Qualitative Research: Why Do Participant Observation?

Writing up the case studies for my dissertation research on citizen science has required taking some time for reflection on the experience of doing qualitative research. I used a comparative case study methodology approach with fieldwork methods that included data collection through interviews, documents, and participant observation.

Participant observation, in particular, is time consuming and challenging. Retrospectively, however, I couldn’t imagine doing this research without participant observation, particularly for my “intensive” case, eBird. Why?

Here are a couple snippets of the case study that explain what fieldwork contributed to the study:

“My participant observation in eBird involved birding, monitoring and participating in birding listservs, recording my own usage of eBird over time, and attending meetings at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This experience was an integral part of this research. While I am not an ‘average’ eBirder, I match its new user demographics in terms of gender, memberships with related institutions, birding equipment owned, and level of education (nearly a third of new eBird users have a postgraduate degree.) At the time that I began fieldwork, I was younger than most new users of eBird and had no birding experience whatsoever.

Genuine participation in eBird meant that I had to learn how to bird. While I put up a bird feeder in my backyard in February 2009 when I first became interested in citizen science, I could identify only a handful of the most visible species in my area prior to participating in eBird. Learning to bird required a substantial time investment in learning how to identify wild birds, and additional investment in binoculars, field guides, audio recordings of bird calls, and backyard bird feeding supplies. As I developed basic bird identification skills and came to enjoy birding as a pastime for its own merits, I added time (and expense) to my business travels so that I could go birding in new and exotic locations. Field notes related to these birding experiences were made periodically throughout this study.”

What this translate to: birding is hard! It was much more difficult than I initially expected, and a lot more expensive.

“All of these forms of participation and observation contributed to substantially strengthening the research. I experienced the common challenges and triumphs of developing bird identification skills, learned the vocabulary of birding, and developed the same fascination with both birds and keeping lists of them that is typical of birders. Perhaps most telling in this respect, others started to describe me as an “avid birder” and friends began to come to me with questions about birds. It was a transformative experience that provided a deep appreciation of birders’ interests and enthusiasm for eBird. As a fellow birder, I now understand why each new feature elicits such excitement and gratitude from the birding community.

Following multiple email listservs provided a more thorough understanding of the broader context of the birding community and contextualized the community practices that interviewees discussed. In addition, many aspects of the birding experience are universal, and these interactions demonstrated that my that my birding and eBirding experiences are not unique.

A final benefit of participation was developing a genuine appreciation of the pleasure of birding. My daily life has been enriched by a heightened awareness of birds in my surroundings, and the rewards of birding – and more specifically, eBirding – continue to motivate me to further explore the world around me.”

What this translates to: I understand the context of this case in a way that would have been simply impossible without participant observation. And I had fun with it as well – how could I ask for anything more?

Oh yeah, let’s not forget – I got a postdoc out of it too. Not half bad, plus I have a pretty respectable life list after only a year and a half: 281 species, and counting!