May 10, 2009

Studying Subcultures using Participant Observation

Becky_Conway By Becky Conway

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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You're Doing It by Howard Becker

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.

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Comments

Good post! It is always a good idea to become an observer so you know what your going into before jumping right in. How did you manage to find the group "furries?"

I found this post very informative. I have never heard of the group "the furries" before. Some people belong to some very different groups and clubs and they are very interesting to observe. The author included some very useful tips on how to observe groups that you are unfamiliar with. I think that it is important to take note and pay attention to people who are different from yourself and the beliefs that they share.

Amazimg Blog! I am currently taking a sociolgy class that I find very interesting. Your technique of being a participant observer is one of the first we learned. To take a step in someone else's shoes, is a very good way to get a lot of information. Another interesting fact was that I have never heard of the furries before, they seem unlike any other culture.

I found your post to be very interesting. I had never hear of furries before, and I find it fascinating that these people exist. It's impressive that they take role performance to such a new level. It must have been incredibly interesting to talk to all of those people.

This post is very interesting as well as helpful. I am currently in a sociololgy class and this gave a great example as to what a participant study is. The tips you posted up for this type of observation help me see how this type of study could be carried out as well. And the culture of furries, very interesting, seem like a great group to study. Thanks for posting!

Hi Ms. Conway! My name is Jacob and I'm currently enrolled in a Sociology class in Michigan. The premise to this weeks coursework is how Sociologist use different methods like surveys and participant observation to gather information needed for their studies; and from the sound of your article you seem to have an abundance of experience in the participant observation area. As I read your article, I found myself particularly entertained by your faculty mentors description of a good Sociologist in your situation, "a kleptomaniac, photographer with a weak bladder". This description prompted thought about how a sociologist may use his or her environment to gather information and otherwise overlooked insights into an area of study. It also never occurred to me how discrete an "undercover" Sociologist must be in order to yield accurate results from a study. Thanks for the good explanation!

Sincerely,

Jacob

Hi there Ms. Conway,
I found your blog to be very intresting. I just started my first sociology class this semester at ECU in North Carolina. I find that your blog came to be very useful in seeing how sociolgoists go about some of their work and what techniques they use to gain the information they do. There are so many different types of people in this world and many subcultures, learning about them can become very intresting. :-) The tips for observing a group setting also was very helpful in case I planned to do some sort of feild-research. The furries were a very intresting group and made me wonder what type of animal I myself would choose.

This is an interesting post. I've never heard of the furries. Being an observer first in a culture that your not use to is a great way to learn new information about someone without judging them right away. The tips helped also because each tip had alot of good information that helped me understand participant observation.

This is Justin Shayesteh. After I read your blog for the 2nd times, I found that the most intersting tip in your belong is your tip about photography. In my view, it is true that become a photographer, taking pictures is an excellent way to bring your subjects and your experiences to life. and also allows you to go back and see things that you may not have noticed in the moment.

The subculture of furries seem to be a really interesting matter. I agree with Shayesteh that photography is a really important factor when considering to learn about different people. Including yourself in a participant observation allows yourself to actually be a part of that group and feel and see and act the way of that subculture. It really helps you to understand the way they feel and capture those moments for your study.

Very interesting post! I have never heard of a group called the furries before. I agree with the person above me that being included in a participant observation allows you to be a part of that cultural group and it will help with people who are interested in that sort of field work. I am currently in my first sociology class at ECU in North Carolina and i find this very interesting. Thank you!

I wonder where this group resides, I have never stumbled apon them before. Though I have seen my share of full bodie fur suits attending burning man. Someone should sugest black rock city to these furrys. Also I think it very iteresting that is is mainly white man making a hobby out of dressing in stuffed anminal suits. The last part of this artical made me realized that I and im sure many others act as a participant obsever when we travel to other countries. I will take lots of picture and pick up a bunch of little things along with keep a journal of my experiances and inspirations.

In the begininng of the article the auther finds furris culture,which seems to be some kind of con. The writer makes it clear that to find the infrmation, he has to become a furris. Once he joins he has to decide what animal he wants to become.When he answers the question relativity fast he relize that this was inside of him.Which made him come to the conclusion that it ws not a con, and he has to do more observation to figure it out.My observtion is you can't go off what you see, you actuly have to experience it.

I found your post to be very interesting. I have heard of furries before and have seen interviews with them describing what attracted them to the furry subculture and why they became furries. However, I think that using this method and in a sense becoming a furry yourself would be the best way to really see what the culture is like and what prompts people to become furries. I also found your post to be very informative on how to successfully perform participant observations.

I was amazed by the "furry" group. It was a very interesting article to read. I would find it very neat to figure out just why they did choose the animal the did and also how they communicated in a group. They held a very good role preformance.

This is NOT an individual of participant observation. It is an example of an person disguising herself as a member of a tribe in order to infiltrate that tribe. The writer's approach is more akin to the actions of an intelligence operative serving as a mole. A participant observer is an insider observing his fellow tribe members from the perspective that only a member can hold. The writer remained an outsider who acted as a voyeur.

I really liked this story about participant observation, Becky really stepped in and tried her hardest to find out all the information she could about the "Furries".

I found this article very interesting. There is a big issue with whether or not people should know that they are being observed. In my opinion, they shouldn't, in most cases including this one. Conway went into this experiment to try to understand more about the group, Furries. In doing this, she had to ask people why they chose the animal they chose. If people knew she was observing them, they might change the answer to this question for some reason. By not letting the people know they were being observed, she was able to get more accurate research. Is it wrong or against peoples' will to do this? In my opinion, no. People act a certain way for a reason. If they get mad that the way they acted was published in a sociological experiment, then maybe they should change the way they act. If a person acts "right" then they shouldn't be ashamed or get upset that their actions are being observed. In conclusion, I don't think people should be told they're being observed, in most situations. It offers more accurate research and we, as humans, observe people everyday and discuss it. Just because a sociologist does it does not make it wrong.

This was a good post. I have never really heard of furries. The analysis of how to participant observe is quite interesting. The best way to learn about something or someone is to become them in a since. Being observant but not obvious seems to be the key to learning the concept of why things are the way the are without a change in behavior.

I have never heard of a group called the furries.Strange to say the least, but seemed harmless enough. As long as nothing illegal was taking place I believe the furries were legitimate studies. Privately, it seems a bit on the contraversial side. The furries might welcome someone who would bring a more acceptable opinion of their group. However being such a strange group, and animals being as animals are, wild and untamed, I would fear their reaction if they ever found out a sociologist was researching them. People are unpredictable and these dress up as animals.

This was a very interesting story. I do not necessary understand the concept as a whole but I do like the concept of putting yourself in their shoes. I love the participation.

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