Participant Observation: Theoretical Overview
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.