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A Review: 'The Active Participant Observer' by Jeffrey Johnson

Updated on January 22, 2015


Johnson, Jeffrey, et al.
2006 The Active Participant-Observer: applying Social Role Analysis to Participant Observation. Field Methods 18: 111-134.

Key Words
Ethnography, active participant observation, data quality, social role analysis, participation

The authors conduct a meta-analysis of three studies in which active participant observation was used to gain access to information in work-related research settings. The authors depict situations from their own research experiences in which taking on an active social role beneficially augmented their rates of success in obtaining diverse information. In that the authors critique the traditional ethnographic stance of objectivity and its accompanying commitment to observation over participation, their work is representative of the critical paradigm.


The authors begin by noting that despite the pedigree of participant observation in anthropological research, the role of observation had long trumped that of participation. The authors go on to argue their key point, that active participation in a definite social role is necessary in some research contexts in order to obtain the required access and resulting information. The authors set out to describe a way to identify the potential benefits of different social roles with research contexts in terms of the possibility of access to different groups within the setting, ease of movement, respectability in the eyes of the research subjects, and overcoming boundaries that exist between groups in the setting. The authors write that the primary difficulty for the ethnographer is his or her status as an ‘outsider’ to the research setting. The authors quote Nelson I stating that any method that helps reduce the conspicuousness of the researcher, increases rapport with community members, and establishes the researcher in a normal role within the community is beneficial for the gathering of information.
The authors then delve into their ideas concerning the ways different social roles within an organization or community could differentiate the kinds of information they have access to: those with research goals focused on a specific part of an organization can take a role within that part of the organization and have access to the material they need, while those with interests spanning a large organization may need to try for a role that allows them freedom of movement throughout the various departments of segments of the organization. The authors use the example of two roles within a factory setting to illustrate their point: the assembly line worker has access to information relating to the other assembly line workers and little else, due primarily to the limited freedom of movement and ‘locational certainty’ of the position. On the other hand, the mechanic role in such a factory has access to information related to many of the positions and roles within the factory, as the position is one of relative importance with concomitant ‘locational uncertainty’ and freedom of movement and access to different groups within the organization.
The authors go on to describe twelve factors that should be assessed when considering taking on an active social role in a research project and which role to try to obtain, which are factors related to the role in question: freedom of social movement; access to information; type of informant relations; types of information available to the role; need for specialized knowledge for the role; neutral status ability; information reliability; reliance on key informants; entrance probability; accessibility; power within the organization; and the basis of power of the role. After depicting these varied and interrelated factors concerned with the selection of an active role in a research setting, the authors bolster their argument in favor of the active participant observer with three case studies, one from each of their research experiences.
These include an Alaskan fish camp for Johnson, in which he filled four different possible social roles, finding that the role of ship’s carpenter was the most advantageous in terms of the matrix of benefits discussed above. The relevance of his role to his access to information about the fish camp is underlined when a vignette describes his observation of other social scientists arriving to conduct research and being lied to. The second case study details Weatherford’s study of a red-light district of Washington D.C., where he took the active social role of night manager of a pornography store. This role is also described as giving the researcher the best possible access to information on his topic in his setting. Finally, the third case study involves Avenarius’ research into the Taiwanese community in Southern California. She took on multiple social roles, including jobs and roles in religious and social institutions, in order to become ‘part’ of the community she was studying. Consequently, it is written, she had access to the information she required for her research. The authors conclude by stating that an a priori understanding of the possible social roles the researcher might fill can lead to less anxiety-ridden, more productive research.


The authors make a compelling case for anthropologists filling active social roles in the communities they study by giving numerous examples of instances in which such an approach has led researchers to positive research experiences and to information that may not have otherwise been obtainable. It seems to me that the authors give a solid foundation for their argument and ample evidence suggesting that at least sometimes, it is best to approach the research setting with an idea of the possible roles one might fill while also conducting one’s research. The authors used a number of informative and well-presented tables to help illustrate their arguments. The authors even mentioned some of the possible drawbacks fo the active participant observation approach they advocate, though I think they left a number of possible negative connotations to such research out of their discussion of the limitations. Foremost among these is that researchers who take on active social roles in a community, become valued members f the community, and then simply depart when their research has been completed may leave a bad taste in the mouth of the community regarding the role the researcher played and the role of anthropological research within their community in general.

Other References

Adler, P.A. and P. Adler.
1987 Membership Roles in Field Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Emerson, R.M.
2001 Contemporary Field Research: Perspectives and formulations. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

Nelson, R.K.
1969 Hunters of the northern ice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Snow, D.A. et al.
1986 Fieldwork roles and information yield: A comparison of alternative settings and roles. Urban Life 14: 377-408.


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