Reflexivity in Active Participant Observation: An Ethnographic Study of Fast Food Work


This case focuses on a 9-month ethnographic study conducted in three fast food stores intended to explore the impact of low-wage unstable employment on employees’ ongoing sense of self, and their subjectivity and human agency in managing their careers, self, and identities. “Active” participant observation, where the researcher participates in almost all the activities performed by people being studied, was chosen as one of the main methods of data collection. This case describes the importance of reflexivity in “active” participant observation and how reflexivity can be built into research design in the forms of periodic conversations with a mentor and keeping of a reflective journal. The journal entries revealed how reflexivity helped the researcher become aware of her own biases and assumptions during data collection, manage her emotional involvement in the research setting, and utilize her own experience of work to understand the employees’ perspectives and subjective experience. This case points to the importance of reflective practices, particularly in “active” participant observation where the dual roles of “participant” and “observer” create tensions for researchers, and illustrates the ways in which researchers can use these practices to enhance their field experience and improve their understanding of the phenomenon being studied.

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