Observing Representation: Participant Observation With Elected Officials


We studied the concept of political representation by observing elected representatives (Canadian Members of Parliament) while they spent time within their electoral constituencies. Employing a moderate participant observation methodology, we focused upon the manner in which MPs build various representational connections with their constituents, and sought to explain differences in the types of representative styles MPs develop. Key elements of this research included establishing a clear research question, selecting an effective process for recruiting participants that were roughly representative of the population, executing the data collection, and effectively disseminating the results of this research. Through observing 11 different MPs from across the country, we learned a great deal about the importance of maximizing time for data collection while keeping ourselves open to new insights into what we were observing. We detected possible problems with reactivity related to our presence and interactions, but also saw the importance of passive participation for fitting in and best understanding the behavior of research subjects. Participation also allowed for substantial discussion with our participants when opportunity allowed. We took extensive notes covering all observed behavior and subsequently collectively analyzed these for meaning to both derive categories of representative connections and further determine which behaviors filled those categories. This allowed for the refinement of theory as a means of explaining differences that were observed across MPs. Once we were able to use the observational data to the fullest extent possible, we then used qualitative interviews with participants to fill in gaps and gain specific explanations and insights.

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