Observation in social science research has a longstanding history as an unobtrusive method. In fieldwork, participant observation, however, has had a much shorter yet controversial existence. Its legitimacy as an appropriate data-gathering technique and a methodological approach for creating more ethical dilemmas (see Goode, 1999; Kulick & Wilson, 1995) in the field than not has been reviewed, debated, and at times vehemently defended throughout the social sciences, in particular in the field of anthropology, although such theoretical and methodological introspection did not occur until the 1940s, with a significant treatise concerning participant observation not published until the 1950s. Resolution of such matters should never be expected because of what participant observation embodies, both as a research method and as a theoretical framework for fieldworkers.
The social context has always been the fulcrum for observations in the field. For fieldworkers, the central issues have always been defined around the meaning, practice, and utility in making participant observations in situ. Therefore, participant observation is as much a personal orientation for the fieldworker as it is a professional approach for studying social life. Raymond Gold’s classic 1958 article “Roles in Sociological Field Observations” exemplifies the near-obsessive nature of fieldworkers in their contemplation of the myriad social roles required of the participant observer. Gold’s classic field role typology (complete observer, participant-as-observer, observer-as-participant, and complete participant) should be interpreted not as a static categorical template but as a barometer that enables fieldworkers to make informed choices concerning their own tolerance level for inherent ethical challenges. These challenges are especially heightened when fieldworkers are studying deviant and/or illegal communities and their members, according to the degree of their involvement in the lives of participants, and in relation to other tangential field decisions (e.g. access/entrée, reciprocity, time, confidentiality, personal biography, rapport, resources, etc.) that may impact the scope and duration of the study.
Participant observations are primarily recorded through the use of field notes, a tradition of note taking used for contextualizing field events, meanings, and social interactions. The recording of field notes is a method for preserving the social–physical environment of a study’s setting and its people and heir respective behaviors. It facilitates both the immersion of the fieldworker in the local culture and an understanding of human relationships, in terms of both the researcher and research participants, unfolding in the setting. From jottings to more formal entries consisting of analytical memos, taxonomies, social network mapping, journals, blogs, and video, field notes facilitate the systematic collection and analysis of participant observations. They also offer a medium for preserving the nature of informal, often unscripted field conversations, a rather common occurrence in the field. Field conversations are just another form of interviews that are part and parcel of the fieldworker’s toolkit.