Participant Observation – what effect did I have?

RRebecca Turvillebecca Turvill is undertaking a PhD at the University of Brunel in the Department of Education. Her research “How are children developing number sense, post national numeracy strategy?” is supervised by Dr Gwen Ineson and Dr Heather Mendick. You can follow Rebecca via twitter @RebeccaTurvill




The “participant observer disturbs the situation he investigates” (Hargreaves, 1967, p193).

This quote both haunts and drives me as I reflect on my year of research in primary school. Having undertaken an ethnography of primary mathematics learning, I have spent many, many hours disturbing primary classrooms. I have of course spent many more analysing and reflecting on the situations I have been investigating. Now, as I step back and analyse my data I am particularly focussed on this idea – this disruption.

Disruption generally has negative connotations, travel disruption strikes fear into the heart of most commuters. But what about data disruption? How do I manage the disruption in my observations due to my participation? As I have drawn on the work of Pierre Bourdieu (e.g. Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992), a reflexive approach to data collection has been central throughout my ethnographic research. Indeed my field notes are littered with comments like “I felt anxious about..” and even the occasional “I stopped myself falling asleep by…”

These comments are helpful as I analyse my data as they continue to highlight my physical presence within the data and identify personal bias in my notes. They cause me to consider my position within the data, particularly with regard to comments the children make. But one particular aspect of disruption I cannot account is the way in which I was prepared for.

As a primary school teacher myself, I know the additional pressure having another adult in the classroom can bring. I took great lengths to avoid placing the teachers under any pressure. I focussed my research on the children, not the teaching; I supported groups if it helped or stepped out of lessons if needed; I even photocopied missing sheets.  Despite these actions, having another adult present means you are in whatever way being watched. The disruption to the situation is present before I even arrive.

In order to “help” me get the right data, I am aware that sometimes teachers have scheduled a particular lesson on a day I would be in their school. I am also aware that since this has happened on at least one occasions, there are likely to be occasions when it happened without my knowledge. I also know that largely the lessons themselves are not the point, the children are and the way they engage in them.

So how do I disrupt this learning? How does my presence interrupt this situation? When I help with a group, when I challenge a child or support them in a task, I am not just disrupting but heavily involved in the data. Yet, when I step back and watch, when I sit and listen to what they do, I cannot assume I am not disrupting. So, how do I take hold of this disruption? My field notes continue to serve me as I strive to answer these questions and my reflexivity continues to be central as I analyse my data.

The disruption is in the data, I just hope Bourdieu can help me see it.


Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L.J.D. (1992) An invitation to reflexive sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hargreaves, D.H. (1967) Social relations in a secondary school. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

I wish to acknowledge the support of Dr Gwen Ineson and Dr Heather Mendick for their supervision and guidance. I am grateful for a studentship from Brunel University to allow me to undertake this research.



Almost the Same: Five Ways Remote PhD Students Can Mimic the Residential PhD Experience

Maha BaliMaha Bali is a part-time, self-funded (well, by my parents, thank you), remote location PhD student at the University of Sheffield, studying Education. Her PhD thesis (recently submitted and awaiting viva in October) is entitled “Critical Thinking at University: A Study of Critical Thinking Development at an American Liberal Arts University in the Middle East”. She started her PhD in 2006 while working full-time as a faculty developer at the American University in Cairo, and finally submitted it while on a two-year maternity leave from work in 2013. Maha has written several articles on and You can follow her on Twitter via @Bali_Maha

If doing a PhD is a lonely pursuit, wait utill you have tried doing it remotely! Remote location, part-time PhD study can be beneficial and even empowering! But there are a few aspects of the residential PhD experience that I missed out on, and this posting shares my experience dealing with them to try to approximate the residential PhD experience. I have no idea how common my struggles are, or how useful these tips will be, but I imagine and hope that, at least for international, remote location, part-time PhD students, these tips will be beneficial.

