Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Participant Observation

Image result for participant observation cartoon

“Not sure if stalking, or participant observation”

Anthropologists and sociologists claim participant observation to be a method that distinguishes their fieldwork from other types of social science. Whereas quantitative methods involve cold hard numbers (which seems boring, to be honest), qualitative methods are more based on feelings, observations and language. Yet participant observation is still a rigorous method! A participant observer tries to immerse themselves in new experiences whilst suspending all judgement and being open to new experiences. This is a difficult feat for anyone, it takes a lot of patience and self-critique.

The general order to participant observation is that a researcher will connect with a group or community, then integrate into this group in order to watch and learn about social structures, patterns and behaviours. Participant observation is usually overt, the participants know that the anthropologist is observing them with the intention of writing about them, and have given informed consent. In the past, anthropologists have been more covert, but this raises a whole host of ethical issues around such deception and extraction of knowledge. The researcher is responsible for minimising any potential risks that might be inflicted upon the participants from the research, the Australian Anthropological Association has a code of conduct for more information on this matter.  

Participant observation can change depending on the field, but the standard depiction of it, is of a researcher joining in on the everyday or routine tasks of their participants. It also might involve some conversations with participants, scribbling observations in notebooks and waiting around. During this time, the researcher often monitors their internal thoughts and prejudices. This might include considering how their own identity and experience effect their feelings and interactions with participants, which they sometimes record in a journal of self-reflection. The researcher must also be mindful that participants behaviour may change, since the participant know they are being researched. For example, they might subconsciously try to mirror what they believe the research is about. The researcher will often check with the participants to see if they feel as though they are being represented accurately.

You don’t have to do participant observation in a faraway place, you can do it in your own community. There are different types of participant observation, ranging from complete involvement, where the researcher is already a member of the group, to passive involvement. For some more information about how complete participant observation is used by activists, see this post.

At the end, the researcher will remove themselves from the situation and often compile their observations in the form of an ethnography. Through this deep sense of engagement with a group of people, participant observation can unveil things that might be below the surface level, that are subconscious, taboo or rarely talked about amongst a group of people (Guest et al., 2013). This means that participant observers are able to shed light on different experiences of being human, which not only generates knowledge about the world but also fosters empathy and openness.


Australian Anthropological Society. 2019, Code of Ethics. Retrieved from 

DeWalt, K. M. DeWalt, B. R. 2011, Participant observation: a guide for fieldworkers. Rowman & Littlefield. pp 2-11

Guest, G., Namey, E., & Mitchell, M. 2013, “Participant Observation” Collecting qualitative data 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications. pp. 75-112.

Anthro poetry

Ethnography these days can be like a jumble of different genres, including poetry, prose, narrative, memoirs and other forms of experimental writing. This pastiche captures anthropology as an art form rather than as a science.

The term ethnography means to write about people. Most early ethnography tried to seem objective by using constructions such as the passive tense, third person pronouns and scientific terminology (Maynard and Cahnmann-Taylor 2010, 2). Yet this detached tone was misleading, since ethnographers are individuals with distinct experiences who can only ever create interpretations of social reality. Since Geertz argued that anthropology is more of an art form, many ethnographers have written “thick description” and embraced their subjectivity by and being reflective of their own position (1979).

Anthropologists such as Adrie Kusserow, Nomi Stone, Michael Jackson, Ivan Brady and Renato Rosaldo have been using poetry to represent their perspectives in ethnography since the 1980s (Maynard and Cahnmann-Taylor 2010, 5). The Society for Humanistic Anthropology also runs an annual poetry competition, to prompt anthropologists to explore the interests of their discipline in other literary forms. Poetry already shares many of the same seeds of cultural anthropology, it is based on human experiences and representation.

