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.



Forthcoming #socchat ‘Researcher career development & well-being’

Our next #socchat to be held on 30th May 2013 is scheduled at 4pm British summer time in the hope that this will facilitate a global audience. It will discuss the UK Concordat initiative and invites you to share what similar initiatives, if any, exist in your country. Please read the accompanying information about Concordat.

At the end of this blog we will structure the format for the upcoming #socchat and the ways in which you can contribute to this discussion.


In the UK there is the Concordat initiative “an agreement between the funders and employers of researchers in the UK, setting out the expectations and responsibilities of each stakeholder in researcher careers – researchers themselves, their managers, employers and funders.   Vitae-Concordat-logo-2011  It aims to increase the attractiveness and sustainability of research careers in the UK and to improve the quantity, quality and impact of research for the benefit of UK society and the economy.”  


The Concordat sets out ‘seven key principles for funders and employers of researchers in the UK.’ 

  1. Recognition of the importance of recruiting, selecting and retaining researchers with the highest potential to achieve excellence in research
  2. Researchers are recognised and valued by their employing organisation as an essential part of their organisation’s human resources and a key component of their overall strategy to develop and deliver world-class research
  3. Researchers are equipped and supported to be adaptable and flexible in an increasingly diverse, mobile, global research environment
  4. The importance of researchers’ personal and career development, and lifelong learning, is clearly recognised and promoted at all stages of their career
  5. Individual researchers share the responsibility for and need to pro-actively engage in their own personal and career development, and lifelong learning
  6. Diversity and equality must be promoted in all aspects of the recruitment and career management of researchers
  7. The sector and all stakeholders will undertake regular and collective review of their progress in strengthening the attractiveness and sustainability of research careers in the UK


The Concordat reports on ‘researchers’ attitudes to professional development’ & comments briefly on researcher leaders

CROS results show that

  • Significant numbers of research staff who responded to the survey take on wider activities and responsibilities beyond their immediate research role, such as managing a budget, teaching, involvement in institutional committees, knowledge transfer or public engagement activities
  • between 2009 and 2011 there was little increase in reports of such engagement in these ‘wider’ activities and, in some cases, this fell slightly, e.g. writing grant proposals and supervising students
  • the majority of respondents have either consulted their principal investigator or research leader in relation to training and development needs (72%) and long term career planning (64%), or would be happy to do so (2011)
  • By 2011, 53% of respondents had a career plan, slightly more than in 2009
  • Around 30% of research staff responding to the survey have consulted a careers adviser about long term career planning

The role of research leaders

  • Up to half of research leaders who responded to PIRLS feel that it is very important for research staff to have wider experiences, and very few think that they are unimportant in helping research staff to become future research leaders
  • Over half of respondents to PIRLS in 2011 say that they are confident about giving career development advice

“A key action for the sector is to continue cultural change towards widespread understanding that researchers themselves need to take responsibility for their own career and transferable skills development. To do this requires not just the engagement of research staff but the acknowledgement, by research leaders, of the importance and value of providing the time for research staff to do so. ”

Further information about Concordat can be found via this link:


The #socchat will explore the following areas:

1. What are the benefits of such initiatives and how do they translate to practice?

2. Do difficulties arise from Concordat & similar initiatives?

3. Is there a distinction between career and research development?

4. How do we develop a culture which equally nurtures researcher well being as well as performance?


In preparation for this tweet chat we invite you to contribute to this discussion by submitting a blog with your thoughts, opinions or experiences.

Bloggers identities can remain anonymous if you wish, indeed you may want to email us only a brief paragraph and we can collate and publish these. What is important, is that we continue to develop the narrative that many of us share in our universities. Blogging before and after the tweet chat enables greater participation and extends the conversation.

Please send us links to other initiatives which contribute to this discussion. You can tweet us or email via admin (@)  We look forward to hearing from you.







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