For our participant observation activity, we chose to go to the Monterey Meat Shop in Malingap Street, Quezon City, in order to take part in the seemingly ordinary activities on an average day in a local meat shop. Our stay lasted from 11:00 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. We were all excited since it was our first time to participate in a meat processing activity. Thankfully, we never felt out of place or awkward during our time in the meat shop because the employees were very welcoming to us. Because of our sense of wonder, there were really no dull moments the whole time we were there.
At first, we were assigned to greet those who would come in at the store. It became boring after a while since only a few people went to the store during the time that we were there. We then busied ourselves by helping out in weighing the meat, putting price tags, stocking food in the freezers, and cleaning up the store. Soon after, they made us go inside the meat processing section to learn how they prepare the meat. It was very amusing to see the meat undergo different processes before the products were sold to people. The workers handled the meat with great caution and strictly followed sanitation and safety measures every step of the way. It was very unusual to see meat, like the longganisa we saw, be processed right before your eyes.
Working in Monterey even for just a short while was a very humbling experience. Getting to know the people gave us insight on what it is like to live in the “real world” outside school. Usually, we would all go to the grocery store and buy meat without bothering to think about what processes the meat went through or what the workers did in order to deliver the meat. Being able to see this process from a different perspective, specifically that of the workers, showed us that although as consumers we only get to be in the picture as we buy the product, we should also appreciate the efforts of the people involved in the process of delivering and preparing the food we need to buy in order to get healthy. The fieldwork and the people we have met made for a very inspiring experience. The lesson went beyond the meat and sparked the realization that working entails being able to undergo hardships, establish organized systems, and do your part in a team in order to serve the people only the best.
In the Monterey Meat Shop, our encounter was generally between two groups of people – the staff and the customers. Aside from a few glances, the customers did not react much to our presence in the shop, since majority of the customers’ focus was really just on the things they needed to buy. It is evident that the customers are pretty straightforward and simply go there to shop for food. The customers we encountered that day easily approached the staff, most probably because they are regulars and they are familiar with the staff of the meat shop.
On the other hand, our encounter with the staff of Monterey was much more hospitable. Perhaps since they are already used to dealing with people – they are very attentive and are always willing to offer their assistance to their customers – it wasn’t difficult to talk and be open with us. We observed that the moment a customer enters, the staff of Monterey automatically emits an aura of friendliness, greets the customer, and immediately offers help to the customers. The staff is respectful and always ready to assist and ask what the customers need.
Overall, our encounter with the staff was great. They were welcoming and comfortable with our presence in their meat shop. They did not mind that we were present while they were on the job. They would allow us to help them out in any way we could. Sometimes they would even initiate conversations and would share to us what they knew, and that made the fieldwork much easier.
The staff of Monterey was very cooperative and open to our interviews. It was easy to have conversations with them; if we had any question, concern, or curiosity, they would gladly answer them and even explain further. They also told us information and facts regarding the meat they were selling and the meat shop. The staff even gave us advice about how to make good choices when buying meat in order to make sure the products were healthy and safe to eat. They also shared personal experiences and insights to make us feel more at ease, and showed genuine concern for us. They always checked if we were okay, offered seats for us, and when lunchtime came around, asked if we were hungry so we could all eat together.
Our key informants shared information about the meat shop, like the works ethics in the shop and facts about their meat products. They even shared some insights they gained from working in a meat shop and some personal stories as well.
We learned about what goes on during a regular day at the shop. The store’s operating hours are from 7am until 7pm., however, if the staff had the opening shift, they would have to be there by 6am, and if they are on the closing shift, they would leave at around 8pm. During the morning shift, a fresh and clean carcass arrives, ready for processing. When the day is done, the staff stays for clean-up duties. During the stores operating hours, no employee ever stays idle.
We also learned about the importance of the divisions of the store. The meat handling section, where only the staff is allowed, is where most of the butchering and seasoning of meat happens. Sanitation and safety precautions are strictly followed here since it is the area where the meat is greatly exposed to harmful bacteria; people inside are limited and properly suited to avoid contamination. The chillers and freezer section was where the food was simultaneously preserved and displayed to customers.
We also managed to learn some life lessons. These insights are based on the workers’ own experiences. For example, Shirley Abella, one of the cashiers/merchandisers, told us that she originally did not want to work for a meat shop, but eventually did and has been in the meat business for over a decade. According to Shirley, “Kapag trabaho, kahit anong hirap. Dahil kailangan.” She taught us that sometimes you just have to bear the difficulties because in order to survive, your needs must come before your wants.
One of the butchers, Noni Jamosin, said “Pangit mapagod sa buhay. Minsan lang nga mabuhay.” He told us that we only live once so we might as well make the most out of it. We must continue to work and strive hard even if things get tiring. In his case, despite the risks of being a butcher, he continues to do his best.
Wilfredo Ramos, another butcher of Monterey, shared about his different tasks, tips, and experiences as a butcher. What was interesting about his interview was how he was the only one who said that diskarte is needed in the job to deal with the customers.
“Kapag nasubukan mo, nawawala rin ang takot,” said Mina Arseno, another cashier/merchandiser of Monterey. She seemed to be implying that you have to try things out because it is needed even if you are scared. The fear is something you will eventually overcome. Mina also shared the story of how she used to work in an office in Mandaluyong and had to work for Monterey because she needed a better job. At first she was afraid of working as a butcher, but she overcame her fear because the staff members always helped each other out.
One more valuable insight the staff shared with us was the importance of handling and relating to the customers. Not all the customers are nice, friendly, and patient. Each employee knows that they cannot argue or answer back to the difficult customers. They just have to remain calm and politely reason with the customers. They also try to keep in mind that the customer is always right.
Something similar that all the employees shared is how they enjoy their work because of the people they work with. They all found their co-workers really friendly and easy to get along with. It is something we felt and witnessed during our time in Monterey.
We are certain that our presence influenced the scene because of the way the staff showed genuine interest in the purpose of our visit. Though we were in charge of asking them questions, they also posed some inquiries of their own. When they found out that we were doing this for a class requirement, they willingly shared information with varying topics like their work ethics, the processes in handling the meat, the cleanliness of their workplace, and their sentiments about their co-workers. We also noticed that the place was livelier that the average meat shop, perhaps because something out of the ordinary, like our visit, excited the staff. They were curious about us; they initiated conversations and extended their friendly nature to us by showing concern about our comfort and well-being. We also know that we made an impact on the scene because the employees were open about telling stories about their personal lives, proving that our short stay in Monterey shook things up a bit.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
Their job really looked easy at the beginning since everything was systematic and organized. We thought that their job was a breeze since they didn’t really look like they were tired the whole time we were there. As we first entered the store, the workers immediately greeted us with their happy faces. They looked ready and comfortable as the three of us watched them arrange, weigh, clean and mix the seasoning for the meat. They even talk to each other every once in a while, snipping inside jokes and recalling funny memories. As observers, we didn’t feel awkward at all for they were very approachable and friendly to us. Sometimes, they would even initiate the conversations and invite us to participate in their work. We didn’t have a hard time interviewing them since they were open to answering our questions.
Being able to participate and do some of their work shed a new light on our understanding of what being a worker for Monterey entails. Beyond gaining the right skills, we learned that it is important to have hard work, determination, patience, and teamwork in order to run the business smoothly. We also realized that it was very different being on the other side of the fence. It was not as calm and collected as we thought it was. There was a specific system for everything and every worker knew what to do and when to do it. Rules were strictly followed because every step contributed to keeping order. There was never a dull moment and they kept doing job after job after job.
II. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Having key informants really helped in us understanding and learning more about Monterey Meat Shop and the meat business. Without them, we would not understand how and why certain aspects of the system come to be that way. With key informants, we were able to affirm or correct what we know based on our observations. If we did not have key informants, we would therefore have to rely on just whatever background knowledge we have or whatever we observed directly. Having key informants lessen the chances of us making false assumptions.
Also, what is great about key informants is that we do not only learn about the meat shop or the items being sold there, but we also learn about the people working at the shop. We are able to get their perspective on various aspects of their job. At the same time, we also get to learn and more about the staff’s personal lives.
III. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
Participant observation for this activity gave us the opportunity to go from being a customer in a meat shop to being the person in charge of keeping the business in order. We had a taste of what a day in the meat shop is like. We tried out a range of things from operating a weighing and pricing machine to sweeping the floor. A questionnaire or interview would not have given us the chance to try out these activities, and would have given us a narrower grasp of how the system in the shop flows.
Moreover, questionnaires and interviews cannot ensure that our gathered information adheres to the full truthfulness of our informants. These methods might make them self-conscious, and may alter their intentions and actions to conform to what they think would be a desirable answer. Participant observation let us gather information as the staff went about their work in a calm and natural state. We were able to capture how the people were in their candid moments. Participant observation also gave us the chance to establish rapport with the staff in a casual and comfortable manner. While interviews must also have an established sense of rapport, the formality of it may sometimes seem awkward or unnatural.
IV. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
The basic purpose of an interview is to get the right information from reliable sources. Interviews let us gather information that mere observation might not capture. With observations, there is a possibility that what is being observed is not what really happens on a regular day. Unforeseen circumstances may change the scene. For example, the day of observation might happen to be an off day, or maybe a health scare might affect the number of customers that day. Also, as they say, “there is more that meets the eye.” There could be more to what is observed and whatever that “more” is could serve of key importance in learning and understanding.
Through an interview or having a questionnaire, we can learn more in-depth information. We can learn things beyond our expectations. Since it is something that has been structured and prepared beforehand, more of the desired information and insights can be sought out. As mentioned earlier, we did not only learn and discover things about meat shops and meat; we learned certain things that could be considered as life lessons from the persons we interviewed. Our personal biases were countered through hearing the insights coming from our informants. That is something priceless and not easy to attain through participant observation.
by Finina Muñoz, Alex Yap and Paullene Yumang