Arts-Inspired Participant Observation in Ethnographic Fieldwork: Researching the Experience of Movement in Long-Term Care


As members of the aging population transition into seniors’ villages and assisted living care facilities where they experience aging as a community, research about the experience of collective aging is important to implement services and policies that provide the best quality of life possible. This topic is best accessed ethnographically, where the researcher can engage with the field over a long period of time, build meaningful relationships with informants, and get a sense of what is really happening from the inside. My broader research program explored the social life of residents living in long-term care through the lens of the creative arts. My role in the field was a musician-researcher, and I worked within a phenomenological framework. From this broader program emerged a published case study about the experience of movement in long-term care for a man living with dementia and aphasia. This case study describes some of the practical aspects of doing ethnographic fieldwork in a long-term care setting. The case sheds light on working with people living with dementia. I raise methodological challenges in working in a health care setting and provide ways to navigate these challenges. Furthermore, I stress that within ethnographic work, participant observation is an approach more than a strict method. In my experience, it was based predominantly upon my relationship to informants and vice versa. Through this case study, readers will expand their knowledge about ethnographic research methods in a health care setting, specifically in a long-term care setting with someone living with dementia and aphasia. The case study will discuss the following research methods in action: participant observation as tuning in and blending into the field site, interviewing as active listening and active witnessing when communication is difficult, and the use of music in the ethnographic encounter as a research aid.

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