Ethnographic poetry is not to be confused with the analysis of poetry within ethnography. Some ethnographers analyse the metaphor and literary forms of a culture, whereas other ethnographers use poetry as a literary genre to convey their experiences during field work. Clearly some ethnographic texts are more suitable to use poetry than others. When encountering a poem nestled in an ethnography, the reader might wonder why the anthropologist doesn’t just pursue poetry as a separate practice, rather than trying to be like a renaissance figure who tries to dabble in a bit of everything. Poetry is an abstract form that might cause misunderstanding for anthropologists who are trying to describe elements of human culture.

But if we assume that anthropology is not just about advancing knowledge, but an attempt to capture and translate other life rhythms and experiences, then poetry is a good fit for anthropology. If everything that could have been known has been known before, there are only “new ways of making them felt- of examining what those ideas feel like being lived” (Lorde 1977, 250). Lorde considers poetry the “revelatory distillation of experience” (248). It should never be considered as a luxury practice that is hidden away in private notebooks (248), just as anthropologists should not be limited to rigid writing styles to circulate within the confines of their ivory towers. For example, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict published her poetry under the name “Anne Singleton”, to avoid scrutiny from Franz Boaz and her other academic associates, who didn’t take poetry seriously (Maynard and Cahnmann-Taylor 2010, 5). The potential of poetry to capture insights into human experience is clear in the following poem of anthropologist and poet Adrie Kusserow (2016, 27-28):

Thirty-One, Anthropologist, No Gods Left,

If meaning has shape,

then I am searching for a bowl of it.


I don’t know anything anymore

except this:

If Knowledge came to me

in the thickest part of the night,

woke me with a flashlight,

asked me, What do you know?

I would say, nothing, nothing at all,

except diving, and loving this world.

There is plenty of academic writing in ethnography that unfortunately leaves the reader feeling indifferent, alienated or bored. Even the subjects of ethnography, whether people or places, can become “frozen in time” (Kusserow 2013, n.p). Poetry in ethnography can capture the flashes of perception that ethnographers experience. This can have a jolting effect, by displacing the reader from a sense of comfort and reserved distance. For this reason, ethnographers should accept poetic licence as a gift.


Tyler, S. 1984, The Poetic Turn in Postmodern Anthropology: The Poetry of Paul Friedrich. American Anthropologist, 86(2), new series. pp 328-336

Geertz, Clifford. 1973, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books. pp 3–30. 

Maynard, K, Cahnmann‐Taylor, M.  2010, Anthropology at the Edge of Words: Where Poetry and Ethnography Meet. Anthropology and Humanism, Vol. 35, Issue 1, pp 2–19,

Kusserow, A. 2016, A Different Kind of Ethnography: Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies. Edited by Elliott, D and Culhane, D. pp 27- 29.

Lorde, A. 1977, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury”. Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture. Pp 248-250.

Polston, P. 2013, A Conversation With Anthropologist/Poet Adrie Kusserow. Seven Days.

Look! Anthropologists apply this one simple trick to get the results they want

A “Stop Adani” protest, 2018

You’ve been lured this far by a clickbait title, so I’m going to use this space to talk about something that I find exciting in current anthropology; activists who are using ethnography to reinforce their social justice agendas.

This seems against the aims of anthropology though?! Can you even be an activist and an anthropologist? My feeling is that anthropology actually has a distinct capacity to take a stance and make change in the world, through the practice of ethnography.

First, lets take a trip back a few years when the anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes rejected anthropology’s aspirations for extreme cultural relativism and objectivity, in favour of taking a moral stance in her ethnographic fieldwork (1995). She endeavoured to stand in solidarity with the communities she was studying, by being a witness to suffering and exploitation. Scheper-Hughes entered Brazil initially as an aid worker, which involved working with the community to ensure better infrastructure, workers rights and healthcare. Then later on in her life, she re-entered this same community as an anthropologist, but she felt disillusioned at the pressure to remain a detached and objective observer. Her work shows that there are the sides of the oppressor and the oppressed, and to not act in the face of suffering is to take the side of the oppressor. Scheper-Hughes believes it seems like a perpetuation of the colonial underpinnings of anthropology when ethnographers try to only be objective and detached from the communities they study.

