Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

How Participant is Participant Observation? On Wearing My “Activist Hat” and My “Ethnographer Hat” (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Amanda Harvey-Sanchez

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

This reflection is inspired in part by an event. The event was a meeting where members of Massey College came together to discuss the search for a new Principal and share thoughts on the direction of the college. In my paper, I discuss this event as a moment of “objective crisis”, a moment which forced the undiscussed (whiteness) at Massey into view and brought about a (temporary) coalescing of critique for my interlocutors. Something I do not describe, however, is the role I played in many of the turns throughout that evening and in the days that followed.

My actions can be summarized as follows: I was the first to raise the topic of diversity at the meeting which I describe, I encouraged one of my main interloctuors to speak up, I informed others after the meeting about what was happening, and opened up my room for an informal group discussion that evening. A few days later, I also called an informal meeting with many of my main interlocuters, in which discussion of whiteness at Massey continued. In the grand scheme of things my actions were nothing monumental (the dominant order continues to persist) but they are significant for what they reveal about some of the more commonly held assumptions of ethnographic practice. Reflecting back on my actions, it occurred to me that I had perhaps “participated” more than is expected within the realm of “participant observation”. It is this question of “degree” of participation, as well as accompanying questions of activism within anthropology which I turn to here.

What is “participant observation”?

Participant observation as the key methodological practice of contemporary ethnography is commonly associated with Malinowski and his moves to take anthropology “off the verandah” and into the everyday lives of those being studied. It involves a process of complete immersion, “to cover the full extent of the phenomena in each aspect of […] culture studied” (Malinowski 1922: 11), as well as meticulous data collection “carried on systematically throughout the course of one’s work” (21). This is essentially, to borrow an oft-used phrase, a formalized way of saying “deep hanging out”.[1] The point is that the anthropologist “participates” in everyday life rather than merely observing it.

There is an implicit line, however, that we as anthropologists know not to cross. The “participation” of “participant observation” is for the most part passive rather than active. We participate in the sense of “yes practice” – go to every event you are invited to, talk to every person you encounter, write down everything you experience – but the anthropologist is not the one planning the events, stirring up things to write down, provoking actions, creating experiences. Participation is framed in terms of an affirmative response to an invitation, but never the invitation itself.

During a conversation with a friend near the start of my fieldwork, I expressed concern that I might not garner enough data because I was just “waiting for things to happen”. As it turned out, I had more than enough data, but this phrase speaks to something much larger: waiting as being central to the ethnographic endeavor. As anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes notes, “watchful waiting is what all anthropologists are best-trained to do. Above and outside the political fray is where most anthropologists cautiously position themselves” (1995: 414). We are forever “waiting for things to happen”, but never “making things happen”.

Writing and Fieldwork as Politics & Disturbance

Part of the reason for this positioning is the persistent influence of positivist and objectivist thought: a nagging desire to frame the anthropologist as a respectable scientific researcher, one who is a “neutral, dispassionate, cool and rational, objective observer of the human condition” (Scheper-Hughes 1995: 410). But, wait a minute, you may be thinking. Nobody really ascribes to this archetype anymore. Anthropology has entered the “ontological turn”. Did we not embrace subjectivity long ago?

In theory, yes. Various theorists have pointed to how ethnography is inherently subjective and political: “truth” is “partial” (Clifford 1986), we interpret interpretations (Geertz 1973), and knowledge is political by virtue of the conditions under which it is produced (Said 1978). In other words, anthropologists can never really be “objective” observers who position themselves “outside the political fray” because their observation is already subjective and their writing is already political. And yet, this desire for objective distancing still takes hold.

Another part of the problem is in wanting to “protect” our data. Even if we accept that our writing is political, that our observation is subjective, we can at the very least say (or so we try) that our objects of observation remain “pure”. We are observing life as it would naturally happen. To start engaging in activism would be to change the course of everyday life, as it would have naturally occurred without our presence. But to dance around activism is to assume that a state of pure non-disturbance is even possible when in reality our mere presence is already an instigator of change.

