Tuesday, October 08, 2019

The Participant – Observer Spectrum

One of the first things Dr. Lester Stephens, the chair of my thesis committee, asked me to do was to take the walk across Jackson Street from LeConte Hall (where the History Department lives) to the Anthropology department in Baldwin Hall. Once there, I was to ask Dr. Charles Hudson, the leading anthropologist studying the Southeastern Indians, to serve on my committee.

Mind you, this was before the era of “interdisciplinary studies.” You would have thought that my crossing Jackson Street to visit “those crazy anthropologists” was akin to crossing the DMZ into North Korea from the way some of my colleagues reacted. It just wasn’t done.

Once there, I encountered a man who perfectly combined the archetypes of Professor and Santa Claus with a touch of Hells Angel. He also turned out to be one of my most fondly remembered, and supportive mentors.

One of the most important things Dr. Hudson taught me (among many important things) was the Participant – Observer spectrum and how Anthropologists use this spectrum to learn about the culture they are studying. The history of Anthropology is a history of researchers trying to navigate this spectrum between being a participant and being an observer.

On one end of the spectrum is the Enthusiastic Insider – such as the anthropologist who moves to Ecuador to study the Jivaro shamans and decides to become one. This particular extreme was in vogue in the mid-20th century (especially the 60s and 70s) and can still be found today.

On the other end of the spectrum is the seemingly “objective” observer who inflicts his or her judgments and beliefs upon the culture being studied. An extreme version of this spectrum can be found in the papers of European explorers in North America. This perspective pervaded anthropology until well into the 20th century.

Most anthropologists try to find a place in the middle ground between these two extremes – recognizing their own biases while trying to respect the internal logic of a culture’s beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. They try to juggle participation with observation – with varying results.

An advantage of being an outsider is that you can better see trends and assumptions. If you have exposure to other cultures, you have points of comparison and contrast. A disadvantage is that it is easy to miss the nuances of culture as experienced by the insiders. Furthermore, you are contending with the “observer effect” – observation is likely going to impact the behavior of the observed. Being an outsider also requires the observer to get very clear on the biases they are bringing to the observation. More easily said than done.

An advantage of being an insider is that you get a more accurate picture of the perspective of the culture and access to information that an outsider doesn’t get. There is also the advantage of “lived experience.” Unfortunately, the insider does not have a broader picture and is likely to make judgments that bias their inside status. It is also easy to mistake thinking you are an insider vs. actually being one. The observer-participant may still be shielded from important information and experiences.

Often, as one starts getting to know people, I have found that the position on the observer-participant spectrum changes. Early on, you start as an outsider. As you adopt the assumptions and behavioral norms of the culture, you start to shift to participant status.

For many of us, this shift occurs unconsciously. We adjust our behavior and beliefs to better fit into our environment. This is a natural thing to do and is an important part of human development. Humans crave belonging.

What if you could make this shift more consciously? Some of the best anthropologists work to maintain a conscious shift from outsider to insider as they gain knowledge and trust. They attempt to maintain a perspective slightly outside the culture they are studying and keep touch-points for comparison as they dive further into the community. They also work to deeply engage in the beliefs and assumptions of the culture.

It’s a sensitive balancing act. As a consultant, it’s easier for me to maintain an observer perspective – moving from a detached perspective into a more participatory perspective while still maintaining a level of detachment. The detachment is easier because I know my time is limited.

As an employee, it’s trickier. With time, and without being conscious of it, we adopt the beliefs and norms of our environment. We want to belong. Even management falls into this unless they have strong supports elsewhere – often outside the company, but ideally within the company too. At a certain point, if there are no supports within the company, the company shakes off the interloper.

Knowing that there is a Participant-Observer spectrum can help as you begin to evaluate your current environment and determine whether you have the supports you need to make the change you wish to see.


Dr. Charles Hudson – The Southeastern Indians (Amazon affiliate link) – If you are interested in the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creeks, and Seminoles, this is a comprehensive anthropological overview of these cultures. From here, I would then move to insider authors within these traditions and do a comparative study.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (Amazon affiliate link – book) – One scientist’s attempt to navigate the participant-observer spectrum, to much criticism. Wes Craven’s movie The Serpent and the Rainbow (Amazon affiliate link – movie) was based on this work. This is one of the few horror movies I managed to sit through because the ethnobotany was interesting.

The Cosmic Serpent (Amazon affiliate link) – This book is a case study for the hazards of the participant-observer spectrum – especially once hallucinogenics get involved. In this case, the anthropologist found himself on a quest to prove the link between the shamanic experience and DNA. A fascinating read requiring some discernment – most critics have noted the occasional leaps of logic Jeremy Narby had to take to prove his argument.

The Way of the Shaman (Amazon affiliate link) – Michael Harner’s 1980 work, in my opinion, is a better example of balancing the participant-observer spectrum. Much of this work is a comparison of shamanic practices across cultures with an emphasis on South American practices. Harner’s later work tipped further into the participant side of the spectrum and there is significant criticism around his decision to develop workshops teaching shamanic practices. Another interesting read.

No comments: