Participant Observation

“Participant observation” is an inelegant, five-dollar term from the world of cultural anthropology. It describes a form of ethnography in which the researcher actually participates in a cultural activity or event, instead of taking the traditional stance of detached observation for the sake of impartiality and rational contemplation. The researcher puts themselves in the thick of it through actively participating. At risk is an impartial point of view, untainted by personal bias (if that is even possible). At best, the ethnographer experiences, and then shares, an epiphany as they see, however imperfectly, the subject through the eyes of the user.

One of the most powerful examples of participant observation is the social experiment conducted by John Howard Griffen, a white man who chemically blackened his skin so he could experience for himself the systemic racism that pervaded the southern US. The revelations surprised even himself, which he described in his 1961 book, Black Like Me.

It is no surprise that the School of Music at UBC possesses some of the finest ensembles of World Music in North America, given the crucial importance of performing in such an ensemble, in addition to learning about it in textbooks and classroom lectures. The triangulation that ensues from the hands-on experience of an ethnic music ensemble can create a deep, sometimes life-altering observation about one’s normal frame of musical reference.

Music students by the very nature of their pursuit are proficient and dedicated participant observers. As each music lesson wraps up, they are situated that much more deeply in the world of music, or at the very least, their corner of the world of music. After even a few lessons, it becomes readily apparent to themselves that their musical observations come from the privileged position of a participant performer. When they share their musical point of view with non-musicians, the gulf between their experiential encounter with music and the peripheral knowledge possessed by their friends, is deep and wide.

Most of my own ethnomusicological investigations have come from the position of a participant observer. When I wanted to learn about the shakuhachi, I went to Japan and embarked on a regimen of shakuhachi lessons. Morris dance was just an archaic recreation described by Shakespeare until I became a practicing dancer and musician. In the music world, the ethnographic process of participant observation has an interesting term in ethnomusicological circles – bimusicality. In point of fact, studying a foreign music culture, at home or in the field, without taking lessons in that music, is almost unheard of. Of course, students of a music culture acquire a great depth of background information. For example, I stepped into the teaching studios of my shakuhachi teachers with my eyes wide open, because of my previous studies in Buddhology. Once I saw how my understanding of Buddhology operated in the context of the music, I was able to understand the music far better. Almost every research project I have engaged with has led me to ultimately take lessons, or receive guidance from a practitioner. Even those teachers who are not particularly competent have something important to offer.

One question lingering in the background is the issue of disclosure. To what degree do you inform your source about the nature of your research? If you have ever been interviewed by a member of the media, you will understand the wary nature of the question. Somebody takes your words, and transforms them into their own point of view. Even the word “source” has evolved from “subjects” to “partners”.

My principal mentor in participant observation is James Spradley. He laid the groundwork when he published books on ethnography (1979) and participant observation (1980). In the world of ethnomusicology, bimusicality was first championed by Mantle Hood in 1960, and continues to be explored in theoretical terms by John Bailey (1995, 2008).

Mantle Hood, “The Challenge of Bimusicality,” in Ethnomusicology, volume 4, number 2 (May, 1960)

John Bailey “Learning to Perform as a Research Technique in Ethmomusicology,” in British Journal of Ethnomusicology, volume 10, number 2 (2001)

Ibid, “Ethnomusicology, intermusability, and performance practice,” in The New (Ethno)musicologies, edited by Henry Stobart.  (2008)

Ibid, “Learning to perform as a technique in ethnomusicology,” in Lux Oriente: festschrift for Robert Garfias. (1995)

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