Ethical Challenges in Participant Observation: A Reflection on Ethnographic Fieldwork

Article excerpt

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


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). …