Participant Observation: A LIP discussion

This post recaps the May meeting of Linguistics in the Pub, whose topic was More than just being there? The place of participant observation in linguistic fieldwork.

Two weeks ago at Linguistics in the Pub, we discussed an issue that many linguists never really consider, but which is central to many anthropologists’ work: the role of participant observation in our fieldwork and research.

We had a bit of difficulty nutting out exactly what we mean by participant observation, given that everything we do is in some way, participating, and we all agreed that there was something a bit different about linguistics from anthropology, something that allows us to be more objective. Perhaps it’s that our subject matter, while deeply and inextricably ingrained in culture, can be observed independently of culture, that is, without the researcher having to necessarily embed themselves deeply into the culture. We’re lucky though, because we can enter a community in order to learn the language, and while doing so, become integrated into the community in a more deeply cultural sense. Anthropologists by definition, are there to learn about the culture, which immediately sets up a very different dynamic between the researcher and the members of the community.

Integrating more with the community can present rare opportunities for language learning, such as being able to participate in events and so forth that outsiders generally cannot access. The question presents itself though: is it permissible to covertly conduct linguistic research, in the form of note-taking, for instance, at such an event?

This is a tricky one. Some events would be more suited to doing so, such as going fishing or hunting with some community members and taking notes on things such as lexical items. There would of course be other types of events where covert note taking would be unacceptable, such as at a funeral.

So if we go into these communities with the stated purpose of learning the language, and sometimes, permissibly or not, use that as a foot-in-the-door to access other areas of the culture, then how well do we in fact learn the language? As a general rule, not particularly well. This is not surprising sometimes, when the language being studied isn’t actually used commonly, or when it’s a very difficult language to acquire. Becoming proficient in a language, even if you’re a linguist, takes either the sort of linguistic genius that only a few people in our trade possess, or long-term, deep integration and years of targeted personal investment, which, to be frank, not many of us at the table are all that willing to put in. We all have pressures in our daily lives – teaching duties, other jobs, families and friends – that mean it’s just not possible, or desirable, to go to the field for any more than three weeks, and even for a trip as short as that, we always take our stove-top espresso machines.

This may have been a result of the fact that those linguists who do live in the communities whose languages they study, typically cannot make it to Linguistics in the Pub on a Tuesday night in Melbourne.

Looking more into the idea of covert data collection, we all agree we’re lucky that we’re linguists, and not, for example, anthropologists of religion. I brought up this particular subject as I have friends who do religious studies, and one in particular is gaining entry into, and covertly studying, an otherwise clandestine community by allowing the community members believe that they are interested in joining.

We also discussed the pragmatic considerations of being taken for a member of the community, and how this can affect our research. Lauren related the experience of a colleague, Amos Teo, who quite coincidentally happens to look like the members of the community whose language he is studying and therefore enjoys easier access faster than others, such as Lauren herself, although this too comes with its own downsides. Jill Vaughan, who’s working on the identity and sociolinguistics of the Irish diaspora, and who has a variable accent from standard Australian right through to Northern Irish, has become aware in listening to her recordings that the degree to which she subconsciously uses her Irish accent can have an effect on the interview, and being taken for a member of the community can mean that her interviewees are less willing to be explicit about certain things, believing her to just know this stuff in virtue of her in-group membership.

We found that questioning the role of participant observation in our data collecting mean that we had to be more honest with each other about what it mean to be working ‘in the field.’ We also felt that we have a lot to learn from anthropological practices, but as always, each field situation, and each field worker is unique and deserves its own considered approach.


The topic for June’s Linguistics in the Pub will the use of technology in the field; the advantages and disadvantages, a topic raised on this very blog by Peter Austin some weeks ago. We will meet at Prince Alfred Hotel on Tuesday June 26th at 6pm. See the LIP page on rnld.org or contact Ruth Singer for more details.

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