Ethical Challenges in Participant Observation: A Reflection on Ethnographic Fieldwork

By Li, Jun | The Qualitative Report, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Ethical Challenges in Participant Observation: A Reflection on Ethnographic Fieldwork


Li, Jun, The Qualitative Report


In this essay I reflect on the ethical challenges of ethnographic fieldwork I personally experienced in a female gambling study . By assuming a covert research role, I was able to observe natural occurrences of female gambling activities but unable to make peace with disturbing feelings of my research concealment. By making my study overt, I was able to fulfill ethical obligations as a researcher but unable to get female gamblers to speak their minds. I responded to such ethical dilemmas by adjusting the level of involvement, participating in female gambling culture as an insider and observing it as an outsider. This fieldwork suggests that the ethics of participant observation should be addressed in relation to the sensitivity of the research topic, the vulnerability of the researched individuals, and the plasticity of field membership roles. Key Words: Participant Observation, Female Gambling Culture, Sensitive Research, Research Ethics, and Field Membership Roles

Introduction

After completing my doctoral study in education, I received a one-year postdoctoral fellowship from the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Center to investigate female gambling culture at the department of sociology. In order to understand how women come to gamble and develop gambling problems, I employed two integrated ethnographic data collection methods, participant observation, and in-depth interviewing. While participant observation aimed to uncover the world of female gamblers with first-hand exploration of naturalistic gambling settings, in-depth interviewing intended to reveal the meanings of female gambling by attending to women's personal perspectives and interpretations. This labour-intensive ethnographic work was paid off with rich and informative narrative data. However, due to the disturbing emotions of ethical dilemmas I experienced in the field as an embedded participant researcher, in preparing the final report, I did not include some of my field encounters.

Although the ethical pitfalls inherent in participant observation are a well-recognized concern in ethnographic research, confessional tales (Van Maanen, 1988), especially unexpected mistakes occurring in the field, are less addressed in the literature. A few years have passed, but I still feel that this gambling research experience should be told to re-inform ethnographers, particularly the novice researchers, about potential and often unforeseen contingencies of such fieldwork.

In this reflective essay I first outline the necessity of using ethnographic methods to investigate sensitive topics involving vulnerable individuals or groups; then I detail ethical dilemmas and socio-emotional discomfort I encountered in the field; and finally I reflect on the lessons I learned from conducting this gambling study.

Ethnography and Sensitive Research

It has long been acknowledged that, when studying non-mainstream groups in society such as the marginalized and the stigmatized, researchers must tailor their data collection methods to both the sensitivity of the research topic and the vulnerability of research subjects (Goffman, 1963; Hobbs, 2002; Lee, 1993). Because observational research does not intervene in the activities of the people being studied (Alder & Alder, 2000), ethnography is, in particular, suitable to investigating sensitive issues because such work can provide rich, detailed descriptions about the unknown or the little known. As the only field method that allows researchers to observe what people do in "real life" contexts, not what they say what they do, ethnographic participant observation can supply detailed, authentic information unattainable by any other research method (Homan, 1980; Humphreys, 1970; Gans, 1999).

Since participant observation has the greatest potential to uncover contextualized, honest data, otherwise inaccessible, it ontologically and epistemologically underpins human quests for understanding multiple realities of life in context (Rossman & Rallis, 2003). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Ethical Challenges in Participant Observation: A Reflection on Ethnographic Fieldwork
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.