‘The Field’ and Participant-as-Observer Membership: A Complicated Relationship

In order to understand the fieldwork of information research, it must first be acknowledged that on a social research standpoint, the field of information is complicated by the permeable nature of information itself. Information is omnipresent in every facet of human social environments, whether naturally occurring or digitally constructed as my blog-mates have identified in previous posts.

I strongly agree that ethnographic field research involves the constant discovery of information through ‘gold-standard’ methods such as participant observation, as Professor Hartel outlined in her lecture. Drawing on last week’s readings, Stebbins presented two types of association which researchers performing a “participant-as-observer” role would experience in their fieldwork: namely, that of the member and the non-member. With this in mind, being a ‘member’, whether through prior association or identification to the participants in your field of study, has its obvious benefits in terms of building a sense of trust that elicits information extraction. Yet, this close association poses issues with information validity due to researcher bias. Participants in a particular setting, especially in their own homes, are in turn less likely to tolerate a researcher who imposes or threatens their environment by their unfamiliar or ‘non-member’ qualities. Thus, the information researcher is often found in conflicting roles that pose a conflict to the validity of their study as a result.

In this spirit, I completely agree with Victoria. I, too, was alarmed by the fact that practicing ethnography requires you as a researcher to refrain from asking your subjects any leading questions or to provide commentary on your area of study. Even if the research leads me to adopt the participant-as-observer-as-member position, it would be wrong to ask a family “can all of you gather around and flip through the pages of your family photo album together?” It is forcing a condition upon what should be a naturally occurring ritual. If the family does not actively engage with their photo albums in this way, this request could easily create tension, skewing the information I record and potentially leading to exclusion or ‘non-membership’ in my participant-as-observer position.

Further complications information research presents in my field of study deal with the too common adoption of biases present in the larger discourse of Diasporic and Transnational studies. As previously stated, my research seeks to discover how Canadian immigrant families construct and preserve cultural heritage memory in their family photo albums. Prior studies on immigrants and information is based on the idea that immigrants have certain needs that are not met by their new environment, and, as Srinivasan and Pyati state “the focus on ‘lacking’ negates discussion about the agency of immigrant groups in contributing to the work of building information environments”. As a researcher, I must be aware of these inherent pitfalls when conducting and compiling the ethnographic data produced through studying immigrant families. The cyclical nature of ethnographic research elicits constant change and evolution in knowing what the ‘right thing to ask’ or the ‘right thing to study’ may be, for questions will change as people I interview will change. With all this in mind, the fieldwork of information research not only requires a persistent creation of trust and membership as the field environments change, but also a reminder that the researcher must not intervene and allow the human participants involved behave and respond as they naturally would in relation to the subject of study. In this sense, the implications which fieldwork produces for the larger scholarship of information studies should be determined by the researcher themselves.

-Olivia Wisniewski

References

Srinivasan, R., Pyati, A. (2007). Diasporic Information Environments: Reframing Immigrant-Focused Information Research. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58 (12), 1734-1744.

Stebbins, R.A. (1987). Fitting in: The researcher as learner and participant. Quality and Quantity, 21(1), 103-108.

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