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Value of Participant Observation

Value of Participant Observation

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01/04/2014

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Qualitative
Sociology,
Vol.
21, No. 4,
1998
What
Do Movements Mean? The
Value
ofParticipant-Observation
Paul
Lichterman
Participant-observation
can
teach
us
much about
the
everyday
meanings
ofdoing social activism. I
conceptualize
these
"implicit
meanings"
in relation to
work in the
sociology
of
culture,
and
social movement studies,
and
giveexamples from
activists'
everyday
interaction. A
participant-observer's
forays
into
implicit
meanings
illuminate
three
dimensions
of
activists'
experiences:
the
ways
activists
practice democratic
citizenship in
their
groups, the
ways they
build
group ties, and the
ways they
define
the
meaning
of
activism
itself.
By
probing
these implicitmeanings, we can
address
questions
that
concern
many
social
movement
scholars. We increase our
understanding
of how
movements
grow,
accomodate
conflict,
and build alliances, and we can
specify
which
insights are
useful
in theories of contemporary or
"new"
social
movements.
Participant-observers get to experience the same exhilaration, frustra-tion,
and
awkwardness
as the
activists
we
study.
As a
participant-observer,
I
have jumped
up and
down, screaming,
for
five
minutes;
I
have gone door-
knocking
in a neighborhood described as the "wild west" by one resident
who
was shot by accident; I have sought signatures for a petition while
being
snubbed
and
sneered
at by
mall shoppers
who
would
not
extend
methe
suburban courtesy
of
studied avoidance.
Is
participant-observation
insocial
movements worth the trouble?
By
participant-observation,
I
mean observing
andparticipatingin
social
action as the action is happening. It is common to
treat
participant-obser-
vationand
interviewing
as
kindred, qualitative methods aimed
at
similar
Direct correspondence
to
Paul
Lichterman, Department
of
Sociology,
University
of
Wisconsin,
1180 Observatory Drive, Madison,
WI
53706;
e-mail:
lichterm@ssc.wisc.edu.
KEY
WORDS:
participant-observation; social movements; interaction;
culture;
meaning.
401
C 1998
Human
Sciences
Press, Inc.
 
goals. Many
field
workersuseboth methods together
effectively,
and wecertainlybenefit
from
both. Each
of
these qualitative methods produces
a
different
kind
of
evidence, however,
and
each
has its own
strengths
and
weaknesses.This paper shows what participant-observation can teach us about themeanings
of
movements that would
be
difficult
if not
impossible
to
learn
through other methods alone. To be sure, no one method can take on all
of
the
questions
we
ought
to ask
about
the
meanings
of
social movements.And participant-observation studies can address questions
differerent from
thoseI
will
introduce here.Asexemplary studiesofsocialandreligiousmovements have shown us,
1
though, participant-observation is especiallysuited
for
asking questions about everyday,
often
taken-for-granted mean-ings
of
activism.
WHAT PARTICIPANT-OBSERVATIONCANREVEALABOUT MEANING
IN
MOVEMENTS
Activists,
as a
recent outpouring
of
scholarship attests, create meanings
actively
(JohnstonandKlandermans 1995; Larana, Johnston,and
Gusfield
1994; Morris and Mueller 1992; Mc Adam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996).They strategize ideological
frames
that
will
appeal to the public and out-smart organizations with competing agendas. They project identities thatmake dissenting
views
both more
meaningful
to their holders and morevisible to the
state.
They enact rituals of solidarity and conversion that help
people
over
the
divide between bystander
and participant and
sustain them
after
the
jump.
In
search
of an
elusive balance,
successful
social movementsre-work pre-existing traditions and ideologies, enough to promote politicaland cultural change, but not so much that activists become disempoweringlymarginal.Movement scholarshiphastendedto
view
meaning, then,as anobject of strategic action. Frequently, the assumption is that activists createand project their meanings very intentionally, in accordance
with
interests
and
structures
that
scholars
conceiveas
outside
of culture(Hart
1996).
Par-ticipant-observation studies help
us
understand these
explicit
meanings
withinterpretive depth.Students of movements have begun to argue that we can also benefit
from
attendingtowhat WuthnowandWitten
(1988)
have called implicitculture,
or
what
I
will call
implicit
meanings.
These
are the
meanings
that
activists tend to take for granted as they are innovating explicit ideologies,identities,
and
rituals. Studies
are
showing that implicit meanings enable
and
constrain what activists
can do
together,
or
even imagine doing
to-
gether
(Hart
1996; Kane 1997; Emirbayer
and
Goodwin 1996; Lichterman
402
Lichterman
 
forthcoming,
1997, 1996, 1995b).
These
studies use a variety of
different
culture concepts,and avarietyofresearch methods,to
find
andinterpretthese implicit meanings.
2
Recent research points out the importance of a particular kind of im-plicit meaning, one that participant-observation is well-suited to tapping.This research argues thatwe
will
understand more aboutnot
only
socialmovements
but
volunteer groups
and a
variety
of
informal public groups
if
we
attend closely to what it means to be a member, what it means to be
publicly
involved (Eliasoph 1998, 1996; Eliasoph
and
Lichterman 1997;Lichterman forthcoming, 1996,1995a, 1995b). By observing and participating
in
action
as the
action
is
happening,
we can
discover
the
meaning
of
group
life
itself,
which activist groups
as
much
as
other groups must take
for
granted most of the time in order to keep
working
together. We might con-ceive these meanings
as
"practices,"
(Bourdieu
1990,1977),
"civic practices"(Eliasoph 1998, 1996; Eliasoph and Lichterman 1997), "cultures of commit-ment" (Lichterman 1996),
or
"perspectives" (Becker
1961),
among other
ways.
The conceptual
differences
between these approaches constitute animportant and separate topic, and get elaboration elsewhere (Eliasoph andLichterman 1997; Eliasoph 1996).
For
present purposes, these concepts
all
call our attention to the mostly taken-for-granted assumptions about the pur-pose
of
group
life
that
are
embedded
in
everyday interaction.
My
purpose here
is to
highlight
the
value
of
participant-observation
instudying
these kinds
of
implicit meanings.
I
will
develop this theme
in re-lation
tosocial movement studies only,anddraw examples
from
activistgroups explored in my book on political commitment (Lichterman 1996), aproject
on
sexual identity politics (Lichterman forthcoming),
and a co-
authored paperonstylesofcivic
life
(EliasophandLichterman 1997). BelowI present three areas of
inquiry
that can benefit
from
a participant-observer's
forays
into implicit meanings:the
ways
activists practice citizenship throughparticipating in movements, the
ways
they build group ties, and the
ways
they
define being an activist. I show how participant-observers can discoverthese implicit meanings by paying special attention to group tensions, andthe
ways
activists place themselves in the wider society.
Movements
as
Forums
for
Active
Citizenship
We
think
of
activists
as
storming barricades,
lying
down
in
roads, con-
fronting
police. But just as frequently, activists discuss. Activists draw upposition statements, argue about public issues,
and
occasionally argue aboutwhat they should
be
discussing. Sometimes
these
discussions
are
strategy
sessions
in which activists are
figuring
out which definition of the issue
will
What
Do Movements Mean?
403

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