Participant observations

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One of the qualitative data collection methods used by the Digital Edge research team at the afterschool setting was participant observation. During the course of eight months (October 2011-May2012) researchers conducted approximately 70+ hours of fieldwork in this setting. Following the traditional stages of participant observation (Howell 1972), researchers first established rapport with the participants of the study, then immersed themselves in the field, recorded observations as fieldnotes, and finally analyzed and organized the information gathered. According to the types of participant observation described by Spradley (1980), the role of our researchers at the afterschool setting was the one of passive participants who limited their interactions to the one of bystanders who hanged out at the space in a weekly basis and focused their observations in the digital media practices and social interactions that the students developed. Researchers did not participate actively in the afterschool activities nor become members of the community, and both the subjects of the study and the supervisors of the afterschool setting, recognized them as outsiders who were working in a project associated with the University of Texas and lead by Professor Craig Watkins (PI).

Given the nature of the digital media afterschool program we observed, the fieldwork expanded across multiple spaces where the activities of the program took place. For instance, inside the FHS building the afterschool program was split between two computer lab classrooms, the one of Mr. Lopez, the video technology teacher, in the second floor, and the one of Mr. Warren, the videogame teacher, in the first floor. Researchers decided to observe either of these two spaces according to where their assigned subjects of study hanged out. While some subjects inclined towards gaming practices spent most of the time in the first floor computer lab, others participants interested in digital video and music production spent most of their time in the second floor classroom.

Inside FHS, the afterschool activities also expanded to other spaces such as the cafeteria, the theater, the second floor hall, and two adjacent rooms to Mr. Lopez' classroom. Especially during the development of the Cinematic Arts Project (CAP), an initiative that emerged inside the digital media afterschool program and that happened from November 2011 to May 2012, some researchers had the opportunity to observe how afterschool activities such as shots, rehearsals, casting sessions, brainstorming, and screening of films expanded across multiple FHS spaces. Moreover, during the duration of the CAP, some of the afterschool activities took place out of the school setting in several locations around the Austin metropolitan area where students had the opportunity to shot scenes, do public presentations, organize fundraising events, and participate in educational conferences and local film industry events. Some members of the research team followed the participants of the study as they continued their afterschool activities out of the school setting and were able to observe them in different locations.


Thinking about the limitations of the type of passive participant observation that we made, it is important to notice that since the subjects of the study knew they were being observed by an outsider connected to a University and a member of a research project, they could have behaved different when researchers were at the setting. Besides being positioned at the afterschool setting as digital media producers and, particularly, filmmakers and videographers, students were also positioned as the protagonist of a study on learning ecologies and technology. In such position, students could have adopted certain behaviors and realized certain actions according to what the researchers expected, that is, activities related to learning and digital media use.

Further, during the fieldwork at the afterschool, researchers had also to confront their own position as outsiders in the community and their limited knowledge of most of the students who hang out at the setting. Personally, I struggled with the positionality of passive participant observer, but learned to cope with it, as I started to spend more time, regularly (in weekly basis), in just one of the afterschool places (the second floor computer lab) and was able to built rapport with Mr. Lopez. Moreover, as this computer lab became the head quarters of the Cinematic Arts Project (CAP), and an influx of students from two other different public high schools also started to hang out and work in this place, my positionality as an outsider became less noticeable. Since the two students that I was assigned were active participants on the CAP, it became more natural to me to observe the activities of this program, and even though I did not actively participate in any of the activities, I became more comfortable at the space and was able to follow the students across the different spaces where the afterschool setting expanded. For instance, inside FHS I was able to observe rehearsals at the school cafeteria, casting sessions in one of the rooms next to Mr. Lopez computer lab, and assist to the public screening of the CAP films at the school theater. Outside the FHS building, I had the opportunity to assist to two public presentations that my two informants, together with other members of the afterschool program and Mr. Lopez, did at the state education technology conference in downtown Austin.

= References


  • Howell, Joseph T. (1973). Hard Living on Clay Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families. Garden City, N.Y., Anchor Press.
  • Spradley, James P. (1980). Participant Observation. New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

We build rapport, in particular with the teacher and supervisor of the after school space, and with the students that participated in the study and that each team member followed during extended period of time.

Immersed on the field. It is important for the researcher to connect or show a connection with the population in order to be accepted as a member of the community. DeWalt & DeWalt (2011) [8][11] call this form of rapport establishment as “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”.

Our connection to the afterschool community was the one of observers, and we did not directly participated in the activities that the community realized. We were mainly passive participants, researchers in bystander role.

Recording Observations and Data. field notes, interviews, reflexivity journals: Researchers are encouraged to record their personal thoughts and feelings about the subject of study. They are prompted to think about how their experiences, ethnicity, race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, and other factors might influence their research, in this case what the researcher decides to record and observe (Ambert et al., 1995).

Analyzing Data Thematic Analysis:organizing data according to recurrent themes found in interviews or other types of qualitative data collection and narrative analysis:categorizing information gathered through interviews, finding common themes, and constructing a coherent story from data.

participant observation is a complex method that has many components. One of the first things that a researcher or individual must do after deciding to conduct participant observations to gather data is decide what kind of participant observer he or she will be. Spradley[14] provides five different types of participant observations summarised below.

Spradley has described five different types of participant observation. Participant Observation Type


Agar, MH. (1996). The Professional Stranger. Second Edition. New York: Academic Press.

Fetterman, DM. (1998). Ethnography: Step by Step. Applied Social Research Methods Series, Volume 17. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Howell, Joseph T. (1972). Hard Living on Clay Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. pp. 392–403.

Spradley, James P. (1980). Participant Observation. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt College Publishers. pp. 58–62

Fetterman, 1998, p. 1

Ethnography is the art and science of describing a group or culture. A key difference between the investigative reporter and the ethnographer, however, is that whereas the journalist seeks out the unusual - the murder, the plane crash, or the bank robbery - the ethnographer writes about the routine, daily lives of people

Agar, 1996, p. 53

Ethnography is both a product and process of research (Agar, 1980). The product is an ethnography - a written manuscript of one's observations of the culture under study. The process involves prolonged observation of a group (nurses, physician, surgeons).

Common Methods used in Ethnography

Participant Observation. This involves the researcher immersing him or herself in the daily lives and routines of those being studied. This often requires extensive work in the setting being studied. This is called fieldwork.

Interviewing. Enthnographers also learn about a culture or group by speaking with informants or members of the culture or group. Talking with informants is called interviewing. The types of interviews conducted by ethnographers vary in degree of formality (informal interviews to semi-structured to structured interviews).

Collection of Artifacts and Texts. Ethnographers may also learn about a group or culture by collecting and studying artifacts (e.g. written protocols, charts, flowsheets, educational handouts) - materials used by members of the culture in their daily lives.

a move to dialogic modes of ethnographic reporting that represent multiple voices in the text.  Yet, these representations are always through the writer/enthnographer's lens. (Atkinson & Hammersley, 1994)

Atkinson, P. & Hammersley, M. (1994). "Ethnography and participant observation." In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 248-261). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.