HAU

Ethnography? Participant observation, a potentially revolutionary praxis

Alpa Shah

Abstract


This essay focuses on the core of ethnographic research—participant observation—to argue that it is a potentially revolutionary praxis because it forces us to question our theoretical presuppositions about the world, produce knowledge that is new, was confined to the margins, or was silenced. It is argued that participant observation is not merely a method of anthropology but is a form of production of knowledge through being and action; it is praxis, the process by which theory is dialectically produced and realized in action. Four core aspects of participation observation are discussed as long duration (long-term engagement), revealing social relations of a group of people (understanding a group of people and their social processes), holism (studying all aspects of social life, marking its fundamental democracy), and the dialectical relationship between intimacy and estrangement (befriending strangers). Though the risks and limits of participant observation are outlined, as are the tensions between activism and anthropology, it is argued that engaging in participant observation is a profoundly political act, one that can enable us to challenge hegemonic conceptions of the world, challenge authority, and better act in the world.


Keywords


ethnography, theory, participant observation, India, revolutionary praxis

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.1.008