Hello again! I am Beverly Peters, and I teach in American University’s Measurement and Evaluation Program. This is the second article in a 4 part series on Using Observation and Participant Observation for Monitoring and Evaluation. In the previous article of this series, we discussed the differences between observation and participant observation, and how evaluators use these tools in their work.
We focused on participant observation, and learned that this tool can be particularly useful for evaluators interested in gathering rich, emic data; that is, when we get to what anthropologists call the “backstage.” At the backstage, evaluators are accepted (in as much as possible) as insiders; at this place, stakeholders are open and upfront with us about their perceptions and project operations.
We know that anthropologists take weeks or even months to move to the backstage. Since evaluators do not have that luxury of time, how can we get to the backstage more quickly, without sacrificing the collection of rich, emic data?
As evaluators, we usually get entrance to a project or community through gatekeepers that provide introductions and pave the way for us to get to know people and move to the backstage more quickly. But gatekeepers are only one step that evaluators use to get to the backstage.
Moving from the front to the backstage in your participant observation activities, and collecting data that is useful for your evaluation, depends on many aspects, including, but not limited to your:
- Knowledge of the project, and its culture or ethos. While knowing about the project helps you to ask informed questions about it, being appreciative of the project culture helps you gain entry into it. For example, if you are evaluating a project that embraces sustainable agriculture and you critique this, you are likely to face challenges getting to the backstage.
- Intercultural communication skills. Knowledge of the stakeholder culture and understanding its cues are equally as important as your knowledge of the organization and its projects.
- Knowledge of local languages, if you are working in a language other than your own. Speaking another language can be an important step in being accepted into a stakeholder and project community—and it also helps you to understand how people think. When you do not speak or cannot learn another language, you need to choose your interpreters wisely, for both language and cultural knowledge, and with potential micro-politics challenges in mind.
- Ability to build rapport. This relates to your personal approach: How you approach being in an unknown situation and speaking to unknown people, and if you feel comfortable not being in control. Being a good conversationalist, being inquisitive and asking questions, and taking the time to learn and care about the project and its stakeholders can help you to build the rapport needed to move to the backstage.
- Self-reflection. Being self-aware helps you to pinpoint your potential biases and identify how these could impact your interactions with stakeholders and the data that you collect. Consider your implicit biases, and find ways to counter these actively. Reflect on who you are as an evaluator, your responsibilities to stakeholders, and the unwelcome power that these afford you in your work.
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