Tuesday, 5 March 2013

'Participant-as-observer' the fine line

In Stebbins's article, Fitting In, it is noted that a 'participant-as-observer' is treated differently from a newcomer by the group, in that researcher is expected to add value and provide insight to the group being observed. Successful 'fitting in' is achieved when the observer can gain acceptance from the group, yet "remain sufficiently removed from the setting to be able to analyze it objectively." The author then compares the difference between a group member and non-group member pursuing the same goal; with one having easy entry, but compromising objectivity, and the other, benefiting from the objectivity distance provides, but perhaps sacrificing a true understanding of the group’s inner workings.
The article goes on to note that non-members must meet minimum entry requirements.  The example of the Canadian male studying football was used.  This researcher would be expected to know about the various Canadian teams and also the nature of the Grey Cup. The author notes that to establish rapport, the researcher must " have enough knowledge about the setting or persons [being studied] to appear competent."
This calls attention to the fine line certain ethnographers must tread.  They must possess enough humility to convince those being observed that they come in peace, but also enough knowledge to appear competent, and while there needs to be sufficient interest and enthusiasm to engage, the objectivity gained from maintaining a professional distance must be guarded.

Stebbins, R.A. (1987). Fitting in: The researcher as learner and participant. Quality and Quantity, 21(1), 103-108.
-Mandissa Arlain


  1. I felt as though all of Stebbins' comments combined to really emphasize this fine line that the researcher has to walk. It seems very difficult and subjective to figure out how to do this successfully, and the stakes are also quite high - you could lose your research if you don't do this successfully. I got the impression from reading this article that in this sense ethnography is more difficult to do correctly than other kinds of research. I wonder if that's true.

  2. I agree that the ethnographer must possess a combination of attributes to be successful in their research endeavours. This comment, along with Luker's statement that "the price of becoming one of the gang, often enough, is to agree not to notice precisely those things that you went in to study" (p. 157), shows how much is required of the ethnographer. There is a great deal of balance that must occur in making the subjects feel like you are an insider, while still achieving your goals in your research. While this would be overwhelming, as Luker points out (p. 156), the benefits of full immersion into the culture you are trying to research are great.