Malinowski’s Participant-Observation in Modern Anthropology

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Where does Malinowski’s conceptualization of participant-observation sit in the landscape of modern anthropological fieldwork? A primary objective of the modern ethnographer is to glean insights into the ways people relate to and interact with one another and the world around them. Through participant-observation, Malinowski (1922) offered a valuable tool with which to uncover these insights and understandings, the ethnographer. The ethnographer as research tool has become the basis of much modern anthropological research.

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As a method, it was a radical departure from the typical approach to fieldwork used in Malinowski’s time which involved techniques that kept the ethnographer distanced and distinct from those they studied (McGee & Warms, 2008). In his conceptualization of participant-observation, Malinowski identified three primary objectives for the fieldworker. First, to record the feel and flow of daily life as a member of the community; second, to create a framework of community organization based on a scientific perspective; and third, to collect detailed personal information particular to the community of study (Malinowski, 1922).

These goals and methodologies remain principal to the design and analysis of modern anthropological research. However, they also raise a number of questions about the practical, paradigmatic and ethical difficulties associated with anthropological fieldwork. Discussed below are the goals identified by Malinowski, some of the issues they raise, and how they have come to be interpreted within modern anthropological practice.

The premise of participant-observation draws the researcher inside the daily life of those they study, with the many small experiences, interactions, intimacies and resulting integration providing an entree into cultural life not afforded the lone observer or ‘outsider’. Malinowski took great pains to ensure that he eventually came to feel part of the tribe, an insider, ‘joining in himself in what is going on’ rather than simply recording the proceedings (Malinowski, 1922, p. 1). Achieving insider, as opposed to outsider, status within a community of study is a primary goal for many anthropologists in the field. However, the concept of a dichotomous insider/outsider positionality is a complex issue that is coming under increasing scrutiny within the field (Kirby, Greaves & Reid, 2006). Malinowski’s (1922) methodology of ethnographer as tool is based in two contradictory imperatives, each centered on location. First, the researcher ust locate themselves intimately within the group under study in order to gain a complete and ‘fleshed out’ account of community life and second, that it is not possible, when located within and as a member of a group, to have the necessary perspective to interpret community life (Malinowski, 1922). Claire Sterk (1996) challenges the ethnographer as insider viewpoint through her work with prostitutes in New York and New Jersey. Sterk’s own realization of her ability to extricate herself from the community and rejoin her own ‘world, a world of safety and stability’ confirmed her status as outsider (Sterk, 1996, p. 2). Nancy Kalow (1996) supports Malinowski’s assertion of the importance of distance when analysing data. She reports her research experience within a group of homeless children in San Francisco as limiting her perspective, something she only identified once she stepped outside of the role of participant-observer and became an observer of her data. This raises the issue of transition from participant-observer to observer/interpreter. By positioning oneself as interpreter or analyst, the researcher creates an academic distance from those they observe, voiding their participant status.

Susan Krieger (1996) extends this argument through her experience as a functioning member of the community under study. Krieger found her membership identification did not automatically afford her insight into the group and, through her efforts to interpret data, she came to realize that she had become estranged from her participants and her study. It was only through a ‘process of reengagement’ that she was able to again locate herself within the group and successfully analyze her data, a process at odds with Malinowski’s second imperative (Krieger, 1996, p 183).

Thus, Malinowski’s ‘ethnographer as tool’ is still a guiding principle of anthropological fieldwork. However, the location and position of this tool with relation to the community under study has evolved from Malinowski’s limited perception of its scope. To simply be positioned ‘right among the natives’ (Malinowski, 1922, p. 6) does not automatically provide the ethnographer with an insider’s view. It is this realization that has shaped and is still shaping the way fieldwork in modern anthropology is approached.

The focus of anthropology can also been seen to have evolved in terms of the premises upon which Malinowski based his anticipated outcomes of research when compared to those of modern ethnographers. The primary purpose of anthropological research identified by Malinowski was that of understanding tribal life objectively and scientifically, in terms of systems of ‘social machinery’ and presenting this for consumption to a Western audience (Malinowski, 1922, p. 109; McGee & Warms, 2008). This raises two issues apparent in modern anthropology.

First, the relevance, usefulness and problematic nature of a purely objective paradigm within anthropology; and second, the motivations underlying anthropological research and fieldwork. ‘Striving for the scientific view of things’, a central tenet of Malinowski’s (1922, p. 6) anthropology, has been challenged by modern anthropologists. The challenge raises two primary questions. First, is it possible or useful within such a personal contextual field as anthropology to discount subjectivity as an authentic mode of analysis.

Krieger (1996) identifies this as a problem inherent in the writing of social science and argues that through ethnography we are not writing about the other but, in fact, writing about the self. She also touches on the second question, from where have our acceptable scientific/objective truths originated? The objective paradigm underlying social science denies self-expression, narrowing the scope of understanding to that of a predominately male, middle-class, Western, academic one.

This point appears to lie outside the realm of Malinowski’s consideration and is indicative of his socio-historical epoch. The purpose of research for Malinowski (1922, p. 25) was to ‘shed light on our own (Western)’ mentality, informing Western science and academia. While modern anthropology still endeavours to uncover systems and social structures it does so from the standpoint of advancement or empowerment of those communities it studies, not to exclusively inform Western science (Kirby, Greaves, Reid, 2006).

For example, Annette Lareau’s (1996) study seeks to reveal patterns of achievement in relation to class status and school performance, but it does so with an intention to inform educational policy and effect change within schooling systems. Similarly, Sterk’s (1996) study of prostitutes examines the relationship between prostitution, drugs use and AIDS, searching for cross-cultural patterns in order to address the HIV/AIDS crisis. In this way, anthropology is still approached from a scientific paradigmatic orientation.

