The participant observer and engagement in the routine

The participant observer and engagement in the routine
Unpublished manuscript
by Michele Battle-Fisher

If complexity theory will allow the use of the “participant observer” as a bricoleur or tinkerer, might there be more complexity found in the mundane? Is being a bricoleur too complex? Is it really an untainted “network” if I maneuver myself into it? Were we just there by serendipity and would not be a network at all? Does a network require a higher social purpose to exist? A social network has been “simply” defined as a set of objects, be it people, sharers of an elevator lift, or even geese that are linked in some meaningful, measureable fashion. A gaggle of geese is a gaggle of geese but do the geese define themselves as so? Are people riding on a lift bound by some unspoken creed or are merely only passersby that are already late for the tube? Perhaps it is only a network for geese when there is an imprinted biological or social need to cooperate, for instance for safety or food gathering. Then is it simply just a gaggle again or orchestrated group affiliation as we are looking in from the outside? Geese are known to imprint on other geese that care for them, forming a network based on biological necessity for survival. A rider of an elevator does not have to talk to activate the elevator or imprint to share the communal space on the elevator platform. That access was granted to the elevator by pushing a floor button to halting metal ropes at the mercy of potential energy. However though we do not imprint as geese, we choose to interact in the most mundane of circumstances. That interaction serves a mighty purpose. We live therefore we connect in space and find meaning.
On February 25, 2009, I conducted an observational study of graduate students’ use of a computer lab. A mundane task perhaps, but it is a reality for the life of any graduate student to spend an inordinate amount of time there. I wondered if there were any other social purposes for time in the lab: completion of research, meeting with friends, and a use of escape from the campus. The setting was the 4th floor computer lab of a Midwestern public university, a lab with exclusive use by graduate students of my program. I observed from 2:00pm-2:43pm. Observational study seemed like a logical fit as I had unfettered access and shared a purposed physical space. I did feel like a voyeur as I “assumed” permission to watch and take note of the others. As Wolcott asserts I chose number #2, “nothing in particular” (Glesne, 2006). This situation seemed ordinary enough as I have experienced the same drudgery of working in a stale, sensory deficient lab whose one purpose is for work. So I sought what was unusual.
From notes: The only sounds that can be heard in this cavernous room dotted by
PC’s lined up against the walls is the sound of the ventilation system. This noise was
interrupted by key strokes. The key strokes are intermittent. I hear a sneeze.
There are 3 women and no men. No one says “bless you”. No one talks.
This brings up an issue that I had being a participant observer. How natural would the event be if I interject actions such as saying “bless you” (see Lather, 1986)? I wondered how importing my own actions would affect the validity of the study. I thought that I would learn more in the silence (see Belensky et al, 1986).
From notes: The lights above are covered by “waffles” and very bright incandescent light that defeats the “tranquility” of the wall color. No one is talking to the others…No one is sitting next to each other.
But in room of women (no men entered the room while I took notes), I remembered Belensky et al. (1986) statement of “deaf and dumb”. Perhaps the proper decorum is to allow others to work in peace. But on this day, no one worked in collaboration. When I ceased taking notes, a friend of mine who is also of color entered the lab and started talking to me. She talked about the program, but she mostly just wanted to talk. It was not a conversation that was shared with the others in the room. They did not join in. We did not have the solidarity that they felt permission to even care about what we were talking about.
From notes: At 2:35, more copies are made at printer 2. I turn around to see if they are retrieved. They are not retrieved for 3 minutes. It is the girl at 2:30 entry in the T shirt marketing her undying affection for the Buckeyes and distressed tan boots. I am jealous of the boots. I do not ask where she got them. I cannot sit at the terminal without readjusting my gaze and looking around. I appear to be the only one with this problem.
Certainly, I am the primary research instrument (Glesne, 1999; see Dillard, 2000). But this was not an easy task for me. There were only women there but did this make it a feminist moment? I tried to imagine whether a feminist epistemology of any wave would work here. No one acknowledged the entry of anyone in the room. Due to the layout of the room, unless the women were sitting with me (next to the door), they went on with their business. I learned that it is difficult to “make the strange familiar” when the event being study is so close to my own experience. I am an observer. But I did feel some guilt. I felt as if I was intruding. Not that my note taking stopped anyone from working. It was the sanctity of presumed privacy that the other students assumed when entered the room was the problem for me.
But what if you are interested in the creation of community when you are an outsider? I came across a very cool short film by Mark Isaacs called “Lift”. Isaacs (2001) set up a camera in a London elevator “lift” with the purpose of creating what he calls a vertical community (or, as I would call it, a vertical network). Isaacs sought to use his lens as an incubator to link riders of the lift in engaged conversation. He defines community in three ways: spatially, temporally and purposely. His community is bound by the shiny steel car enclosure and platform. You then have the boundaries set once the large steel doors clang shut. The composition changes over time as people enter and leave the lift. The network also is purposed- to utilize the mundane action of riding the elevator to build a sense of community. Is it only a vertical community when Isaccs set up his tripod with the explicit goal of recording the rides of passengers? It is a question to pose as it is often defined by the observer, in this case, by Isaacs, on exactly how the network is segmented and defined. There are a few fancy anthropological terms that I feel might help. There are two orientations with which we can understand the world- as an outsider (etic) and as an insider (emic). In defining how we might conceptualize networks, Kadushin (2012) differentiates perspectives as emic (such as the lift riders or the women in the lab) and the etic viewpoint (like me as an interloper, and Isaacs with his camera).
According to network theory, naming a network is powerful. While Isaacs markets the riders as a vertical community, they are most likely unaware that they are such or are being viewed as such. Unnamed groups are often identified by the observer and the boundaries are often most not agreed upon by the group members (Kadushin, 2012). Our understanding what is group then becomes grounded in the reality of the observer and is played out by the actors. Isaacs (2001) is using the idea of network segmentation without knowing it. Isaacs (2001) plays off of the reality that each lift rider overlaps larger primary networks, such as floor neighbors, high rise inhabitants, or just common Londoners.
Mathematically, a clique should be defined as a complete sub graph of three or more people that must all be interacting in some meaningful way (Kadushin, 2012). Take the instance in the film where two older individuals know each other, converse and thus decide to ignore the camera. Isaacs is left out only to document the event. They did not clique. If we apply Kadushin’s definition of collectivity to the Isaac’s film, now it gets interesting. Stay with me now. According to Kadushin (2012), “a collectivity is structurally cohesive to the extent that the social relations of its members hold it together.” Further there are two mechanisms that support and disrupt this happy state of togetherness. First, if a “disruptive force” acts upon the group, will the network survive? Second, complexity is bound also to the health of its network. Like a game of Ker Plunk, disruption in a complex system occurs when one or more people are removed from the group (Kadushin, 2012). The cohesion may or may not be able to survive. The vertical community must regenerate every time a person disembarks from the elevator lift or refuses to engage with the camera. Then the process of community starts all over again. According to Miller & Page (2007), the “deep” quality of the complexity would mean that the parts of a sum of the networks will have structural repercussions on the health of the entire system (the sum). Strogatz (2001) purports that complexity and its networks teeter on the “edge of chaos”. So the reality of the vertical community of Isaacs becomes precarious at best but one worth fighting for. This is not to say that an experiment such as Isaacs cannot have societal effects outside of the lift. However short- lived the vertical community, connections reaffirm our humanity in the end. But the trick is harnessing the power of these connections once the words dissipate or the steel doors to the bing of a ground floor arrival.

