I am part of an organization called The Ateneo CODE (Consultants for Organization Development and Empowerment) although I am not a very active member. CODE specializes in helping other groups and organizations both in and out of Ateneo with regard to Organization Development related problems and concerns. CODE does this by having engagements wherein they conduct a series of activities or lectures in order to address the issues raised by their client organization. Despite being a member of CODE, I have not been able to be part of an engagement team or even been able to see how an engagement would go. Thus, I decided to observe and participate in an external engagement that CODE had with the St. Peter’s Parish Choir Group. My informant was an Externals Representative if CODE.
The engagement took place in a huge function hall just below the St. Peter’s Parish Church along Commonwealth Avenue. There were around 30 choir members who attended and yet they were only able to occupy a small portion of the hall. An LCD projector and screen were set up which I assumed were to be used for a lecture and the choir members were seated directly in front of the stage area. The hall was not air-conditioned but it was a good thing that the engagement took place at night so it wasn’t too warm. The hosts from CODE told everyone to rise for the prayer and I knew that the engagement proper had begun.
The CODE team conducted a total of two activities throughout the engagement.
In the first activity, the choir members were divided into two groups. Each group member was then instructed to put on a blindfold and form a circle while holding hands. The participants seemed very restless and noisy but they soon kept quiet as the activity progressed. Next, the facilitators said that one “leader” was supposed to step out of each of the circles in order to instruct their groups. However, the participants were not allowed to talk and discuss who the leader would be. When one leader had volunteered per group, they were all instructed to form a specific shape while holding hands. Only the leaders were allowed to instruct the participants what to do. This process was repeated twice in the activity. Personally, I found the activity quite boring since the participants were not allowed to talk and all they did was to form shapes with their bodies.
The second activity was much livelier since it involved role playing and singing. More importantly, it was more amusing since the CODE team allowed me to join in as a participant. The group I joined was actually very welcoming since they all shook my hand and introduced themselves although I could only remember a few like Eric, John Mark and Vanessa. They kept asking all sorts of things like what year I was in, what course I’m in and many more questions till the facilitator called our attention in order to begin the activity. Our task was to create a skit with five acts wherein there had to be one narrator and two singers with the rest simply role-playing. Both groups were given the same ending of the story and our skit served as the beginning and middle part. During our planning session, I was quickly assigned to play the role of the son in the story since I could not sing well unlike the choir members. Moreover, all of them were very open to suggestions not just from me, but from anyone in the group as well. They even let me pick the songs that would match each scene. There was also a lot of laughing and joking as a lot of funny suggestions for the skit were being discussed. When our time was up, we performed what we rehearsed and I don’t know if I was biased but I felt that we did a really good job. The other group actually figured that most of the song suggestions came from me since a lot of the songs were very current unlike most of the other songs that were from the 90’s or early 2000’s. Personally, I had a lot of fun not just because the activity was really interesting to begin with but because my group mates were very enthusiastic and energetic.
The engagement ended with a processing and synthesis session wherein the facilitators asked the participants how they found the activities and how they felt while doing them. Overall, the participants gave good feedback and a lot of them said that they had fun. Afterwards, the facilitators explained the rationale behind each of the two activities and what lessons were meant to be conveyed. It turns out that the first activity was meant to teach the participants about initiative and the second was about team dynamics. My informant told me that the most important aspect of the engagement was for the participants to experience the activities without letting them know what the main lesson was. In other words, the activities were designed so that the participants would learn and uncover the lessons on their own through the experience. She also told me that the facilitators were the ones who also made the respective activities and the lessons that were taught were chosen from the diagnosis that the team made from their meeting with the choir head. It turns out that the choir head felt that the members were losing interest in their choir practices and did not bond well together. Thus my informant told me that the activities were made to address these problems.
Overall, the experience proved to be both enjoyable and informative at the same time. As the engagement ended, my knowledge and appreciation for my organization certainly deepened. It was truly an interesting yet different experience to see an actual external engagement in action.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
Participation can really help a person get an “insider” view and understanding of what is going on in an activity unlike observation wherein you can only see superficial aspects. For example, in the first activity wherein the participants formed shapes, I was only able to watch them follow their leader and form a square, a crescent and a heart. I was not able to know neither what they were feeling nor how they found the activity and instructions. However, if I was able to participate in that activity, I would have been able to gather insight on what it feels like to be blindfolded and pressured to step up as a leader. With this characterization it seems as if observing would give a more general and objective perspective on the activity while participation would provide a more subjective and personal perspective since the effect of the experience will inevitably vary from person to person. On the other hand, my participation in the second activity did provide information that was much deeper than mere observation. I was really able to feel and see how team dynamics came into play as we planned the skit and how our each of our roles was equally important. If I simply observed that skit activity, I would have only seen two groups of people talking and maybe sometimes laughing but that would be it. I would have had no knowledge what so ever of the planning process since I would only be able to see the finished product which was the presentation. In a way, this highlights one of the most important strengths of participant observation. The researcher is really able to obtain a much clearer grasp of what is internally taking place within certain activities and be able to understand the interaction of the participants on much closer basis. Thus this would be greatly helpful when it comes to producing a more profound set of qualitative data.
