Participant observation is defined by SSL as “a data collection technique that requires the researcher to be present at, involved in, and recording the routine daily activities with people in the field setting” (1999, 91). This term describes a wide variety of activity, from “nonparticipant” observation, to complete immersion and interactivity with the event or field observed.
Researchers would do this as a part of identifying key themes and relationships in the area, allowing ideas to be organized and prioritized, unspoken or customary norms and patterns to be revealed, presents the researcher as a figure within the community, and offers the researcher “common ground” to be discussed with research participants. Researchers often observe norms that may be stigmatizing or reveal unsavory aspects about the society, and may resort to a wide variety of techniques to obscure the researcher’s integration or research. These techniques include using jargon to confuse the researcher, changing the topic of conversation or positioning themselves to exclude (physically or interactionally) the researcher, outrightly refusing to answer questions, or not permitting or extending access to critical arenas of observation.
SSL note that, despite the engagement required of the participant observation, that the researcher must retreat from the observed arena to debrief and to write up notes in a space that isn’t so overwhelming with information intake.
So, what do ethnographers observe, with a wide field to take in?
Initially, ethnographers want to observe settings (places where studied behaviors or activities take place), events and event sequences (activities that are important, have community meaning or history, and/or are repeated over time), and counts (quantitative demographic or item inventories to aid in mapping people, resources, or important themes). These can point to larger social differences or items that operationalize these factors observed.
But, the important question is, how do we actually structure our field notes?
(1) Describe the behavior or action as it is happening, without trying to interpret or imbue meaning immediately, at least until they discover what the behavior observed communicates to others in the setting.
(2) In describing the individual, researchers should describe appearance, clothing, shoes, carriage, items carried, and social or understood status of those material items.
(3) The physical environment should also be described, as if you were taking a verbal picture of the place.
(4) Avoid inferences (the personal reflections and reactions of the researcher) while describing the observed persons or environments. To do this, divide your notes spatially on what was actually observed to your comments or interpretations
Good field notes will include: exact quotes and descriptions of observed actors, consistent pseudonyms to ensure confidentiality, sequentially-based events, the relation of relevant history to the scene observed, as well as the details of date, time, site name, and other pertinent information related to the observation.