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Developing YOUth! Project

Measuring the long-term impact of STEM-based out-of-school time programs

July 26, 2017

Being a Participant and an Observer

Posted by Faith Kares on July 26, 2017

One of the methods we are using in this project is often referred to as “participant-observation research”1. It describes a process where the researcher is actively engaged in the activity that they are observing. In this case, it involved spending a year with the adolescents while they were in the Science Minors and Achievers program, often working side-by-side with them on their activities.

One of the main advantages of this technique is the building of rapport. In participant-observation research, participant-researcher interactions are not limited to interviews or survey data collection, but rather are ongoing. When the time comes to collect data, participants are responsive given their personal relationships with the researcher(s).

Moreover, by participating in activities in which youth participants regularly engage, the researcher is able to ask questions as they arise and capture responses “in the moment” or “off the cuff,” which are often less rehearsed than in interviews. 

The strengths of participant-observation lie in its pairing with other methods, such as open-ended interviews. Interviews capture only partial representations of what is transpiring “on the ground” with regard to young people’s experiences in the SMA program. For example, Samantha (a pseudonym) related in an in-person, one-on-one interview that she valued her involvement in the program, cared deeply about what others (particularly staff) thought of her and strove to demonstrate her commitment to the program. Meanwhile, field observations depict her as quiet and disinterested. She often sat by herself in a corner reading a book or was on her phone. To an outsider, she may have appeared “checked out,” but by pairing the observations we made as participants with the interview data, we learn about the disjuncture between Samantha’s day-to-day experiences in the program and her depiction of them. 

Finally, participant-observation provides “5-senses” detail, which contextualizes data uncovered in an interview. Such ethnographic detail avoids presenting interviewees as research subjects abstracted from culture and context, but rather frames their narratives, thereby offering a more powerful story.

However, participant-observation research is not always feasible. First, it is time consuming and requires a great deal of labor power to conduct the research as well as a write-up and manage field notes. Second, relatedly, it requires consistency which not everyone can afford given competing demands of time and schedules. Third, it requires “buy-in” or acceptance from study participants. But the payoff can be rich data with nuances and can provide great insight into quantitative findings. Moreover, doing participant-observation research with young people in particular is a powerful tool for engagement—not only in terms of encouraging their participation but also demonstrating the ways in which we value their knowledge and expertise. In this vein, participant-observation can be potentially transformative as it disrupts notions of who is the expert.

1Participant-observation research is fundamental to the ethnographer’s toolkit. Indeed, it “represents the starting point in ethnographic research” (Schensul and LeCompte, 2013, p. 83). It brings to the fore the social interactions, behaviors, and “daily rounds” (Logan & Molotch, 1987) of the people with whom we work. 

One of our key respondents sent us a photo of a burrito he discovered one morning on the bathroom sink of his dormitory. In his first year of college, he wanted to know if this was “weird” or just part of college life. We responded the latter.