Practising participant observation

Tony Hall, CC BY-ND 2.0A good way to help students to get to grips with ethnographic methods is to have them carry out an exercise in participant observation. In a semester-long module students can develop a much longer ‘home ethnography’ on a particular topic, but for the purposes of our project we could not ask the students to devote a large amount of time to this. Instead we asked them to carry out a brief participant-observation activity over the Easter break.

This activity was adapted from an exercise in Language learners as ethnographers (2001: p. 122-125). The students were asked to go to a local pub or cafe and spend half an hour to an hour making observations and notes about the setting, thinking about things like:

  • The different categories of patrons;
  • The division of labour among employees;
  • Any patterns in the interactions between patrons, between patrons and employees, and between employees.

They reported back on their observations, and their experience of doing the activity, in one of our training sessions. Along with giving them some practical experience in participant observation and taking notes, the main aim of this exercise was to get them thinking about their own positions as researchers. The activity sparked a lively discussion about this, raising issues of the need for sensitivity to the local context and thinking about how to carry out research when you ‘stand out’ because of your cultural or gender background. We also encouraged students to start thinking reflexively about their own feelings and experiences as researchers.

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).

The document below contains the instructions for the activity and prompts for our follow-up discussion.


Roberts, C. et al. (2001) Language learners as ethnographers. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, p. 122-125.

Related documents (click to download file)

EEP participant observation exercise


← To all ethnographic training sessions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *