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Qual Res. 2010 Jun 1;10(3):357-376.

Benefits of "Observer Effects": Lessons from the Field.

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1
Dept. of Human & Organizational Development, Vanderbilt University, Peabody #90, 230 Appleton Place, Nashville, TN 37203-5721, phone: 1 (615) 322-8732, torin.monahan@vanderbilt.edu.

Abstract

This paper responds to the criticism that "observer effects" in ethnographic research necessarily bias and therefore invalidate research findings. Instead of aspiring to distance and detachment, some of the greatest strengths of ethnographic research lie in cultivating close ties with others and collaboratively shaping discourses and practices in the field. Informants' performances - however staged for or influenced by the observer - often reveal profound truths about social and/or cultural phenomena. To make this case, first we mobilize methodological insights from the field of science studies to illustrate the contingency and partiality of all knowledge and to challenge the notion that ethnography is less objective than other research methods. Second, we draw upon our ethnographic projects to illustrate the rich data that can be obtained from "staged performances" by informants. Finally, by detailing a few examples of questionable behavior on the part of informants, we challenge the fallacy that the presence of ethnographers will cause informants to self-censor.

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