A small anecdote from my own fieldwork in Kerala, India helps illustrate this. At the end of a discussion with a group of young women about gender, one of them turned to me and told me that I had made her think about gender differently. It had not been my intention to make her “think about gender differently” but this change, this slight shift in perspective, transpired nonetheless. My presence, our conversation, and our worlding together had already changed the both of us (I, too, had been made to think differently about gender). This is inevitable, and moreover, not something that should be denied or concealed.

This problem is amplified through the presence of a double-bind inherent to our discipline. As anthropologists, our knowledge is inseparable from our relationship with our interlocutors (Mosse 2006). The more we are able to become “close” with them, the more they share about their lives, and the more we have to write about. But at the same time, the more we become “close” with our interlocutors, the more likely it is that our presence and our relationship will bring about much larger and more impactful change. Our data is “changing” even as we strain to “capture it” in writing, and it changes more and more the better we become at “capturing it” in all its nuance. But rather than let this get us all up in arms, anthropologists would do better to simply accept the following: there is no state of pure-non-disturbance in ethnography, and there never was.

Thus, having established that our writing is already political and our presence already a disturbance, a question that naturally emerges is why our actions as ethnographers cannot become deliberate acts of politics. Put another way, why can we not be activists and researchers at the same time? Scheper-Hughes answer this question by saying that we can, indeed that we must. She proposes a form of “barefoot anthropology” where the anthropologist is politically committed and morally engaged. I turn next to a few scenarios where such a form of anthropology might be possible, as well as the challenges that arise.

Claims to Action Through Membership and Continuity

It is easiest to imagine a form of activist anthropology in cases where the researcher is “native” to the community being studied. This is the situation I found myself in at Massey. There are two key features that make “native research” unique: 1) membership and 2) continuity. As a student and Junior Fellow, I am a member of Massey College rather than simply a guest being welcomed in for the purposes of research. Even as anthropologists strive to capture the “native perspective”, they are not fully “one of them”; this is the unique vantage point that being “native to the field” offers. Moreover, I will continue to be a member of Massey College after my research is complete; I continue to remain “in the field” even after my “fieldwork” is complete. The result of these two features is that I have a stake in the outcomes of events at Massey, and by extension a claim to action. It is for these two reasons that I felt comfortable acting in the ways that I described at the start of this reflection. I was able to wear my “activist hat” and my “ethnographer hat” at the same time.

In the case of research outside one’s own community, the situation becomes more complicated. Who are you, a stranger, who will surely be gone in a matter of months, to waltz in and start making changes? In the context of white anthropologists in field sites in the Global South, this dilemma is intensified as it is bound up with histories of colonialism and harmful mentalities of trusteeship. Clearly, there are numerous problems that arise in this scenario. But does this mean that for “non-native” researchers, activism in the field is impossible?

Not exactly. There may be, in some situations, a way to go about “doing activism” ethically. It requires listening to the intimacy already fostered in ethnography and being attuned to what is needed and what is not. It is a process of continually asking for consent, and responding appropriately to what is asked of the anthropologist not just as a researcher, but as a friend. This is what Scheper-Hughes describes as being an anthropologist and a companheira (1995: 410).

But, this form of activism is still on some level an affirmative response to an invitation. The researcher is taking on a more active role, no longer keeping a safe distance in order to properly and “objectively” observe, but their active participation is still subject to an invitation (even if implicit) from her interlocutors. Burrowing further into this ethical dilemma, there is yet another distinction that must be considered: there is a difference between being the leader of the revolution and being an activist in the crowd (a soldier rather than a general). We can establish (perhaps) that it is appropriate to join the revolution when asked to do so and when one agrees politically with its goals, but is it appropriate to start the revolution? What about suggesting one? What about opening a discussion where a suggestion of revolution may possibly emerge? To answer some of these questions, it is useful to revisit the meaning of membership within a group.

What is “membership”?