Since Scheper-Hughes’ call for a militant anthropology, Juris has argued that anthropologists also have a role in alleviating oppression by using ethnography as a tool to build better resistance movements (2008). What Juris and other activist anthropologists advocate for is creating a feedback loop in ethnography, where the data is circulated within the community of participants to improve their practice. This could be a way of bringing anthropology back to a grounded level, rather than the problematic cycle of extracting knowledge from participants for audiences in the ivory tower of academia. Activists use the anthropological delights of thick description and complete participant observation, as insider ethnographers. This means that they can give feedback about social organisation and effective communication to activist communities that they usually already belong to. This type of ethnography is called “ethnography of resistance” (Urla & Helepololei 2014, 431) and the subjects of these studies are usually participants in resistance movements against capitalism and neo-liberal globalisation. Ethnography is a perfect tool for improving social justice movements, it shows the nuanced lives and interactions of subjects whilst also highlighting places where collective effervescence could be strengthened. The very practice of ethnography is a model of how to build a better world, it involves trying to understand and work with other people, and then giving their ideas back, “not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities—as gifts” (Graeber 2004, 11). Some recent examples of activist ethnographers include Graeber (2002,  2009), Maeckelbergh (2018), Juris (2008) and Tominaga (2017).

Activist ethnography is distinguished from other types of ethnography through the position of the ethnographer, for example ethnographers who are activists will usually observe as a complete participant, whilst being very explicit about their position as a member of the group they are studying.  Many anthropologists in activist spaces also choose to not do interviews, because the participants do not want to be “subjects”, or because there are power imbalances in interviews that do not work well in anti-hierarchical organising collectives. It could also be because subjects are in positions where they need to remain anonymous. Another way of making ethnography more accessible to social movements is by publishing them in journals that don’t necessitate institutional access. It can involve using forms that aren’t journals to distribute them easily, including zines, social media and blogs… come and join the ranks of your fellow anthro-blog-ists!

David Graeber is an anthropologist who writes with thick description as opposed to using a lot of theory. His works are largely focussed on accessibility, targeting a popular audience. For example, Graeber’s ethnography “Direct Action” depicts the social relations of the Occupy Wall Street movement, whilst avoiding jargon and theory dumps in the text (2009). His vision for anthropology is that it could create a constant dialogue between the ethnographic project and the utopian vision (Graeber 2004, 12).

I’m excited at the possibility that activists can use ethnography and claim it as a grounded method to build a better world, rather than just watching the problems of the world from a distance. Anthropology also has a place in resisting the problems of colonialism and capitalism that it once contributed to.  


Graeber, D. 2004, Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Prickly Paradigm Press ; distributed by University of Chicago 

Graeber, D. 2009, Direct action. [electronic resource] : an ethnography. AK Press.

Juris, J. 2008, Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalisation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Maeckelbergh, M., 2018, “Don’t Get Arrested!” Trust, Miscommunication, and Repression at the 2008 Anti-G8 Mobilization in Japan. Political and Legal Anthropology Reveiw, 41(1). Pp 124-141.

McCurdy, P., & Uldam, J. 2014, Connecting Participant Observation Positions: Toward a Reflexive Framework for Studying Social Movements. Field Methods26(1), 40–55. 

Scheper Hughes, N. 1995, “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 36: 3.

Sutherland, N., 2013, Social movements and activist ethnography. Organization, 20(4). Pp 1-45

Urla, J. Helepololei, J. 2014, “The Ethnography of Resistance Then and Now: On Thickness and Activist Engagement in the Twenty-First Century.” History and Anthropology: Rethinking Resistance in the 21st Century. Volume 25, Issue 4.Pp 431-451

Ursula Le Guin and the ethnography of future worlds

The late Ursula Le Guin could be called an interplanetary anthropologist, since her stories are the twilight zone between ethnography and science fiction. They include anthropologist characters, descriptions, and most importantly, glimpses of possibilities for our planet through the exploration of what appear to be faraway futuristic worlds.