#1: Network with other researchers. I start with this one, because I find it the most important. I assume that residential PhD students have some kind of interaction with academics and peers in their department at their institution. Remote location students only have official access to their supervisor(s), and have only fleeting interaction with peers and academics at their institution. During my remote location study, I visited my supervisor about once a year. During that visit, I tried to attend at least one seminar or workshop each time I visited, and tried to stay in contact with some of the people I met (professors were much friendlier than students, I found!). However, these are still people I met only about once a year, so I focused my attention on building networks in my local context, which in my case, varied throughout my PhD (my husband and I moved several times). When I had no university affiliation, I attended public lectures and free workshops at nearby universities. When I did have university affiliation, I volunteered in research projects and attended conferences as often as possible – sometimes these weren’t directly related to my field, but networking with researchers in similar fields was useful just the same. All of these forms of networking provided an avenue for intellectual conversations to keep me stimulated; helped me develop my “academic language”, and provided insight into “how research is done” by people other than myself! Where possible, access to other research students can provide moral support and advice, and sometimes even direct help reading drafts, for example. Networking with more senior colleagues can help with advice related to publication, and other advice regarding the PhD and viva. Some older colleagues will also be willing to read drafts of your chapters, and provide invaluable feedback on them.

#2: Access to important references. As a remote student, I only had access to online library resources. While these were substantial, there still remained many important journal articles (e.g. old ones not digitized) and books that I could not access. If you are lucky like me, you’ll have access to a local academic library and even free document delivery service for articles and book chapters (I think remote students should get free document delivery from the institution granting them the PhD, but that’s another conversation!). For entire books, however, I drew upon further resources. First, peers and senior colleagues were often willing to lend me their books (see point 1!). Second, you will be surprised how well-stocked some public libraries can be with academic books (in the UK and US at least). Local universities you are not affiliated with might also be willing to grant you temporary on-site access as a researcher (the American University in Cairo does this, for example). One further resource I discovered is Kindle books. There are some academic books that you can borrow for a modest fee. Most books also offer free samples, which often cover the first chapter (sometimes, that is all you need; other times, it helps you decide whether the book is worth buying). One other strategy I did when I could not access a book I needed (and this happened to me a few times during Egypt’s political upheaval when the American University in Cairo’s library was closed) was to look for articles by the author of the book/chapter I needed. Often, someone who has written a book/chapter on a certain subject has also written an article or two about the same subject, covering the key concepts. Sometimes, that is all you need! If all else fails, try asking your supervisor if s/he has the book and is willing to lend it to you temporarily!

#3: Disseminate. As a remote student, I did not have access to the opportunities for PhD students to present their research in a relatively safe environment. So I just tried as often as possible to do so at conferences. To reduce costs, I often chose a conference that was at the same time I was visiting my supervisor in Sheffield, and one that was located in Sheffield or a nearby city. It took me a while to work up the confidence to disseminate my work, but once I started doing it, my confidence built further until I felt confident enough to submit my thesis.

#4: Teach. Whenever the opportunity becomes available, and if you can manage your time, teach in or around your subject. I was not directly teaching what I was studying, but the teaching experience helped me reflect much more deeply about my research, and I found synergies there I would not have anticipated. It is possible that someone who is studying social work, for example, would benefit more from actually doing social work rather than teaching it (but I assume most of them do so already?). But I still expect teaching to be beneficial across fields, because it helps one think of one’s subject on a meta-level and reflect on it from a different angle than the one usually used for research.

#5: Use technology well. For a remote location student, all kinds of technology will make your life easier. I believe remote location students should always be assigned a tech-savvy supervisor! Using Skype with your supervisor might mean you can get to talk to him/her more often than if you called internationally. Using shared wikis or blogs with your supervisor (if they are willing) or track changes/comments on MS Word can help you have an asynchronous conversation with your supervisor. Returning to point #1, you can find online support communities to help you through your research. There is so much on Twitter to support PhD students (SocPhD and PhdForum being two!!!). There are useful podcasts (e.g. VivaSurvivors). These online communities gave me support that helped me sprint through the final stages of writing.

If you have different experiences or tips worth sharing, please post them in the comments.

