Essay Ant Observation

Participant observation is one type of data collection method typically used in qualitative research. It is a widely used methodology in many disciplines, particularly cultural anthropology, European ethnology, sociology, communication studies, human geography and social psychology. Its aim is to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, sub cultural group, or a particular community) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their cultural environment, usually over an extended period of time. The method originated in the field research of social anthropologists, especially Bronisław Malinowski and his students in Britain, the students of Franz Boas in the United States, and in the later urban research of the Chicago School of sociology.

History and development[edit]

Participant observation was used extensively by Frank Hamilton Cushing in his study of the Zuni Indians in the later part of the nineteenth century, followed by the studies of non-Western societies by people such as Bronisław Malinowski,[1]E.E. Evans-Pritchard,[2] and Margaret Mead[3] in the first half of the twentieth century. It emerged as the principal approach to ethnographic research by anthropologists and relied on the cultivation of personal relationships with local informants as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating in the social life of a group. By living with the cultures they studied, researchers were able to formulate first hand accounts of their lives and gain novel insights. This same method of study has also been applied to groups within Western society, and is especially successful in the study of sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity, where only by taking part may the observer truly get access to the lives of those being studied. The postmortem publication of Grenville Goodwin's decade of work as a participant-observer with the Western Apache,[4]The Social Organization of the Western Apache, established him as a prominent figure in the field of ethnology.

Since the 1980s, some anthropologists and other social scientists have questioned the degree to which participant observation can give veridical insight into the minds of other people.[5][6] At the same time, a more formalized qualitative research program known as grounded theory, initiated by Glaser and Strauss,[7] began gaining currency within American sociology and related fields such as public health. In response to these challenges, some ethnographers have refined their methods, either making them more amenable to formal hypothesis-testing and replicability, or framing their interpretations within a more carefully considered epistemology.[8]

The development of participant-observation as a research tool has therefore not been a haphazard process, but instead has practiced a great deal of self-criticism and review. It has as a result become specialized. Visual anthropology can be viewed as a subset of methods of participant-observation, as the central questions in that field have to do with how to take a camera into the field, while dealing with such issues as the observer effect.[9] Issues with entry into the field have evolved into a separate subfield. Clifford Geertz's famous essay on how to approach the multi-faceted arena of human action from an observational point of view, in Interpretation of Cultures uses the simple example of a human wink, perceived in a cultural context far from home.

Method and practice[edit]

Such research involves a range of well-defined, though variable methods: informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the life of the group, collective discussions, analyses of personal documents produced within the group, self-analysis, results from activities undertaken off or online, and life-histories. Although the method is generally characterized as qualitative research, it can (and often does) include quantitative dimensions. Traditional participant observation is usually undertaken over an extended period of time, ranging from several months to many years, and even generations. An extended research time period means that the researcher is able to obtain more detailed and accurate information about the individuals, community, and/or population under study. Observable details (like daily time allotment) and more hidden details (like taboo behavior) are more easily observed and interpreted over a longer period of time. A strength of observation and interaction over extended periods of time is that researchers can discover discrepancies between what participants say—and often believe—should happen (the formal system) and what actually does happen, or between different aspects of the formal system; in contrast, a one-time survey of people's answers to a set of questions might be quite consistent, but is less likely to show conflicts between different aspects of the social system or between conscious representations and behavior.[8]

In participant observation, a researcher's discipline based interests and commitments shape which events he or she considers are important and relevant to the research inquiry.[10] According to Howell (1972), the four stages that most participant observation research studies are establishing rapport or getting to know the people, immersing oneself in the field, recording data and observations, and consolidating the information gathered.[11]

Howell's (1972)[11] participant observation phasesDescription
Establishing RapportGet to know the members, visit the scene before study. Howell[11] states that it is important to become friends, or at least be accepted in the community, in order to obtain quality data.
In the FieldDo as the locals do: It is important for the researcher to connect or show a connection with the population in order to be accepted as a member of the community. DeWalt & DeWalt (2011)[8][11] call this form of rapport establishment as “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”. Also mentioned by Howell, DeWalt & DeWalt state that the researcher must strive to fit in with the population of study through moderation of language and participation.[8] This sets the stage for how well the researcher blends in with the field and the quality of observable events he or she experiences.
Recording Observations and Data
  • field notes
  • interviews
  • reflexivity journals: Researchers are encouraged to record their personal thoughts and feelings about the subject of study. They are prompted to think about how their experiences, ethnicity, race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, and other factors might influence their research, in this case what the researcher decides to record and observe (Ambert et al., 1995).[12] Researchers must be aware of these biases and enter the study with no misconceptions about not bringing in any subjectivities into the data collection process (Ambert et al., 1995; DeWalt & DeWalt, 2011; Richardson, 2000).[8][12][13]
Analyzing DataThematic Analysis: organizing data according to recurrent themes found in interviews or other types of qualitative data collection and

Narrative Analysis: categorizing information gathered through interviews, finding common themes, and constructing a coherent story from data.

Types of participant observation[edit]

Participant observation is not simply showing up at a site and writing things down. On the contrary, participant observation is a complex method that has many components. One of the first things that a researcher or individual must do after deciding to conduct participant observations to gather data is decide what kind of participant observer he or she will be. Spradley[14] provides five different types of participant observations summarised below.

Participant Observation Type Chart.[8][14][15]

Type of Participant ObservationLevel of InvolvementLimitations
Non-ParticipatoryNo contact with population or field of studyunable to build rapport or ask questions as new information comes up.[8][15]
Passive ParticipationResearcher is only in the bystander rolelimits ability to establish rapport and immersing oneself in the field.[8][14][15]
Moderate ParticipationResearcher maintains a balance between "insider" and "outsider" rolesthis allows a good combination of involvement and necessary detachment to remain objective.[8][15]
Active ParticipationResearcher becomes a member of the group by fully embracing skills and customs for the sake of complete comprehensionThis method permits the researcher to become more involved in the population. There is a risk of "going native" as the researcher strives for an in-depth understanding of the population studied.[8][14][15]
Complete ParticipationResearcher is completely integrated in population of study beforehand (i.e. he or she is already a member of particular population studied).There is the risk of losing all levels of objectivity, thus risking what is analyzed and presented to the public.[8][14][15]

Limitations To Any Participant Observation

  • The recorded observations about a group of people or event is never going to be the full description.[15][16][17]
  • As mentioned before this is due to the selective nature of any type of recordable data process: it is inevitably influenced by researchers' personal beliefs of what is relevant and important.[15][16][17]
  • This is also plays out in the analysis of collected data; the researcher's worldview invariably influences how he or she interprets and evaluates the data.[8][14][16][17]

Impact of researcher involvement[edit]

Participant observation can only do so much for the researcher because the sole presence of the researcher in the field will influence the participants' behavior (see:observer-expectancy effect).[18] Researchers engaging in this type of qualitative research method must be aware that participants may act differently or put up a facade that is in accordance to what they believe the researcher is studying.[18] This is why it is important to employ rigor in any qualitative research study. A useful method of rigor to employ is member-checking or triangulation.[19][20]

While gathering data through participant observation, investigator triangulation would be a way to ensure that one researcher is not letting his or her biases or personal preferences in the way of observing and recording meaningful experiences.[20] As the name suggests, investigator triangulation involves multiple research team members gathering data about the same event, but this method ensures a variety of recorded observations due to the varying theoretical perspectives of each research team member.[20] In other words, triangulation, be it data, investigator, theory or methodological triangulation, is a form of cross-checking information.[19][20]

Member checking is when the researcher asks for participant feedback on his or her recorded observations to ensure that the researcher is accurately depicting the participants' experiences and the accuracy of conclusions drawn from the data.[20] This method can be used in participant observation studies or when conducting interviews.[20]Member-checking and triangulation are good methods to use when conducting participant observations, or any other form of qualitative research, because they increase data and research conclusion credibility and transferability. In quantitative research, credibility is liken to internal validity,[20][21] or the knowledge that our findings are representative of reality, and transferability is similar to external validity or the extent to which the findings can be generalized across different populations, methods, and settings.[20][21]

A variant of participant observation is observing participation, described by Marek M. Kaminski, who explored prison subculture as a political prisoner in communist Poland in 1985.[22] "Observing" or "observant" participation has also been used to describe fieldwork in sexual minority subcultures by anthropologists and sociologists who are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,[23] as well as amongst political activists and in protest events.[24] The different phrasing is meant to highlight the way in which their partial or full membership in the community/subculture that they are researching both allows a different sort of access to the community and also shapes their perceptions in ways different from a full outsider. This is similar to considerations by anthropologists such as Lila Abu-Lughod on "halfie anthropology", or fieldwork by bicultural anthropologists on a culture to which they partially belong.[25]

Ethical concerns[edit]

As with any form of research dealing with human subjects, the researcher must ensure the ethical boundaries are never crossed by those conducting the subjects of study. The researcher must have clearly established boundaries before the onset of the study, and have guidelines in place should any issues cross the line of ethical behavior. One of the issues would be if the researcher is studying a population where illegal activities may occur or when working with minor children.[8] In participant observation, the ethical concern that is most salient is that of informed consent and voluntary participation.[8] There is the issue of deciding to obtain informed consent from every individual in the group of study, obtain the informed consent for participant observation from the person of leadership, or not inform anyone of one’s true purpose in fear of influencing the attitudes of members, thus skewing the observations recorded.[8][15]

The decision is based on the nature of the study and the researcher’s own personal thoughts on the cost-benefit ratio of the situation. Participant observation also brings up the issue of voluntary participation in events the researcher observes and records.[15] There may be instances when members do not want to be a part of the study and request that all data collected pertinent to them be removed. In this case, the researcher is obligated to relinquish data that may identify the members in any way. Above anything else, it is the researcher’s responsibility that the participants of the study do not suffer any ill effects directly or indirectly from the study, participants are informed of their rights as subjects of the study, and that the group was justly chosen for study (The Belmont Report).[26]

The American Anthropological Association and American Sociological Association both have comprehensive statements concerning the code of conduct for research.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Malinowski, Bronisław (1929) The sexual life of savages in north-western Melanesia: an ethnographic account of courtship, marriage and family life among the natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea. New York: Halcyon House.
  2. ^Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940) The Nuer, a description of the modes livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  3. ^Mead, Margaret (1928) Coming of age in Samoa: a psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilisation. New York: William Morrow & Co.
  4. ^Spicer, Edward H. "Grenville Goodwin", Arizona and the West, Vol. 3 No. 3, Autumn 1961, pp. 201-204
  5. ^Geertz, Clifford (1984) "From the Native’s Point of View: on the nature of anthropological understanding," in Culture Theory: essays on mind, self, and emotion. Edited by R. A. Shweder and R. LeVine, pp. 123-136. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  6. ^Rosaldo, Renato (1986) "From the door of his tent: the fieldworker and the inquisitor," in Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography. Edited by J. Clifford and G. E. Marcus. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  7. ^Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.
  8. ^ abcdefghijklmnoDeWalt, K. M., DeWalt, B. R., & Wayland, C. B. (1998). "Participant observation." In H. R. Bernard (Ed.), Handbook of methods in cultural anthropology. Pp: 259-299. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. Cite error: Invalid tag; name "DeWalt" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  9. ^Collier, John Jr and Malcolm Collier, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method, 1986.
  10. ^Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2001). "Participant Observation and Fieldnotes." In Paul Atkinson, Amanda Coffey, Sara Delamont, John Lofland, & Lyn Lofland (Eds.), Handbook of Ethnography. pp: 356-357. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  11. ^ abcdHowell, Joseph T. (1972). Hard Living on Clay Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. pp. 392–403. ISBN 0881335266. Cite error: Invalid tag; name "Howell" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  12. ^ abAmbert, A.; Adler, P.A.; Adler, P.; Detzner, D.F. (1995). "Understanding and evaluating qualitative research". Journal of Marriage and the Family (57): 879–893. 
  13. ^Richardson, L. (2000). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln, Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. 
  14. ^ abcdefSpradley, James P. (1980). Participant Observation. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt College Publishers. pp. 58–62. ISBN 0-03-044501-9. 
  15. ^ abcdefghijSchwartz, M.S.; Schwartz Green, C. (January 1955). "Problems in Participant Observation". American Journal of Sociology. 60 (4). 
  16. ^ abcPeshkin, A. (March 1993). "The Goodness of Qualitative Research". Educational Researcher. 22 (2): 23–29. doi:10.3102/0013189x022002023. 
  17. ^ abcAtkinson, Paul; Hammersley, Martyn (1994). "Ethnography and Participant Observation". Handbook of Qualitative Research: 248–261. 
  18. ^ abDouglas, Johnson, J.D. & J.M. (Eds.) (1977). Existential sociology. New York: Cambridge University Press. 
  19. ^ abDouglas, J.D. (1976). Investigative social research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. 
  20. ^ abcdefghLincoln & Guba, Y.S. & E.G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. 
  21. ^ abBannister, Burman, Parker, Taylor, & Tindall, P., E., I., M., & C. (1994). Qualitative research. In Qualitative Methods in Psychology: A research guide. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press. pp. 1–16. 
  22. ^Marek M. Kaminski. 2004. Games Prisoners Play. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11721-7
  23. ^Bolton, Ralph. (1995). "Tricks, friends and lovers: Erotic encounters in the field." In D. Kulick & M. Wilson (Eds.), Taboo Pp: 140 - 167. London: Routledge.
  24. ^S.Sullivan (2004). ‘We are heartbroken and furious!’ Rethinking violence and the (anti-)globalisation movements (#2), CSGR Working Paper no. 133/04
  25. ^Abu‐Lughod, Lila (1988). "Fieldwork of a dutiful daughter." In S. Altorki & C. Fawzi El-Solh (Eds.), Arab Women in the Field: Studying Your Own Society. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  26. ^"The Belmont Report". 

External links[edit]

Give a colony of garden ants a week and a pile of dirt, and they’ll transform it into an underground edifice about the height of a skyscraper in an ant-scaled city. Without a blueprint or a leader, thousands of insects moving specks of dirt create a complex, spongelike structure with parallel levels connected by a network of tunnels. Some ant species even build living structures out of their bodies: Army ants and fire ants in Central and South America assemble themselves into bridges that smooth their path on foraging expeditions, and certain types of fire ants cluster into makeshift rafts to escape floods.

How do insects with tiny brains engineer such impressive structures?

Scientists have been studying the social behavior of ants and other insects for decades, searching for chemical cues and other signals that the insects use to coordinate behavior. Much of this work has focused on understanding how ants decide where to forage or build their homes. But new research combining observations of ant behavior with modern imaging techniques and computational modeling is beginning to reveal the secrets of ant construction. It turns out that ants perform these complex tasks by obeying a few simple rules.

“People are finally starting to crack the problem of producing these structures, which are either made out of soil or the ants themselves,” said Stephen Pratt, a biologist at Arizona State University. The organization of insect societies is a marquee example of a complex decentralized system that arises from the interactions of many individuals, he said.

Cracking these problems could lead to improvements in swarm robotics, large numbers of simple robots working together, as well as self-healing materials and other systems capable of organizing and fixing themselves. More broadly, identifying the rules that ants obey could help scientists understand how biologically complex systems emerge — for example, how groups of cells give rise to organs.

“Self-organizing mechanisms are present everywhere in nature, from the development of an embryo to the organization of large animal populations,” said Simon Garnier, a biologist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Guy Theraulaz, a behavioral biologist at the Research Center on Animal Cognition in Toulouse, France, and collaborators have been studying insect nests for the last 20 years, building more complex and realistic models as their data improved. They have discovered that three basic guidelines governing when and where ants pick up and drop off their building materials are sufficient to create sophisticated, multilayered structures.

