Participant observation:

Participant observation is central to anthropological fieldwork. Taking part in the events he or she is observing, describing, and analyzing, the anthropologist gains insights beyond any gained from more distant description and surveys. Some behaviors and beliefs can only be understood in more intimate, day to day relationships or by just being there when things happen. In the introduction to his account of street culture in East Harlem, Philippe Bourgois (1995) notes that "traditional social science research techniques that rely on Census Bureau statistics or random sample neighborhood surveys cannot access with any degree of accuracy the people who survive in the underground economy - and much less those who sell or take illegal drugs..... The participant-observation techniques developed primarily by cultural anthropologists since the 1920s are better suited than exclusively quantitative methodologies for documenting the lives of people who live on the margins of a society that is hostile to them..... With this goal in mind, I spent hundreds of nights on the street and in crackhouses observing dealers and addicts. I regularly tape-recorded their conversations and life histories....I also visited their families, attending parties and intimate reunions...." (pp 12-13).

How much participation?:

How much an anthropologist participates in the lives of the people he or she is studying depends on the nature of the study, the anthropologist's personality and interests, and local people's perceptions and acceptance of that participation. Often, the anthropologist becomes friends with at least some informants, bridging the gaps between cultures and different lifestyles, sharing the joys and sorrows of other human beings. The intensity and the benefits derived from friendships born in the field are captured in the following quotes, excerpted from articles in Bridges to Humanity: Narratives on Anthropology and Friendship (Grindal and Salamone 1995):

"No one was more important to me than the late Bernard Second, singer of ceremonies, as he preferred to be called rather than shaman.... Bernard and I were fictive kin, at his instigation: we cooperated, fought, learned from each other, and loved each other as domost siblings.... It was he who taught me Apachean esoterica and about the everyday, as well; and it was he who demanded the best of me from our initial meeting in February1975 until his death in November 1988" (Farrer 1995:52).

"One afternoon in the late summer when everyone else in the family was off visiting or at weddings, Urmilaji and I found ourselves alone. I renewed my request for her lifestory.... Unexpectedly, she launched into an account of how she had been betrayed in her friendship with another older woman who, like me, was an infrequent visitor.... Urmilaji softly said, 'I was going through my hard times.' In a rush of friendship.... I said, 'I've had hard times too,' and I confided to her some of them. Holding hands, tears in both our eyes, Urmilaji began her own personal story. It was a story that left me reeling"(Narayan 1995:94).

During my fieldwork, my participation never included becoming a gardener like other village Gende women because my purpose was to learn the effects of economic inequality on the lives and political fortunes of villagers and migrants, not to study gardening. Villagers know that, like some of their own children, my skills and talents lie elsewhere, and that I am of more use to them as an anthropologist, writer and teacher. Even so, during the time I worked at the University of Papua New Guinea, a few villagers expressed the opinion that I should give up my job in town and move back to Yandera, where I could use my knowledge of the outside world to help them develop a tourist industry. From the first year I spent in Yandera (1982-83), villagers knew I could be comfortable there, living in the same kind of bush material house, bathing and washing my clothes in the river like everyone else, and participating in local marriage exchanges and pig kills, making generous contributions and helping the women with food preparation. I had also shown that I respected and trusted the Gende by never patronizing them and by having my family join me in the field. How far villagers accepted my presence in Yandera village is illustrated by an incident that occurred at the end of my first year in the field. At that time Elizabeth was experiencing difficulties with both Ruge and her co-wives. Her emotions surfaced as violent headaches and on one particular morning suicidal depression dramatized by wild threats to kill her "tormentors" along with herself. Several of Elizabeth's sisters-in-law came to me, as the "only child of Elizabeth's" living in Yandera, requesting that I help "my mother". For the remainder of the day and for several days after, I sat with Elizabeth, followed her around, fed her, and listened to her hurts and complaints. Eventually her positive nature and sense of purpose reasserted themselves, and she once again took charge of her life and, to a degree that I didn't appreciate at the time, mine.

Copyright 1996 by Laura Tamakoshi and Brian Cross