“How breakthroughs come: tenacity and perseverance”

kip jonesKip Jones is a reader in Performative Social Science at the Centre for Qualitative Research at Bournemouth University. Kip is an American by birth, and has been studying and working in the UK for more than 15 years. His main efforts have involved developing tools from the arts and humanities for use by social scientists in research and its impact on a wider public. You can read more of Kip’s fascinating blogs at or follow him on Twitter @kip_jones
The following is a repost of a blog written a while back that describes the process of creating, then publishing,’On a Train from Morgantown: a film script’  in Psychological Studies, an academic journal.
train kipMore than ten years ago now, when I was living in a bedsit in Leicester and had just finished my PhD, I decided to write a conference presentation about Ken Gergen and Klaus Riegel. Both scholars played important roles in the development of my thinking for my PhD thesis (Narratives of Identity & the Informal Care Role). During this time I came across a volume (Life-span Developmental Psychology Dialectical Perspectives on Experimental Research, edited by Nancy Datan & Hayne W. Reese, published by Academic Press 1977) that was a result of the Fifth West Virginia University Life-Span Developmental Psychology Conference held at Morgantown, West Virginia in 1976. The conference centred on the work of Riegel and the book included a chapter by Gergen.My imagination got the best of me. What if these two, both influences on my own work, had a conversation following that gathering? As I recently explained, reported in a Times Higher Education article, “Gergen is a giant to our generation, so it was good to look back to a time when he was insecure…I wanted to examine how breakthroughs come, and the price people pay for them”. Thus, “On a train from Morgantown” was born.It seems a short time ago now, but we must not forget that in 2001 digital production was limited, at the personal computer level at least. I found video-cassette recorded footage of trains that would have been in service in West Virginia in 1976 then convinced a techy at my university to help me cut and edit it. I wrote a script (much like a radio play) and found people to record it on cassette tape (one in Germany, the rest in Leicester). I produced overhead projections for some of the visuals and created lots of sound files and edited music (again, on cassette) to fill out the imaginary train journey.

I packed up all these production materials and caught the ferry to Hamburg and then a train to Berlin and a conference at the Free University to present my grand production … to an audience that would include Mary and Ken Gergen. When my allotted time came, I spent it dashing about starting up a TV, co-ordinating a cassette player, an overhead projector, etc.—a bit like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain. Ken Gergen responded quite emotionally following all of this. The mostly German-speaking audience seemed a bit confused by it all.

I recall this as a bit of madness on my part at the time, but also in many ways as the public birth of Performative Social Science, or at least the seeds for its future development. Being a visual person, I wanted to ‘show’ as well as ‘tell’–and this frustration became central to my efforts in developing a Performative Social Science (PSS).

Because publication is (is supposed to be?) the end-all of some academic lives, I began to think about how to possibly publish ‘Morgantown’. Because of my visual inclinations, I thought that a film script with all of its optical instructions might do the trick. So I wrote ‘Morgantown’ up as a screenplay, looking at many scripts in order to get a sense of how to present a visual story as text. A bit of a Pollyanna at publication at that time, I actually submitted the script to a few journals which I naively thought might be adventurous enough to publish it. They were not and it was rejected.

I put ‘Morgantown’ in a drawer somewhere and so it languished for almost a decade. About a year ago, the editor of a special issue on the work of Ken Gergen for Springer’s Psychological Studiescontacted me and asked if I would be interested in submitting a paper for the issue. I responded that, yes, I do have something that may be fit for purpose. Go ahead, I told myself: ‘I dare you.’ I submitted the script for ‘Morgantown’.

Desktop23 kip blogTo my great surprise, the submission was accepted with no substantial changes and now is published as a film script in the special issue on Ken Gergen in Psychological Studies. In my estimation, this represents a great breakthrough for Performative Social Science, or the use of tools from the arts in dissemination of social science research. It gives others a reference in support of their own work in moving academic publishers to being more open, even inviting, to alternative presentation formats.

‘Morgantown’ and its eventual acceptance holds a special place for me. In so many ways it represents ‘working in the dark’ against unknown forces and circumstances, but still being driven by our muses to create and invent. ‘Morgantown’ represents what I like to call ‘kitchen sink’ work—work produced because creativity compels us to find the means, the ways, the materials and then the outlets. This mirrors the way in which artists frequently work–something that social scientists and policy wags can learn a great deal from. The artist does not wait for someone, somewhere to establish a ‘cultural value’ for their outputs. They create and damn the consequences! I never want to forget that it is in these personal efforts the potential to make a difference lies.

