Thursday, 6 March 2014

Participating and Observing

Anthropologist at work.

Participant-observation is anthropologists’ preferred method of gathering data. Basically, we live among the people we study and take part in their lives. In this blog, I explain participant-observation by taking the example of my co-researcher, Dr Monika Winarnita.

Participating and observing.
Anthropologists generally gather, analyse, or debate about data they gain through fieldwork. This fieldwork takes a special form. It is not through surveying people, creating a focus group, or through observing people through a telescope. Rather, fieldwork takes the form we call “participant-observation”. We also use the word "ethnography" in one of its senses, to refer to the same thing.

In Perth, Australia, 2007
What is this thing? Anthropologists observe human life and, where possible, participate. Anthropologists live among the people they study and spend a lot of time just 'hanging out' and chatting. For example, before her research on Home Island, Dr Monika Winarnita’s first fieldwork project was a study of Indonesian women migrants in Perth. Monika is an Indonesian woman who has migrated to Australia, so you could say she was studying her ‘own people’. The women she studied were in a dance troupe, so Monika rehearsed and performed with the group. In the photograph she is being taught a dance from Banyuwangi, Indonesia (the place, coincidentally where I did my fieldwork 2001-2002, so I joined in on this one).She also spent a lot of time off-stage just hanging out with the members. She wrote up her analysis in various forums including her PhD dissertation. This included AV material of her troupe rehearsing and dancing.

Participating in daily life on Home Island. 
Doing participant-observation, we try to fit in as much as possible. This is facilitated through learning the local language/dialect (if the anthropologist is not already proficient).  In this photo, you can see Monika preparing for a Batang Buruk [sic.] cake, a month in advance of the wedding where it will be servedThe general principle is "when in Rome, do as the Romans do". 

Making a family tree.
Nevertheless, we also do things Romans don't necessarily do.  We often interview people, take photos of mundane settings, record AV material, draw sketches and maps, keep families trees (a.k.a. genealogies), and so on. With regard to family trees, for example, anthropologists used to record them with a pen and paper. Now, in many situations we work in (e.g. hospital waiting rooms or bicycle enthusiasts), genealogies are decreasingly relevant. Yet they still prove useful where family is an important form of social organisation. And, where this is the case, we have software to help us (see my Blog "Naming and Binding"). Here Monika is creating a family tree, with the help of Mak Sari.  Aside form this, we'll keep a journal and field notes every night; or at least try to! In these ways, anthropologists may supplement data obtained from participant-observation.

At school
Participant-observation is what happens when anthropologists interact with the people they study. Our job is not to capture customs and ritual unaffected by the outside world. For example, I go to a kenduri (a Malay ritual) then sit down and watch Western Australian regional televisions with advertisements for “Aussie” sheep farmers. This kind of thing interests us, because participant-observation is about the changes and various influences in society and culture as much as what stays the same. Also, the data we gather is about what happens when we, as anthropologists, interact with local people. We cannot, and do not especially want to, observe the culture in a 'pristine' state. So the 'data' of participant-observation is not neutral, unbiased vision of a culture; rather it is the result of the interactions between the anthropologist and the people who are studied.

On Facebook.
For example, over the past decade, human interaction has been increasingly mediated through social media. Indeed, some communities exist only online. Some members of the Home Island community, especially wives,  interact through Facebook. There is also a large (compared to the size of the Home Island population), Cocos Malay diaspora who use Facebook to stay in contact. So her fieldwork requires spending time on the Internet.

Chatting with Nek Iman

Why do anthropologists do participant-observation? We think it helps us 'put ourselves in their shoes'--to understand the world from the perspective of the people we study. We hope to experience how they understand the world and their place in it and how the society they act within is ordered. The aim is to contribute to understanding cultural and social aspects of being human. Many anthropologists find the experience of fieldwork extremely challenging and rewarding--for many, it changes their lives in profoundly positive ways.

Family meal with Haji Wahibb, Hajah Atie and their son Alfin.


  1. kampung = neighbourhod/ village
    kangkung = vegatable grown wild in side of river