On the other hand, I was also able to perceive two possible weaknesses of participant observation. Firstly, there seems to be a high chance for bias to be involved. Although bias may not always compromise the quality of data right away, it may skew and divert the resulting observations towards a particular personal preference, belief or even attachment to the other participants. For example, because I was part of the planning and execution of our skit, I had a natural bias for it over the other team’s skit. Although bias may also be present if I chose to simply observe that activity, it is magnified when the observer is directly involved and affected by the activity and participants. This makes participation much more subjective than observation. Secondly, participation may change the dynamics of the group that is being observed. The participants may act differently, talk differently and even respond differently. I was able to see this when I joined my group and most of the things we talked about during our down times or relaxing moments were mostly about me and my school. I imagined that the choir members would be bonding more as a group and talking more about internal affair if I was not there. Plain observation may also have this effect but I believe it can be minimized or avoided. The observer can make his presence very scarce and subtle. Moreover, given that the other facilitators were already observing, an additional observer would not affect the participants too much.
2. What did having a key informant add to you understanding?
Having a key informant helped me become aware of things that can neither be seen through participation nor observation. Although my own personal observations and inputs did contribute to my understanding of the activity, my informant was able to fill in the missing gaps by explaining the purpose, significance and goal of the activities that were carried out. She helped me make sense of the things I saw in such a way that the entire engagement seemed like one cohesive event that was centered towards the goal of addressing the problems raised by the choir group. In other words, I was able to answer the “who, what, when, where” questions but my informant was able to provide the “why”. In addition, my informant was able to provide background information about the engagement that helped me understand its purpose and its importance for the choir group. Also, knowing the background of the activities helped me take everything in the proper context since without the explanations I would have simply seen the two activities much differently.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
Firstly, the actual experience of going through the activities is something that will be very hard to describe and accurately narrated in a questionnaire or interview. Participant observation allows the researcher to be able to gain access to a deeper understanding of what is going on within particular activities. This added personal insight may also be vital in understanding how other people may be feeling since it might be difficult to simply ask them to describe their experience. For example, if a participant were to narrate and write down his experience in an event or activity, it might be difficult to really grasp what the participant may be trying to say if the researcher is detached from the activities themselves. If a researcher had a deeper knowledge of the activity through experience, then it would be easier to interpret the inputs and descriptions of other participants since there will be a very similar basis for comparison. Moreover, questionnaires and interview may have the tendency to miss out certain important aspects in their questions since the researcher might not know where to focus on. Although the questions may obtain a general idea of the answer of the participants, there might be some important questions that might not have been included. Through participant observation, a researcher will have a better idea on what aspects of the activity to focus on since he will be able to witness its impact on the participants and himself. Thus, the analysis and report on an activity may then be focused towards the most important aspects in order to emphasize whatever significance there may be.
In the engagement, participating in the activity helped me understand what it felt like to be a participant and the interactions that take place. It also helped me experience the lesson (Team Dynamics) that was being taught rather than just being told about it. Thus, I was able to connect the lesson to specific moments in the experience and that made the lesson even more meaningful in the end. This deeper understanding of the meaning of the activity would not have been as profound if obtained through interviews or questionnaires.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
The fact that questionnaires and interviews are separate and detached from the activity can be beneficial since there is no external force that may influence neither the participants nor environment. In participant observation, the observer may trigger different responses from the other participants and may also change the mood, atmosphere and even consciousness of everybody involved. Although there may be ways to minimize these complications, they will always be a risk that they will take place. Thus, a participant observer might not be able to see how the participants would have interacted or behaved if he were not present in that scenario. This leaves room for inaccurate observations since the condition of the situation that the observer may be seeing might be purely isolated due to his presence. Moreover, inputs from a participant observer may be too subjective in nature. Although people who are interviewed may also be subjective, at least interviews and questionnaires will be able to get a variety of answer and perspectives which makes the inputs less one-sided. However, the notes and observations of a participant observer may be tainted and mixed with his own personal beliefs and the outcome of his own personal experience. Thus, more often than not, it cannot be avoided that the insights of a participant observer will be subjective and some times one-sided. Therefore, a questionnaire or interview would be best when the researcher wants more of the objective details and insights about an activity which can be brought about by specific questions and a wide sample of people.
By: Joseph Vincent A. Pizarro || SA 21 || Section P