Some of the responses to the publication of ‘Morgantown’ are repeated below. They convince me that efforts to open up channels previously closed to innovation and experimentation are not unfounded and offer support and encouragement to others:

· Congratulations. This is really amazing. Thank you for your courage. And for the work that you are doing for all of us.
· It’s just wonderful to see the glimpse of barriers breaking down between interdisciplinary research and innovative work. Well done!! It is happening a step at a time and we just need to keep on pushing those boundaries.
· Breaks the waves for academics like me dreaming of more than the written words to portray researched life
· I got very inspired, though, when reading about your publication as I share PSS’ engagement and ambition to intensify publications moving in between arts/social sciences/performance …I say/shout “GREAT!!!” from Copenhagen! Thank you for sharing!!
· I continue to watch your career with great interest and derive much hope for my own work from your example.
· Fantastique!!! gives me hope
· Think it is really important to share this kind of news as it gives all of us who research in creative ways hope!
· A massive achievement in the current climate!
· This is fantastic … and I received this just perfect for our course in qualitative research methodologies where I am teaching narrative and performative approaches. Will use your article as a brand new example and hope to encourage some of our students to be more daring!

Call For Guest Blogs

The ethos underpinning this Social Research Hub is to support a narrative between all of you who are interested in social research. It is hoped that SOCPHD can facilitate communication between researchers, those who apply its findings to develop and implement policies and practices, with those whose lives are affected by it  – Everyone of us.

As such this invitation for guest blogs is purposefully broad; I do not want to dictate the narrative. Clearly, no abusive or defamatory blogs will be posted, otherwise I want to help share your knowledge and experiences. Your blogs do not have to be exclusive to SOCPHD.

By SOCPHD hosting guest blogs I hope to engender a sense of community, but it is equally important to support your collaborative ventures. I am constantly inspired by your generosity and innovation and want to  let others know about it. So do tell us what you are doing.

I have established a forum at where you can post about your research interest, leave a link to your blog and help others to find you.

This feed and our sister site @phdforum are developing according to your needs. I am grateful to those of you who have expressed an interest in becoming more involved and look forward to developing these conversations  in the coming months.

Please forward any blogs you want to feature on SOCPHD or inquiries to    admin @

Currently these enterprises are facilitated by one full time phd student and your patience with my response times are very much appreciated.

I look forward to hearing from you,


Donna (@donna_peach)

Preparation and Passion for a Future in Psychology

Mike Lomas 1Mike Lomas has recently completed a Master’s degree in Applied Psychology and is looking to move onto a Phd. He is also a qualified teacher of the subject, currently working at Bolton College, as well as doing some guest lecturing at the University of Salford, where he has also contributed to an ongoing research project in the area of emotional intelligence. His main area of focus is social psychology, but his role as a teacher means the scope of his reading stretches wider than this. You can follow Mike’s Blog and follow him on Twitter via  @MikeLomas_

Hi there and welcome to my blog, which is essentially all about my passion for the subject of psychology.

I have recently completed a Master’s degree in Applied Psychology and am looking to move onto a Phd. I am also a qualified teacher of the subject, currently working at Bolton College, as well as doing some guest lecturing at the University of Salford, where I have also been fortunate enough to contribute to an ongoing research project in the area of emotional intelligence. My main area of focus is social psychology and the various aspects of modern life that may impact us, particularly in terms of mental health. However, my role as a teacher means the scope of my reading stretches wider than this, so I may also venture into other areas of the subject.

From personal experiences to current goings on in the news, this blog will explore the psychology that underlies every aspect of our modern lives. The posts will take different forms; from short, opinion pieces, to more in depth articles based on my reading. In each instance, I am looking to put some of my thoughts out there, as well as to gather the opinions of others and get some form of discussion going. I’m always looking for fresh perspective on a topic, enabling me develop my own understanding, whilst trying to contribute to the field as best I can.

The blog will also serve as a  resource for my students, and I’ll often post material linked to their studies. Say, for example an interesting debate arose during class discussion, I’d look to bring some of their ideas on board, and get them to begin to think critically about the subject. Even if nobody takes interest and reads this, I feel it will benefit me personally, as it will allow me explore my own curiosity and develop my writing as I go. Albert Einstein once said; “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”, and it is this intellectual curiosity from which I gain motivation. I am simply awaiting inspiration, and for that spark of interest for which to apply it.

I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts,



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