Studying Subcultures using Participant Observation
Graduate student, Vanderbilt University
One of the joys of a being a sociologist is that we are never at a loss for material. People surround me every day, and they never cease to amaze me. I am forever entertained watching and learning about my fellow homo sapiens.
I recently met a group of people that utterly intrigued me. Wanting to know everything about them, and knowing virtually nothing, I didn’t know where to begin. I decided that the best way to understand them and generate questions would be to conduct participant observation. This way, I could experience their social world firsthand.
It all started about one year ago when I encountered a subculture known as furries. This phenomenon first surfaced around 1980, and many attend regional and national conventions where furs can meet other furs and attend sessions to help them improve their preferred art forms (written, visual or performing in fur suits). The largest convention in the world, Anthrocon, is held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania every July, and 3,390 people attended last year.
This March I attended a smaller convention as a participant observer. My foray into the field taught me how the process of gaining access and becoming a community member can aid the construction of research questions. The experience also taught me a few tips on how to implement the method successfully.
My first objective was to gain access to the community. Aside from registering for the “con,” I decided I would need my own “fursona,” or furry persona. What animal should I be? The answer, quite honestly, came faster than I expected (a white tiger, for those who are curious). My ability to quickly decide my own animal identity caused me to reflect on why I chose this animal. Did it come from my childhood experience of seeing a white tiger for the first time? Did I identify with certain aspects of this animal’s behavior? My interview with myself spurred my curiosity about other people’s identities and how they came to understand what animal they were.
My time at the convention allowed me to ask others about their own identity. Some chose an animal with characteristics that they idealized (such as strength, fearlessness, or gregariousness). Others chose to be something completely different; a male might pick a female animal, for example.
I also noticed that the group was largely comprised of white males. This observation led me to question why this was the case in a group that appears to be open to every gender and sexual classification. I also learned about different cliques that exist within the group and discovered who were the most well-known and respected members.
This information is important to have prior to constructing interview questions. If the respected members approve a study, other members are more likely to participate. And if I know that there are cliques in advance, I can stratify my sample, or look at groups separately to see if there are meaningful differences within these subgroups.
Aside from gaining a greater understanding of the group, I also learned some valuable lessons about implementing participant observation. Having never conducted such a study before, I was anxious about the process. I had the overwhelming fear that if I screwed up, I would not be able to conduct my study and my life as a researcher would be ruined. I sought the advice of a faculty mentor for help. Her words of wisdom were invaluable:
- Become an information kleptomaniac. We can learn a lot from doing a content analysis, as Bradley Wright recently indicated in his post on sport and gender. Therefore, grab everything that is free and not nailed down. The information these items convey can become a valuable resource for understanding some of the general norms and ideas of a culture.
- Become a photographer if it is feasible and does not violate anyone’s privacy. Taking pictures is an excellent way to bring your subjects and your experiences to life, especially to those outside of sociology as well as outside of academia. It also allows you to go back and see things that you may not have noticed in the moment.
- Have a weak bladder. Okay, not really, but one way to achieve success in the field, especially the first time out, is to write down everything. This act needs to take place behind the scenes, such as in a bathroom stall, to avoid arousing suspicion among community members. Have paper and a pen that you can fit in a pocket or purse, and excuse yourself every 15-30 minutes to write down your observations and thoughts. Believable excuses are somewhat dependent on the context, so it helps to know the scene in which your observations will take place in advance and to have your excuses prepared. In my case, the convention took place in a hotel which afforded me the opportunity to “run up to my room for a minute” and “check to see if I left something in the car.”
These tips are just a few of the ways to have a successful first encounter as a participant observer. There are many sources that provide guidelines and other “tips” for all research methods, a few of which are:
Interviewing for Social Scientists by Hilary Arksey and Peter Knight
Ethnography: Principles in Practice by Paul Atkinson and Martyn Hammersley
Designing and Conducting Survey Research by Louis Rea and Richard Parker
And should you find yourself conducting participant observations in the future, just remember: be a kleptomaniac photographer with a weak bladder.