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Participant Observation:  Some Sources of Ambiguity and Tension

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Jennifer Nias

This piece does not address the common methodological problems of participant observation (e.g. finding a balance between the two roles; when and how to record; avoiding excessive subjectivity).  Instead, it considers some emotional consequences (e.g. uncertainty, guilt, frustration, anger, joy) for outsiders whose research involves them in acting, for a substantial period, as teachers, and therefore participant observers, in a particular school. Failure to recognise and allow for these reactions may lead to distorted collection, analysis and interpretation of the data.  It may also reduce the researcher’s enjoyment of the work.  Many of these tensions can be reduced by prior thought and discussion; some are an inevitable part of undertaking research in busy, crowded, stressful organizations.
Teaching at any level involves the emotions.  A whole edition of the Cambridge Journal of Education (The Emotions in Teaching), 1996,  has been devoted to this neglected field. The Introduction (Nias, 1996) draws together the main threads of the arguments presented by the contributors, drawing on evidence from pre-school to university, under the three headings suggested by the content:  Strong Passions, Hostile Emotions, Telling Stories.  Research into teaching, especially when undertaken by teachers, is itself subject to ’passions and emotions’.
I am a trained primary teacher.  In writing, I have drawn on 25 years experience of doing research, mainly in primary schools, often while acting as a teacher.  I was struck when selecting material for this piece by my earlier lack of sensitivity to the emotionality of teachers and teaching.  I wondered whether my work would have been more useful to myself and my fellow educators (at all levels), if I had been more aware of my own and others’ feelings.
Primary school teachers have to live with the emotions resulting from the ambiguities and tensions of their work. On the one hand, they care deeply about and have a strong sense of responsibility for their students.  On the other, they experience a felt-need to control as much as possible in the teaching situation (Nias, 1989).  This is true not just of students’ regular teachers, but also of participant observers who are also teachers, a fact which may account for many of the discomforts and problems which the latter encounter.  In Nias (1993) I reflected upon my experiences as a teacher/participant observer on a week-long school journey.  I became aware that I and other staff members were often confused, and therefore less effective than we might otherwise have been, because of a collective failure to consider in advance five questions relating to responsibility and control.  These were:

·        How much responsibility should the researcher have for the children he/she is teaching, and in what contexts?  In the absence of prior discussion, the focus and nature of control over their behaviour and learning can become at best uncertain, at worst contentious. As a result of my uncertainty, I often felt frustrated and anxious, feelings which threatened to divert me from data collection. This lack of clarity seems to be a common problem when teachers work together.  Earlier, while acting as an external consultant to teacher-researchers in a 9-13 school, I analysed the problems of role confusion and conflict resulting from being an observer in colleagues’ classrooms (Nias 1983). Helping teachers in their own research of meant that I sometimes acted as a teacher, even though this was not explicit in my brief.  For example, I found it hard not to intervene when children misunderstood the task or turned to me for explication or help, and was rewarded by their success when I had given it.  Nor could I stand back when I saw them about to do something which was dangerous to themselves or disturbing to others.  In a different but similar situation, an experienced teacher wrote about fostering the professional development of a colleague, in part through being a participant observer in the latter’s classroom (Simmonds and Nias, 1984).  Nias’ commentary on the process draws attention to the ambiguity of Simmonds’ position and the skill with which she handled it, and also to the organizational frustrations she faced in promoting, through her own research, the professional learning of her colleague.

