Session 3: Participant Observation, Research Ethics, Data Management (2 hours)
The aims of this session were to:
- discuss the participant observation exercise students carried out over the Easter break;
- discuss research ethics and ethnographic projects;
- provide students with guidance on storing and organising data;
- discuss the blog site and next steps.
Outline of content:
1. Discussion of participant observation exercise carried out over Easter break (adapted from Language Learners as Ethnographers, p. 122-125. See further details here):
Students had been asked to carry out a brief participant observation task in a local bar or café. They were first asked for general reactions to the exercise: Where did they go? Did they find it easy/difficult/uncomfortable to carry out? Were there any questions about the process of participant observation raised by the exercise?
Students were asked to consider the following questions related to the exercise. This could be done in pairs if student numbers larger.
- Was there any inappropriate/unacceptable behaviour?
- Did anything odd happen? What made it unusual?
- What was particularly interesting?
- What were some typical routines (method of entering/leaving, length of stay, interactions between different groups of people)?
- What patterns of interaction did you observe (e.g. gender relations, joining a group, ordering a drink)?
- What different groups did you observe in your location?
Students were asked to consider the following questions and report back on one aspect. Again this could be done in pairs.
- What previous knowledge do you need to make sense of what you observed?
- How did you come to your conclusions, what is the evidence for them?
- How did you identify a pattern?
- How did your hunches change during the visit?
Any other points of discussion.
2. Research ethics and ethnographic projects
Students had been given basic information about conducting ethical research in the preparatory residence abroad module for all students. In this session we asked students to reflect on the issue of informed consent in relation to their own projects:
- How will you obtain informed consent?
- At what stage in your research with you do this?
- What issues might you face in obtaining consent?
3. Storing and organising data
We discussed the different types of ‘data’ that students might be collecting for their projects:
- Notes from participant observations and informal conversations
- Interview recordings and transcripts
- Video recordings and accompanying notes
- Photographs, maps, ephemera
- Media or online sources
- ‘Analytical notes’ with rough drafts of analysis
- Field diaries with personal reflections and reactions
Students were encouraged to keep careful records of the material gathered by developing a consistent system and trying to be disciplined about data gathering and recording. They were advised to keep back-up copies, and to be sure to keep notes and transcripts anonymised to protect the research participants’ identities
4. The blog
We presented the blog site, which had been set up as a private WordPress blog on an internal system called eFolio. For the duration of their Residence Abroad the blog site was private, with only students on the project, their supervisors, and project staff having access. Further information on how to use the blog and what to write about was given in Session 4.
Notes for guidance:
- The discussion of the Participant Observation exercise did not necessarily follow the questions posed as the discussion followed topics arising from student interests and reactions. This gave the students an initial opportunity to consider and reflect on their roles as researchers, their positions as ‘participant observers’, and how to construct opportunities for this type of research in relation to their own research topics.
- Although in this exercise students were mainly observers, we also discussed going beyond the observer role to become more of a participant in the research setting. Students were encouraged to talk to people formally and informally, and to use different methods for gathering data (observation, interviews, conversations, photographs, video).
- Students asked for concrete guidance and requirements in relation to ethical issues, particularly informed consent. Students were advised to think through these issues in relation to their own projects, and to decide when the most appropriate time for obtaining consent would be. Although the ‘consent form’ can seem an awkward requirement, it also gives the research legitimacy and formalises it for participants. We also discussed the importance of using pseudonyms for research participants unless they have given formal consent for their names to be used.
Roberts, C. et al. (2001) Language learners as ethnographers. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Related documents (Click to download)