I turn to another example to offer some insights. As an undergraduate, I experienced being on the other side of ethnographic research. A PhD student (Emma) was doing research on how student activists become politicized, and I was part of the activist campaign that she was studying. She attended and videorecorded all of our meetings – contributing actively to discussions – and attended many of our social gatherings. She never “took over”, but she also participated in a more “active” manner, offering opinions that had tangible impacts on the ways in which we came to think about our activism. More than merely responding to our own cues, Emma also raised topics of discussion and suggested courses of action of her own accord, and was often very persuasive in doing so. She was our friend first and a researcher second. Most importantly, I considered her just as much a “member” of our campaign as anyone else.

Membership becomes a more a fluid term in this example and is no longer restricted to those who are “native” to the field. Emma was not a member of the campaign prior to her research, but she certainly become a member through the process of doing research. She crossed the boundary separating welcomed guest who “participates” in everyday life (the traditional role of the anthropologist) and full and active member of the community. Emma was able to do this because she established herself as a fellow activist from the start. She never kept up any pretense of neutral observation and made it clear that she was joining our campaign with the intention of becoming a member; she was a member of the campaign who happened to also be a researcher.

This approach might seem, then, to be the perfect model for a more activist anthropology. The problem, however, is that it might not always be possible for the researcher to establish herself as an active member from the start in all contexts. For instance, the researcher may not know where they want to situate themselves politically, or they may find that the group’s politics are at odds with their own. In situations where the researcher is studying groups of people they perceive as dominating or oppressive to others (for example, Neo-Nazis or white supremacists), a refusal to actively participate may be the only way to remain “morally engaged”.  I leave discussion of research on the “other side” (including defining what constitutes the “other side”) for another reflection, but I raise the topic here to draw attention to how political positioning for the researcher within the field is not always clear.[2]

Some more questions, for anthropologists who also want to be activists

This leaves us with a bit of a mess. There are some situations, such as “native research”, where activism can (at times) more easily be merged with anthropological research, but it is still very difficult to assert universally the role of activism in anthropology. Perhaps, then, instead of a clear “yes or no” response to the question “can you be an activist and an ethnographer at the same time?” we need to rephrase the question and reframe the response. We can ask instead “Why am I doing the research I am doing and what degree of participation does the work allow for?”

I present a set of guiding questions which can help determine the response:

  • Will I be a part of this community after my research is completed?
  • Have I been asked to participate in political action?
  • Would the people I am working with appreciate my sharing my political opinions on their own situation, even if they do not agree with them?
  • Does the community I am working with consider me part of the community itself, or a welcome if somewhat distant observer?
  • How can my writing be used for political intervention, and how can I help facilitate this?


Clifford, James
1996 Anthropology and/as Travel. Etnofoor 9(2): 5-15.

Geertz, Clifford
1998 Deep Hanging Out. The New York Review of Books. October 22 1998 Issue.

Malinowski, Bronislaw
2013 [1922]. Argonauts of the Western Pacific.  Long Grove: IL, USA: Waveland.

Mosse, David
2006 Anti-Social Anthropology? Objectivity, Objection, and the Ethnography of Public Policy and Professional Communities. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12 (4): 935-956.

Said, Edward
1978 Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy
1995 The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology. Current Anthropology 36(3): 409-440.

[1] This phrase is commonly associated with Clifford Geertz (1998), who claims to have borrowed it from James Clifford (1996), who himself says he borrowed it from Renato Rosaldo who, Clifford explains, used the phrase during a discussion on what makes ethnography distinctive.

[2] Scheper-Hughes (1995) also discusses situations where the oppressed become oppressors, and argues that the anthropologist has a moral responsibility to “take sides” even in these situations. The mirror image, which I also leave for another discussion, is in situations where oppressors become oppressed, and what to do in such cases. My focus here, however, has largely been in how to deal with the possibility of political or activist action (directed externally towards others) when the anthropologist already shares a political affiliation with her interlocutors.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s