·         What is the expected balance in particular situations between the intellectual and the social/moral curriculum?   Lacking long term knowledge of particular children, and in the absence of explicit guidance, the researcher may fail to act appropriately, or assume too much control and feel inadequate or guilty as a result. On this school journey, I was often unsure whether to put the emphasis during a particular activity on the extension of children’s knowledge or to use the opportunity for discussion provided by an unforeseen ethical or relationship issue.  As a result my data collection and analysis sometimes lacked clarity.
·          Does the researcher know the teacher’s aims or intended outcomes in a particular situation?  Without a reasonably firm indication of these, he/she may fail to fulfil others’ expectations, and be left feeling anxious, frustrated or guilty. I became increasingly aware that I often did not and was distracted from research by my felt-need to guess or infer these, from day to day.
·          Has the researcher the knowledge (of pupils and the curriculum) and skill to achieve these aims?  On the occasions that I had not, I felt frustrated and inadequate (see also Nias, 1983).
·          Equally fundamental, but less obvious, the teacher’s priorities, values or epistemology may differ from the researcher’s.  As a result, the latter may be asked to do something which he/she feels inappropriate or even damaging (see also Nias, 1983). In such a case, the teacher may be offended, and/or the researcher may suffer the discomfort of behaving in a way contrary to his/her beliefs.  In any of these situations, dispassionate data collection, analysis and interpretation become difficult.
 Three other factors, over which participant observers have little control, can limit their effectiveness as researchers and add to their anger or frustration.  I discuss these fully in Nias (1993).  Nias (1983),  Simmonds and Nias (1989), and the methodological sections of Nias, Southworth and Yeomans (1989) and of Nias, Southworth and Campbell (1992) are also relevant.  
·        The researcher, if part-time, is usually tied to a pre-arranged timetable, often very inflexible.  By contrast, schools are full of unplanned happenings, absences and mishaps and, sometimes, of spontaneities. Not infrequently, the researcher’s agenda is seriously frustrated or delayed by this.
·        The conditions of school life mean that teachers have few opportunities for in-depth discussion of their teaching or pedagogic concerns, either with one another or with the researcher.  As a result it is often very difficult for the latter to gain access to, or understand, their thinking.  This raises obvious questions about the validity of the researcher’s subsequent interpretation of the evidence.
·        The researcher’s role in the school, and motives for undertaking the enquiry, may not be fully explained in advance to all participants, or may be misunderstood,  For example, although the participant observer may see his/her dual role in straightforward terms and think that it has been adequately explained within the school, other participants may take a different view. They may suspect his/her motives and/or treat him/her with undue deference, and so limit his/her access to situations and individuals or present a guarded or biased account of events.  Alternatively, they may be glad of a ’semi-detached’ person to talk to, making the researcher the unwilling recipient of their stress.  In one extreme instance, during research for the Primary School Staff Relationships Project  (ESRC funded) (Nias, Southworth and Yeomans,1989), a researcher was asked to withdraw from a school, because the headteacher felt that he/she was taking sides in an internal disagreement over promotion.  An outline of this problem and the research issues it raises appear in the End of Award Report, an extract from which is attached.
Participant observers in schools are necessarily in an ambiguous situation. They are temporarily teachers in one or more classrooms, and if they have themselves been socialised as teachers, are likely to have feelings of care and responsibility towards students and as a result to feel the need for control. Yet the teachers with whom they are working have the same feelings and needs and these may sometimes conflict with those of the observer or be shown in different ways.  Researchers will find it helpful both to be vigilantly self-aware and to be sensitive to these dimensions of the classroom/staffroom situation, accepting that they will experience both uncertainty and tension, and therefore emotional discomfort, in their roles.  Prior discussion and clarification may reduce these, but, perhaps, in the process distort the situation in which they are acting as participant observers.  
There is little researchers can do to reduce or eliminate the uncertainties and tensions resulting from their own commitments and the nature of schools as organisations.  However, accepting that these are beyond their control can reduce their guilt and frustration.
Nias, J. (1983) Who am I?  The role complexities of a research consultant, in, Elliott, J. (ed) (1987) Facilitating Educational Action Research in Schools,  London: Schools Council
Nias, J. (1989) Primary Teachers Talking:  a study of teaching as work, London: Routledge
Nias, J. (1993) Balanced Thinking? Curricular tensions in a school journey, in Breadth and Balance in the Primary Curriculum, Campbell, RJ. (ed) London: Falmer
Nias, J. (1996) Thinking about Feeling:  the emotions in teaching, in Cambridge Journal of Education, op cit, pp 293-306
Nias, J., Southworth, G. & Yeomans, R. (1989) Staff Relationships in the Primary School, London: Cassell
Nias, J., Southworth G. & Campbell, P. (1992)  Whole School Curriculum Development in the Primary School, London: Falmer
Simmonds, G. & Nias, J. (1989) Russian Dolls: an account of teachers’ professional learning, in Working for Teacher Development, Woods P. (ed) Peter Francis Publishers

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