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Participant Observation: A Method for Understanding the Lifeworld of People With Severe Intellectual Disabilities

By: Published: 2020 | Product: SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 1
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There is a plethora of social research among people with intellectual disabilities but a dearth of qualitative social research conducted with people with severe intellectual disabilities. This is hardly surprising given the difficulties of consent, communication, and cooperation. I conducted research at a special education needs college working with the senior students and staff with the hope of gaining an understanding of the students’ sense of “self.” Using the ethnographic methods of participant observation, guided conversations, and interviews, I came to know the students and their sociocultural environment. Participant observation, in the true ethnographic sense, is not commonly used to conduct research among people with severe intellectual disabilities. I illustrate the utility of this method for gaining an understanding of their sense of self using a case study of one student. I was made aware that Tracy could be a danger to me the first time we met, and I spent many months being afraid of her. Over time, we accepted the presence of each other in the college and became friends. There are limitations to participant observation, but there are benefits to getting to know your intellectually disabled research participants on their own terms, as well as through the knowledge and experience of their parents, guardians, teachers, and carers.

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Participant observation

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