he was well received, he was never completely accepted as one of themselves by the people

2. Paradox in the role of a fieldworker

  • 2. Paradox in the role of a fieldworker
  • The role of the anthropological fieldworker is one of paradox, ambiguity and uncertainty
  • “There is not much one can do about his hosts’ behavior, but there is quite a lot one can do about his own.” Middle also emphasized to know exactly what is one’s own role as an observer however one’s hosts may regard it or their own.
  • The difficulty of the role of the anthropological fieldworker arises form the paradox in his role : one should be both objective and yet be a participant to the greatest degree that he can while still retaining objectivity

Concluding remarks

  • Researchers face difficulty of adjusting to his own culture on his return home
  • In addition to that, once home, the author began noticing his own cultural details
  • Finding equilibrium
  • - between objective research and participation in the community
  • Writing material also involved the tension of objectivity and subjectivity.

Middleton’s experience

  • strength
  • weakness
  • To be distant and objective
  • Less of personal difficulties and personal delights
  • less understanding and less sympathy and affection
  • Ties with other european fieldworkers
  • Less ties with the people
  • Strength and weakness of his later researches

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