Participation and Observation: The Detached Researcher VS The Citizen or Ethics in Social Science Research.
One of the key methods that us qualitative/ ethnographic researchers use is a technique known as participant observation. This involves us going to a particular study sight and immersing ourselves in the social situation that we want to study. For example classic studies have involved researchers working in factories or taking the role of a psychiatric hospital patient. Adopting such an approach is very different from using a questionnaire or a survey or such like and poses very specific challenges for the researcher in the field. The classic model of research may conceptualise the researcher as some sort of detached objective automaton. However, the reality is very different as we are not just "researchers" we have other roles and responsibilities that cannot just be forgotten or ignored during the research period. These challenges that manifest themselves while conducting social research may be quite trivial but at other times they can open up a whole can of methodological and ethical questions that the researcher has to resolve on the hoof as it were.
To explore these I was going to use an example from my own research career to explore how such things can manifest themselves. The incident happened when I was conducting research in the Ambulance Service when I was with an emergency medical service (EMS) paramedic crew. To put this incident in to context you need to be aware that previous to my research career I had had some seven years working in the Ambulance Service and that many of those that provided the focus of the research were former colleagues who I had previously worked with. We had arrived at the hospital with a routine admission and the crew were waiting in a side corridor for a piece of equipment to transfer the patient from the Ambulance stretcher onto a trolley so that they may be transferred to a clinic. As we waited in the corridor an ambulance liaison assistant came running after us and said that they had just received a call that a five hour old baby had stopped breathing some two miles down the road.
The paramedic ran to take the details of the call from ambulance control, while the emergency medical technician (EMT) and myself transferred the patient on to the trolley by hand and grabbed the stretcher. On this occasion, in the heat of the moment, I completely forgot my role as a researcher and suspended my role as observer. The EMT and I ran through the corridors of the hospital toward the ambulance. I was in front, in civilian clothes, shouting at members of the public to get out of the way. When we got to the ambulance we threw the stretcher in the back . Having worked in the ambulance service I was fully aware that incidents involving children and infants elicit greater urgency, and on this call, all the stops were out. The journey to the incident was a very silent affair with none of the jokes or banter that often characterizes the journey to emergency calls. I felt sick; my heart was pumping and my mouth dry. The EMT and myself prepared the equipment that we thought may be needed at scene; we worked as a team of three. I was no longer adopting the role of the professional stranger that is often associated with the role of researcher/ ethnographer but was now acting as a member of the ambulance crew. This may have been some sort of coping mechanism on my part to deal with the situation that I now found myself in........ (To be continued)