chapter  4
12 Pages

Participant Observation: Theoretical Overview

WithJudith Okely

The term ‘participant observation’ was first defined by the Chicago sociologists in the interwar period. Earlier, Malinowski and others had been doing participant observation but without this now-celebrated term. Powdermaker, like Leach, a student of Malinowski, describes, ‘the heart of the participant observation method’ as: involvement and detachment. Its practice is both an art and a science. One consequence of participant observation is that the fieldworker may be confronted by the cliched controversy as to whether to go ‘native’, also a legacy of colonial discourse. Standard sociological textbooks repeat a typology with participant observation on a continuum: extreme participation at one end and observation at the other. Participant observation, from assertions by sociology colleagues, needs back up from other so-called ‘objective techniques’. This mechanical notion of ‘triangulation’ postulates that a variety of methods will produce the correct ‘facts’ by homogenization of overlap.