In my two last blog posts, I wrote about some of the positive aspects of participant observation I experienced during my first day out on the field as a researcher. I am now closing this short series of posts by addressing the side of this kind of observation I felt was more challenging:
- The frustration of not understanding everything at once. There is something exhilarating about being immersed in a work environment that outsiders seldom get to experience and uncovering new knowledge about the work practice under focus. However, not everything one observes can be correctly understood or interpreted at once (especially when one is new to the domain of interest). Throughout this first day, I was thus often left wondering what the medical staff were doing and why they were doing it. I did not always get the opportunity to ask about what I had seen and when I did, it generally was some time after the observation of the specific event I had questions about. As such, I discovered that if I wanted to be successful as an observer, I needed to learn to be patient and accept that I might have to wait some time – maybe even until another observation day – before getting the answers to my interrogations.
- The “behave as if I weren’t there” awkwardness. I was at times uneasy in my observer role, and struggled to find a way to observe that did not feel like I was “stalking” the nursing staff. Not knowing whether they felt comfortable with my watching over their shoulder (which I sometimes needed to do), I started to feel quite self-conscious about my being there. I was worried about my presence being distracting or even annoying to the people observed, something I of course absolutely wanted to avoid. I did not ask about how the situation made them feel at the end of my shift – should I have dared to? – but do wonder whether they thought the situation was as awkward as I felt it was…
- Staying focused on the activities of relevance. A few times throughout the day, I let myself get distracted by events happening in the room that were not actually part of the scope of my research. For instance, I once became so entranced with the patient’s post-operative care that the operating nurse had to actually tap my shoulder in order to call my attention to the fact that she was going to start documenting the procedure…
- Staying emotionally detached. Working within healthcare, it is obvious that one will be confronted to difficult circumstances, and it seems only normal to be touched and feel empathy for the people involved. However, it is at the same time important to develop strategies in order to keep a healthy emotional distance from the patients and nursing staff. This is necessary in order not only to do good work, but also to protect oneself and make sure that working out on the field does not negatively affect one’s own life. That being said, I found it very hard not to let myself become overly emotional over the situations I was witnessing during my observation day. This is something I feel I really need to work more on until my next day out on the field.
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