There already are many similarities between works of fiction and ethnographic texts in general. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz even said that ethnographic texts are more-or-less fiction (1973), since they are inevitably shaped by the ethnographer. How about exploring the other side of the coin, that science fiction books could be anticipatory anthropology?

Le Guin’s worlds are so believable because her way of writing about culture is informed by ethnographic writing. Many of her stories include thick description and detailed accounts of cultural practices, so that they may be are accessible to readers who are outsiders to these ways of life.

Her utopias are also never depicted as perfect places, spaces, or social systems. Every society is challenged in different ways, but “the real utopia in Le Guin’s work is […]the act of self transcendence and cross cultural understanding” (Baker-Cristales 2012, 25). As anthropologists know, the endeavour to transcend bias is like the vision of a “utopia”, it is not a place that can ever be reached. But above all, it a task that is worth pursuing.

Le Guin’s writing goes beyond imagining exotic or magical worlds through rich language or fictional tropes, the stories experiment with social structures and human possibilities. Her books also appear realistic because they abandon the gender and race stereotypes that were standard in the fantastical novels in her era. They often portray people of colour and people who are gender fluid, which was fairly radical for the 1980s science fiction scene. The plots also stray from the fantasy and sci-fi tropes that revolve around great conquests and adventures and instead meander through the hum drum lives of inhabitants of other planes.

Latour made a grand claim that the “task of anthropology is to account for how worlds are composed” (2013, 274). Le Guin’s book The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia accounts the social structures of whole planets, it traces a scientist who leaves his anarchist home planet to visit an Earth-like planet. The Dispossessed is similar to a good ethnography in that it makes current social systems appear unusual, throwing our own world into question and experimentation. Viveiros de Castro says in Cannibal Metaphysics that fictions are alternate realities which should be taken seriously. He makes a departure from Latour’s claim, to say that task of anthropology “is not the task of explaining the world of the other, but that of multiplying our world” (2014, 196). Le Guin shows how nothing is permanent or universal, and that people have the power to shape the world.

It is this reason that Le Guin often worked with anthropologists such as Anna Tsing to create works such as Arts of Living On A Damaged Planet. This anthology weaves fictional texts with anthropological texts and works from other disciplines to confront the oncoming storm of our entangled world.

Anthropology is moving further away from trying to represent “realities”, and towards representing what exists in imagined worlds. What is the future of ethnography? Le Guin’s work can raise a lamp to the murky vision of anthropology, which will involve discipline and genre-blurring work in anticipation of the future. For an example of imagining how anthropologists might imagine future worlds, see Dyan’s post PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation.

What the literature of Le Guin and the discipline of anthropology both share is a they practice empathy and try overcome the barriers towards mutual understanding. Her work fulfils a vision of cultural anthropology, to make the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. How distant are Ursula Le Guin’s imagined worlds? They may be as distant as we want them to be.


Baker-Cristales, B. 2012, “Poiesis of Possibility: The Ethnographic Sensibilities of Ursula K. Le Guin”. Anthropology and Humanism. Vol. 37, Issue 1, pp 15–26.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 3–30. New York: Basic Books.

Senior, W. 1996, Cultural Anthropology and Rituals of Exchange in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea”. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 29(4), 101-113.

Viveiros de Castro, E B. 2014, Cannibal metaphysics : for a post-structural anthropology. Minneapolis, MN :Univocal, pp 196.

See also:

Maddie’s post on myth and storytelling in ethnography

Imo and my post on the Anthropo scene part II, which discusses Haraway, who was a friend of Le Guin and a fan of speculative anthropology.

Dyan’s article PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation