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.

References:

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.

 

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