A guide for field projects on adaptive strategies Layer 3 Layer 4 Layer 2
Underlying principles
Ecosystem-based approach
Participatory research methodologies
Participant Observer-You Are Here-
Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA)
Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)
Participatory Action Research (PAR)
Project Stages

Participant observation and individual interviews

The "participant observer" field technique is well established in anthropology and has been adopted by other disciplines. The method derives from the insight that you derive from a community's values, dynamics, internal relationships, structures and conflicts best from their observed actions, rather than from their (normative) statements of what "is". The participant observer attempts immersion, to the extent permitted, in local life in order to understand and document how things work.

Dangers and drawbacks

In the IISD project all teams used a mix of methods, but one team- the South African one - was quite explicit that, for them, participant observation and individual interviews were far more productive of learning about adaptive strategies than PRA survey methods. But the participant observation and involvement with the community as a whole had been on-going for some years, an involvement that provided much of the fundamental data for the project report. Participant observation is an excellent method if there is the time, and it can be justified particularly where individual researchers already have prior exposure in the selected community. Three main dangers of this method that must be guarded against are:

  • Subjectivism and even solipsism: it is the least objective of all methods, and relies most heavily on the integrity and intellectual honesty of the researcher, whose experiences cannot be replicated, by the very nature of the research;
  • Documentation can be tricky: field notes often contain too much confidential information for wider circulation: much has to be taken on trust;
  • The method is less suited to "project" situations where the team are outsiders, not so familiar with the area, and where there are time constraints.

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