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Subjectivity in the Pariticipant-Observer Continuum, Essay Example

Pages: 2

Words: 653

Essay

The participant-observer process is one that is both “descriptive and analytical.” (Author Name, Date, p. 50) Accordingly, basic empirical description, while the foundation of any field work, must at the same time be accompanied by an analytical approach, which essentially attempts to make sense of that which is being observed. At first glance, this would seem to suggest that the descriptive remains the objective part of the methodology of field work, while it is the analytical aspect that is above all subjective in character. However, my experiences in this participant-observer exercise contradicted this intuitive point.

The selection of location for my field work as the _____________ restaurant, located between my home and where I work. I had never visited the restaurant before and was thus entirely unfamiliar with the environment, for example, not knowing how the interior of the restaurant looked, who worked in the restaurant and what kind of clients, for example, regular guests frequented the establishment. Accordingly, the restaurant fitted the prerequisite for the participant-observer continuum, namely, that “through ‘subjective’ participation and ‘objective observation’”, (Erickson & Murphy, 2013, p. 94) such that “the strange becomes familiar in the process of understanding it.” (Author Name, Date, p. 46) In so far as I had never been in the restaurant before, I would seek through my observation to familiarize myself with the setting.

I entered the restaurant, ordered something from the menu and began observing. Making notes, this constituted the “descriptive” part of the methodology that appears before any type of “analytic” understanding. That which I observed was mainly that of daily routine, familiar to other work places: people entering and leaving the establishment, paying at the cash register, social norms being expressed through greetings of “hello” and “good bye.” To the extent that the restaurant was “strange” since I had never been there, it became familiar in the sense there was nothing anomalous about that which occurred in the restaurant. It “spoke to me” as any other restaurant I had been to in the past.

Yet the most interesting part of my observation arguably came when what I had preconceived to be the “objective” task of description turned out to also contain a subjective element. A man entered the establishment and proceeded to aggressively speak to one of the waitresses in a manner that was somewhat hostile. I was surprised at the behavior and perhaps thought that something aggressive and even potentially violent would occur. Nevertheless, the waitress simply smiled and continued to wait on the tables. In my notebook, I had written down something about this aggressive man’s behavior, who in the mean time had left the restaurant. I asked the waitress about the man to confirm what I had seen, but found out that my subjective description was entirely incorrect. This was not a violent man, but rather a regular visitor of the restaurant, who had suffered some type of trauma in the past and always spoke in this manner. What for me had been somewhat surprising behavior was for the waitresses a regular occurrence, the way of behaving of an eccentric, but utterly harmless, daily guest at the restaurant.

Accordingly, the experience at the restaurant was above all valuable to the extent that it clarified some of my presuppositions regarding the methodology of participant observation. If I had merely left the restaurant without asking the waitress the reasons behind the man’s behavior, I would have thought that my description was entirely objective and then would try to extrapolate conclusions from this description. Nevertheless, my description turned out to be subjective, since I did not understand the underlying context of the visit. In this sense, both the descriptive and the analytical aspects of field work are to be viewed as containing elements of subjectivity, which inform the method itself.

References

Erickson, P.A. & Murphy, L.D. (2013). A History of Anthropological Theory. Toronto:University of Toronto Press.

Last Name, First Name Initial. (Year). Book Title. City where published: Publisher.

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