This is an easy one.
Participant observation is a qualitative research data collection method that is basically exactly what it sounds like. The researcher observes but also participates in cultural events and activities. Although this method has been used by many researchers since the 1800’s, it was best defined in the book Essential Ethnographic Methods in 1999 as,
“the process of learning through exposure to or involvement in the day-to-day or routine activities of participants in the researcher setting”
When I recently visited Japan, I was intent on being a good visitor and engaging in participant observation. This led to trying lots of foods I’d never heard or or eaten before–including raw horse meat–eating every meal with chopsticks, visiting a bathhouse, and sleeping on tatami mats. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until every habitual thing in your life is suddenly done differently. The best part was the new foods!
Anthropologists using participant observation as a part of research need to maintain a higher degree of objectivity than I did as a tourist. I was there to experience Japanese culture, but also to study it. Japanese forests and temple grounds are the foundation for my secondary location in my book. So, when it came time to be in and around these places, I experienced first but let the anthro part of my head really go to work recording details with an observer’s and writer’s eye–looking for the kinds of description that might evoke the images I could see there in another’s mind through my text.
Participant observation is a cornerstone of ethnographic research and any kind of immersive research you’re doing for your writing. I think there are other ways to participate in AND observe your characters’ lives, though. If I were a better cook, I would develop the recipes for meals my characters eat, for example.
Do you incorporate this study technique into your writing research? If so, how?
For a great summary paper on participant observation, check out this site: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/466/996