Dr Theofanis Exadaktylos Department of Politics
One of the greatest challenges in any discipline is to create an interactive and engaging environment in modules focusing on research methods, techniques, and approaches. By default, the nature of research methods – despite being at the heart of my own agendas – is admittedly drier than our standard module content. Hence, frequently students switch off or avoid a deeper engagement with the module. This was certainly an observation we made in Politics, which as a subject is quite contemporary, ever evolving, and multifaceted. As module leader in both undergraduate and postgraduate modules on research methods in the main Politics and International Relations programmes, leading on qualitative research methods, I had a unique opportunity to work with a small class size and tried to create a more interactive environment for learning.
Participant observation is a common qualitative approach in political research. Researchers effectively emerge themselves inside a targeted group to observe dynamics, to note down power relations, hierarchies, and structures, but also assess collective decision-making and process-building. For example, to understand the dynamics of a parliamentary committee and its decisions, we may wish to observe activity within that committee in vivo. There are two ways in which this can happen, either covertly without revealing our researcher identity to the group (but presenting ourselves as part of the group) or overtly (where all members in a group know about our identity). This was exactly what I wanted students to understand: how in a ‘real-life’ example we could understand the foundations of participant observation.
The idea was simple: a jigsaw puzzle suited for 5-year-old children, that my students would try to put together in 20 minutes. The class was asked to pick from a hat a role and not reveal roles to anyone. One group of students were direct participants in the puzzle, one group of students were direct observers and would take notes on the dynamics of the participant group, and one group of students were infiltrating participants (i.e., would participate in completing the puzzle but they would also observe from ‘within’). Therefore, the participant group was a mix of direct participants and observers of the process.
I asked students to commence the process and observed the way they organised themselves, the way they took notes, the way they behaved, and how they tried to put together the jigsaw puzzle. Of course, in 20 minutes, it was not possible to complete the puzzle, but it was sufficient to demonstrate how a political group could operate in terms of organisation, roles, and actions.
At the end, I asked students who directly observed to share their observations of the group. Following that, I asked those who were direct participants to say how they experienced the observation and whether they felt that some of their colleagues were not direct participants but undercover observers. Finally, we revealed the identities of those who were undercover. And they had interesting insights to share, as they tried not only to observe the group, but actively participate in the completion of the puzzle, giving orders, receiving directions, and becoming part of the group itself.
The students thoroughly enjoyed this exercise, which combined kinaesthetic elements and hands-on approaches in getting the spirit of the method. It was unlikely that they would be able to apply it in their own projects straight away, however they would be able to critically assess literature and research that use this kind of method and research design and understand the benefits and disadvantages of the method through their own experience.