Participant observation: two lessons learned from my first steps out in the field

Since the beginning of my PhD education, I got the opportunity to go out “in the field” three times. In my case, the “field” is to be understood as a hospital department, as I do research on nurses’ work environment. I was able to tag along nurses in two different departments of the Children’s Hospital here in Uppsala: the pediatric surgery department and the department for tumor and blood diseases. I was there as an observer, my goal being not to collect data for a specific study, but rather to learn about nurses’ work and work environment. Of course, I also wanted to get some inspiration for potential studies I would be able carry out throughout my upcoming five years as a PhD student.

I had never done participant observations before, and I remember I was quite nervous before each of my observation days, not quite knowing what to expect. I was particularly worried about how nurses would feel about my being there, and was convinced that they would see me as a huge imposition, which led me to swear to myself to try and be as invisible as possible. In the end, my fears turned out to be unfounded though: all the nurses and assistant nurses I approached were very friendly and did not seem to mind my presence nor my asking questions about their work. As such, despite the slight awkwardness / self-consciousness I felt at times as a beginner observer in an unfamiliar environment, I left the hospital with a smile on my face every time. However, I recently realized, reading about “The Ethics of Entry” in Jack Sanger’s “The Compleat Observer?“, that I had made two significant mistakes in my role as an observer.

  • I did not make sure that every person I observed knew who I was. Although I was present at the morning stand-up meeting and formally introduced to those present at each of my visits, I also each time came across several people throughout the day who did not know who I was and what I was doing there. I particulary recall how one department nurse, seeing I was (quite frantically) taking notes in my notebook while watching her interact with the computer, turned to me and said: “One really wonders what you are doing!”. I was caught unaware, as I was sure that she knew who I was, since she had (I asssumed) been on the morning meeting (as I had understood they all were). But I had of course overlooked several important points: first of all, a nurse’s work day starts before the stand-up meeting, and it does sometimes happen that she is occupied when the meeting takes place. As a consequence, not all nurses and department staff are present at every meeting. Second, since there generally are quite a few people at the meeting, it is almost impossible for everybody present to hear and see everything that is being said. Thirdly, the morning meeting is a moment used to get organized and update one’s to-do list, and where non-essential information logically is not given the most undivided attention. Taking this into account, I will in the future make sure to introduce myself (hopefully in an as unobtrusive manner as possible) to every person I come in contact with at the department.

  • I did not clearly explain what I was observing / researching. Naturally, I initially believed that I had given a good explanation of what I was researching and what I was interested in observing, but I quickly realized that my interest had been misunderstood by some of the nurses. (Curiously, several people thought I was there to observe and evaluate how certain of their IT systems were used in order to ultimately redesign them. I should maybe stop saying that I am a PhD student in human-computer interaction?) Because I felt it would be inelegant to correct them, I did not try and rectify their understanding of my task. Next time however, I definitely will – most importantly because in the context of a “real” data collection session, letting people believe I am observing something while actually looking at something else would be just plain unethical and would in addition completely defeat my purpose in engaging with them.