However, what drives the research has changed. Considering the needs of the community, and how a study is designed to identify and address those needs, has become a powerful impetus for anthropological research. Thus, while modern anthropology shares a similar scientific goal with Malinowski, the goalposts have shifted. The question of who benefits from anthropological study has become an important consideration for any modern anthropological researcher (Kirby, Greaves & Reid, 2006). This leads the discussion to the issue of ethics. Malinowski’s (1922, p. 4) third goal involves ‘collection of ethnographic statements’ to be used as ‘documents of native mentality’. These documents consist of information that is personal and belonging to those of whom he is studying. At no time during Malinowski’s description of ethnographic methodology does he address the ethical issues of participant consent, or to what extent his role as researcher will affect the community he is studying. These are all areas of central importance and concern for the modern anthropologist (Kirby, Greaves & Reid, 2006).

Before undertaking any anthropological study, it is standard modern practice to obtain consent from those that are being studied. In her study involving school children, parents, teachers and administrators, Lareau (1996) describes in detail the difficulties inherent in this process, but also recognizes that it is a necessary component of fieldwork. The extensive trail of consent outlined by Lareau (1996) raises questions identified by Philippe Bourgois (1991) that are yet to be answered – how far back does the line of consent extend?

And how does consent, with regards to participant-observation, colour the relationship between observer and observed? These questions are closely related to the role of researcher and their effects on the community which are highlighted by Sterk (1996), who describes grappling with how involved she is willing to become with her participants and how involved her participants have already become with her. One ethical dilemma identified by Sterk (1996) is that of her role as researcher and what responsibility that carries in terms of intervention.

Sterk (1996) cites the dilemma of if and how to intervene when participants who are known to be sharing hypodermic needles are also HIV positive. She cannot address this ethical dilemma other than to retreat to the role of outsider, researcher, ethnographer. This problem is explored by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1995). Through her work in the field, she raises important questions about the ethnographers’ role within the community. She argues that one must be willing to contribute and give back to the community, not from the perspective of what the anthropologist identifies as the needs of he community, but what the community itself identifies. These ethical questions and difficulties do not lie within the scope of Malinowski’s consideration and highlight the progressive nature of ethnography as a mode of cultural and social (human) analysis. Participant-observation, as Malinowski (1922) conceptualized it, was a process through which the ethnographer entrenched themselves in the daily life and living of the community under study. To ‘grasp the native’s point of view’, to ‘realise his vision of his world’ were the words Malinowski (1922, p. 23) used to summarise this approach to anthropological research. This ideology has shaped modern ethnography more than almost any other influencing factor to date and provides the framework for modern ethnography. However, Malinowski’s vision is one that is situated within the colonial, ethnocentric and localized milieu of his time. Anthropology and the world as we know it today has, in many ways, moved on from a perspective that privileges a solely Western view. It now seeks a richer insight into the ways of others by situating the self as ‘other’, outsider, intruder, subject.

The difficulty of becoming a true ‘insider’ looms large for any ethnographer in the field, even when the field is situated within one’s own community. The scope of expected outcomes of anthropological research and ethnography has changed considerably since Malinowski’s (1922) study of Trobriand Islanders. The purpose of his study can be seen as solely to inform Western culture, not as a way of informing or effecting change for those of whom he studied. Today, participant-observation and ethnography are increasingly becoming based on understanding and knowledge relating to effecting positive change within the community of study.

Through ethnography the anthropologist, community and wider socio-political powers become informed in ways that are designed to benefit those they study. Finally, an area that reveals itself through its omission from Malinowski’s work is the ethical issue of subject participation in ethnographic research. The concern of ethical fieldwork has become of paramount importance within anthropological research and has serious ramifications in terms of subject consent and the changing role of researcher within the field.

In conclusion, Malinowski was a man who, in many ways, was ahead of his time. His contribution to ethnographic method in anthropological research is arguably the most important thus far. However, as people’s understanding and expectation of social science and cultural difference expands, the way in which participant-observation is interpreted also expands and evolves into something that Malinowski may have found difficult to conceive. Malinowski provided a solid framework upon which today’s anthropologists can weave a new interpretation to address an ever changing world of humanity.

References Bourgois, P. (1991). Confronting the Ethics of Ethnography: Lessons from fieldwork in Central America. In F. Harrison (Ed. ), Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving further toward an anthropology of liberation. Washington, DC: Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association. Kalow, N. (1996). Living Dolls. In B. Jackson & E. D. Ives (Eds. ), The World Observed: Reflections on the fieldwork process. USA: The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Kirby, S. L. Greaves, L. & Reid, C. (2006). Experience Research Social Change: Methods beyond the mainstream (2nd ed. ). Canada: Broadview Press. Krieger, S. (1996). Beyond Subjectivity. In A. Lareau & J. Shultz, (Eds. ), Journeys Through Ethnography: Realistic accounts of fieldwork. USA: Westfield Press. Lareau, A. (1996). Common Problems in Fieldwork: A personal essay. In A. Lareau & J. Shultz, (Eds. ), Journeys Through Ethnography: Realistic accounts of fieldwork. USA: Westview Press Malinowski, B. 1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York: Dutton. McGee, R. J. & Warms, R. L. , (Eds. ) (2008). Anthropological Theory: An introduction history (4th ed. ). New York: McGraw Hill Scheper-Hughes, N. (1995). The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a militant anthropology. Current Anthropology, 36(3), 409-420. Sterk, C. (1996). Prostitution, Drug Use and Aids. In C. Smith & W. Kornblum (Eds. ), In The Field: Readings on the field research experience. Westport, USA: Preger Press.

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Malinowski's Participant-Observation in Modern Anthropology. (2017, Sep 15). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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