Skip to Main Content

EDUC.6922: Qualitative Research Methods for Practitioner Scholars

Fieldwork and Observations

Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method
Barbara B. Kawulich

Forum: Qualitative Social Research. Volume 6, No. 2, Art. 43 – May 2005

video:ellen isaacs

Ellen Isaacs at TEDxBroadway on the benefits of ethnography to tech and business

Participant Observation

If you cannot access the above video, you can watch it here:

In the documentary Born into Brothels two filmmakers gave cameras to children to document their lives in the red light district of Calcutta. In many ways, this film is an example of participant observation as well as photographic research, but the film raises important points about the difference in ethical requirements for documentarians versus researchers. One of the featured children, Avijit Halder, said later that the children were not aware that they were being filmed for a documentary. Furthermore, he clarified that his mother was not actually a prostitute, as the film implies, but a teacher working in the red light district. Still, Halder says, he does not consider the film to be exploitative because the aftermath of the film was ultimately positive, with the charity Kids with Cameras financing an education in America for Halder. "It has benefited all our lives," he said. Thus, "It's all justified."

"I didn't have a voice then...Even though I wanted to be an artist, there would have been no way to become one. It gave me a voice. It gave me a life." 

As you embark on your field research, you may find it helpful to revisit the ethical guidelines. Here is a video by Sandra Mathison. 

If you cannot access the above video, you can watch it here

From Forum: Qualitative Research, Vol 19, No 3 (2018) "Research Ethics in Qualitative Research", edited by Wolff-Michael Roth & Hella von Unger

The present collection of studies concerning ethics in qualitative research bears testimony that the research community has come a long way from where it still had been in the 1960s, when research was conducted that obviously harmed participants and bystanders. It is exciting to see that qualitative researchers tend to treat ethics not as a code but as a characteristic of the relation between researcher and researched. Once we consider the relation as an event (rather than thing), it is immediately apparent that ethical questions never are resolved with some formal institutional approval of the research. Instead, ethical questions are aspects of human life and relations and thus continuously pose themselves anew, remain for a while, and die away only to be reborn again in some other form.