Participant Observation

Posted: March 11, 2011 in Anthropology

Participant Observation is a very anthropological term. It refers to a method of research which was developed in the field of Anthropology and put into practice by a Polish Anthropologist named Bronislaw Malinowski. Before the 20th century Cultural Anthropology was practiced mainly by “arm-chair anthropologists.” They were given this name because instead of going out and conducting their own research they read the journals of adventurers, explorers, and missionaries, and made observations and conclusions based on that. When Malinowski came on the scene he suggested that Anthropology should be more scientific. Another problem with the “arm-chair anthropologists” is they were extremely ethnocentric they believed that their own western culture was the best and the formed a hierarchy of social structure with their own socio-economic and religious practices rooted firmly at the top of the pyramid. But that is a discussion for another blog.

So Malinowski pioneered a new research method for anthropologists. Now instead of sitting at home reading the observations of others, which mainly highlighted the bizarre and interesting in the culture being observed, an anthropologist would go out into the field and live among the people he was studying, usually for two to four years. By doing this the anthropologist got to see the people in their natural environment. He was not relying on the skewed opinionated observations of others instead he was witnessing it for himself. Something else that was important, he was not only hearing what the people had to say about their cultural practices he was able to observe and see for himself how the people reacted. Malinowski revolutionized anthropological practices and the arm-chair anthropologists had to found a new “social science” called Sociology:-).

In these first two semesters in college I have felt as if I were doing a lot of Participant observation, really more observing than participating. I hang out with several different groups of people, some who come from a very different “cultural” background than me. When I realize that I am in a situation like that I cannot help but think that I picked the right major. I find myself looking around the group trying to understand what the other members are getting out of this situation. Why are they here? What are they thinking about what is going on right now? Sometimes I think people must think I am being rude looking around at everyone and not really participating in any given activity that is currently in progress. Sometimes I know people think I am lonely because I may be standing off a little ways from the group. I am not really sure yet what I have learned from these situations except that I want to understand. I want to understand why people do the things they do. Why they go to a certain meeting, hang out with a certain group of people, or go to a certain religious service.


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