Belenky, M. et al. (1986). To the other side of silence. In Women’s ways of knowing (pp. 3-20). New York: Basic Books.
Dillard, C. (2000). The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen: examining an endarkened feminist epistemology in educational research and leadership. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(6), 661-681.
Glesne, C. (1999). Becoming Qualitative Researchers. White Plains: Jossey-Bass.
Lather, P. (1986). Issues of Validity in Openly Ideological Research: Between a Rock and a Soft Place. Interchange, 17(4), 63-84.
Isaacs, M. (director) (2001) Lift [documentary]. United Kingdom: Second Run.
Kadushin, C. (2012) Understanding Social Networks. New York: Oxford.
Miller, J. & Page, S. (2007) Complex Adaptive Systems: an Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (Princeton Studies in Complexity). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Strogatz, S. (2001). Exploring complex networks. Nature. 410. Retrieved from


About Michele Battle-Fisher

This is an archive of the Orgcomplexity Blog. Please follow me at the following sites: Michele Battle-Fisher (Facebook author page) mbattlefisher (Twitter) michele.battle.fisher (Skype) Author Website

One thought on “The participant observer and engagement in the routine

  1. Pingback: Exploring Built Environments & Social Connection over Bukidnon & Saturday Yard Sales | ORGCOMPLEXITY

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