Participant Observation

I’m an anthropologist.

I look at the room around me.  I can understand the words being spoken, but some of the phrases seem strange.  If I speak, my words trip over each other, and my accent’s just not quite right.  I am unsure what the would be the proper way to join the social interactions, so I remain silent, watching and listening.  Even being quiet, I question my appropriateness.  What social rules should I be following with these people?  Perhaps I should be sitting a different way or have a different expression on my face.  I feel out of place, unfamiliar, uncomfortable.  This group of people speaks of social rituals that I have never experienced.  Perhaps, I think, once I become enculturated, I’ll share in these activities.  For now, I go back to observing.  It would be inappropriate to write field notes in this setting, so I rely on my memory to take in the details of where people are in space, how they are dressed, what they say to whom, and which items they carry with them.  I especially pay attention to what words they use.

This could be a reaction to starting fieldwork in a new setting.  At least, I imagine it as being something along these lines.  Really, this is a description of my everyday.  Sometimes it’s more pronounced than others, but it rarely goes away completely.  I have friends who will remind me that what I feel is not how they perceive me.  I can actually pass for neurotypical pretty well to someone who doesn’t know what they’re looking for.  And I know that I likely come across as a little odd, but nowhere as out of place as I typically feel.  That doesn’t stop me from observing, though.  I have spent much of my life watching people, before I considered studying anthropology, before I knew I was autistic.  I watch as an outsider.  This isn’t just a hobby; it’s a survival mechanism.  By tuning in to others’ ways of being, maybe I can understand myself better.  At first, the goal was to fit in as much as possible.  Now I know that forcing myself to be normal ultimately causes more stress than it’s worth.

Participant-observation is a classic mode of doing anthropology.  It’s based on the somewhat troubled notion of observing objectively while at the same time directly engaging as a participant.  I think this is more of an ideal standard than it is a foolproof methodology that always works perfectly.  Ethnography is messy – for everyone, not just me.

As an autistic anthropologist, the participant part is challenging, though observation seems to be a natural talent.  I’m rarely quite sure how to participate.  I get paralyzed in thought.  Usually by the time I get through observing, the moment to join in activity has passed.  It’s not that I don’t want to participate.  Quite simply, I often don’t know how.  I’m not likely to be proactive about participating.  It generally works out best if someone else takes the initiative of inviting me.  I find that because a large amount of observing and mental energy is required, I get worn out very quickly.  That tends to curtail my participation too, especially if I’m having to do a lot of simultaneous sensory processing.

Participation, in moderation, also has the wonderful effect of lessening the difference between me and others – some of which is self-imposed on my part.  Engaging with people teaches me that I am not necessarily always as bad at this social interaction thing as I think.  Though, sometimes, something goes awry and it reinforces that yes, I am autistic.  And when I connect and participate in a way that respects my limitations, there’s space for creative engagement and connection, both in my anthropological work and beyond.

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3 thoughts on “Participant Observation

  1. I am so impressed with your writing. Please keep it up. Although I am not autistic, I can relate to much of your thoughts because I have been quite introverted.

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