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May 2012

Topic      More than just being there? The place of participant observation in linguistic fieldwork

Date       Tuesday 29th May

Time       6:00pm

Venue     Upstairs room, Prince Alfred Hotel, 191 Grattan St, Carlton (corner of Bouverie St), ph ‪(03) 9347-3033‬

 Food and drinks available at the venue.

Contact   Ruth Singer if you have any questions



Topic: More than just being there? The place of participant observation in linguistic fieldwork 

Participant observation is the subject of intense discussion and reflection in the fields of anthropology and ethnomethodology. Writings on linguistic fieldwork often mention participant observation in passing as one of the techniques used in linguistic fieldwork. But it is rarely discussed in detail, nor is there much of the type of reflective discussions we find in other fields. Is this because it is possible to study linguistic data without any participation in the speech community? (for example using historical records). Or are linguists just generally averse to reflection?

This session asks 'What is participant observation in linguistic fieldwork?'

Is it:

  • spying on people?
  • writing notes in a notebook?
  • becoming fluent in the language you study?
  • the 'person' you are to the community you work with? 

Everybody's fieldsite is very different and everybody relates to the community they work with differently. So is it really sensible to see participant observation as a 'technique' alongside other techniques such as elicitation or is participant observation more just finding a way of being a linguist in the field?


Ideas for background readings:

Fadzillah, Ida (2004), Going Beyond "The West" and "The Rest": Conducting Non-Western, Non-native Ethnography in Northern Thailand

Hill, Jane (2005), The ethnography of language and language documentation

Robinson, Gary (2004), Living in Sheds: Suicide, Friendship, and Research Among the Tiwi

Tedlock, Barbara (1991), From Participant Observation to the Observation of Participation: The Emergence of Narrative Ethnography, Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring 1991), pp. 69-94

Hume, Lynne and Jane Mulcock ed. 2004, Anthropologists in the field: Cases in participant observation, New York: Columbia University Press


Suggestions for other relevant readings are welcome.


LIP is an occasional gathering of language activists and linguists in Melbourne. All are welcome. Those in other parts of Australia and the world who can't make it to the Melbourne LIPs are encouraged to organise a local gathering to discuss this topic and support language activities in your area.