Malinowski's Participant-Observation in Modern Anthropology

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Where does Malinowski’s conceptualization of participant-observation sit in the landscape of modern anthropological fieldwork? A primary objective of the modern ethnographer is to glean insights into the ways people relate to and interact with one another and the world around them. Through participant-observation, Malinowski (1922) offered a valuable tool with which to uncover these insights and understandings, the ethnographer. The ethnographer as research tool has become the basis of much modern anthropological research. As a method, it was a radical departure from the typical approach to fieldwork used in Malinowski’s time which involved techniques that kept the ethnographer distanced and distinct from those they studied (McGee & Warms, 2008). In his conceptualization of participant-observation, Malinowski identified three primary objectives for the fieldworker. First, to record the feel and flow of daily life as a member of the community; second, to create a framework of community organization based on a scientific perspective; and third, to collect detailed personal information particular to the community of study (Malinowski, 1922). These goals and methodologies remain principal to the design and analysis of modern anthropological research. However, they also raise a number of questions about the practical, paradigmatic and ethical difficulties associated with anthropological fieldwork. Discussed below are the goals identified by Malinowski, some of the issues they raise, and how they have come to be interpreted within modern anthropological practice. The premise of participant-observation draws the researcher inside the daily life of those they study, with the many small experiences, interactions, intimacies and resulting integration providing an entrée into cultural life not afforded the lone observer or ‘outsider’. Malinowski took great pains to ensure that he eventually came to feel part of the tribe, an insider, ‘joining in himself in what is going on’ rather than simply recording the proceedings (Malinowski, 1922, p. 21). Achieving insider, as opposed to outsider, status within a community of study is a primary goal for many anthropologists in the field. However, the concept of a dichotomous insider/outsider positionality is a complex issue that is coming under increasing scrutiny within the field (Kirby, Greaves & Reid, 2006). Malinowski’s (1922) methodology of ethnographer as tool is based in two contradictory imperatives, each centered on location. First, the researcher must locate themselves intimately within the group under study in order to gain a complete and ‘fleshed out’ account of community life and second, that it is not possible, when located within and as a member of a group, to have the necessary perspective to interpret community life (Malinowski, 1922). Claire Sterk (1996) challenges the ethnographer as insider viewpoint through her work with prostitutes in New York and New Jersey. Sterk’s own realization of her ability to extricate herself from the community and rejoin her own ‘world, a world of safety and stability’ confirmed her status as outsider (Sterk, 1996, p. 92). Nancy Kalow (1996) supports Malinowski’s assertion of the importance of distance when analysing data. She reports her research experience within a group of homeless children in San Francisco as limiting her perspective, something she only identified once she stepped outside of the role of participant-observer and became an observer of her data. This raises the issue of transition from participant-observer to observer/interpreter. By positioning oneself as interpreter or analyst, the researcher creates an academic distance from those they observe, voiding their participant status. Susan Krieger (1996) extends this argument through her experience as a functioning member of the community under study. Krieger found her membership identification did not automatically afford her insight into the group and,...
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