“It all results from local interactions between the individuals,” said Garnier, a former student of Theraulaz’s who now studies living ant bridges. “The final structure emerges without central coordination.”

Theraulaz’s team painstakingly analyzed videos of ants crawling across petri dishes as they attempted to build a shelter, noting each time that an ant picked up or dropped off a grain of sand. The researchers discovered three main rules: The ants picked up grains at a constant rate, approximately 2 grains per minute; they preferred to drop them near other grains, forming a pillar; and they tended to choose grains previously handled by other ants, probably because of marking by a chemical pheromone.

The researchers used these three rules to build a computer model that mimicked the nest-building behavior. In the model, virtual ants moved randomly around a three dimensional space, picking up pieces of virtual sand soaked in a virtual pheromone. The model ants created pillars that looked just like those made by their biological counterparts. The researchers could alter the pillars’ layout by changing how quickly the pheromone evaporates, which could explain why different environmental conditions, such as heat and humidity, influence the structure of ant nests. (They published a preliminary version of the model in a conference report in 2011 but haven’t yet published the more refined version, which better mimics real ants.)

“The real novelty here is our newly acquired ability to observe in detail the formation and the transformations of these structures,” Theraulaz said. “We finally have access to precise data on how living things get together to form complex yet fully functional and reactive structures.”

After a weeklong simulation, the virtual ants created something that looked like a real nest; layers stacked together with connections between them. The connections themselves were not explicitly written into the rules, Theraulaz said.

“For the longest time, people never would have believed this is possible,” said Chris Adami, a physicist and computational biologist at Michigan State University, who was not involved in the study. “When looking at complex animal behavior, people assumed they must be smart animals.”

Living Architecture

For David Hu and collaborators at the Georgia Institute of Technology, researching ant architecture is both a livelihood and a workplace headache. Hu’s team studies living architecture in which “ants are the bricks and the brick layers,” Hu said. But the fire ants in Hu’s lab are also adroit escape artists. They build towers to escape their enclosures and creep under locked doors. Hu is terrified of three-day weekends, which give the ants more time to break free and build bivouacs — nests made of hundreds of thousands of ants — under his colleagues’ desks. When everyone returns to work, he receives panicked calls from infested offices.

“We have ants escaping from our lab all the time,” Hu said. “The bivouacs are sophisticated, with tunnels and windows that can open and close in response to humidity and temperature.”

In his research, Hu is focused on first understanding a simpler structure — ant rafts. The insects can escape floods in their habitat by assembling into rafts made up of up to 100,000 members. The surprisingly buoyant structures, which can be as large as a dinner plate, can float for weeks, enabling the colony to survive and find a new home.

Hu and collaborators had previously shown that after a spoonful of ants is dropped into water, the blob of insects transforms into a pancakelike raft through a simple process: each ant walks randomly on the surface of the blob until it hits the water’s edge. “An individual ant can’t know how big the raft is, where it is in the raft and what other ants are doing,” Hu said. “The only communication goes on at the edge of the structure — that’s where the structure grows.” Hu’s team used these simple rules to build a virtual ant raft that had the same dynamics as one made by real ants.

Wanting to understand exactly what gives the ant rafts their remarkable strength and buoyancy, Hu’s team peeked inside the structure. They froze rafts of ants and then created images of them using computed tomography (also known as CT scans).

The findings, which will be published in an upcoming paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, reveal that ants weave themselves into something like three-dimensional Gore-Tex, a fabric that is both breathable and waterproof. The ants form air pockets by pushing away from whichever ants they are connected to, creating highly buoyant rafts that are 75 percent air. The weave of the ant fabric is held together by multiple connections among individual ants, which orient themselves perpendicular to one another. “What’s happening at the big scale is the result of lots of interactions at the small scale,” Hu said. The result is a water-repellant lattice that enables even the ants at the bottom of the structure to survive.

As an engineer, Hu views ant conglomerates like any other material, studying their properties much as one might study plastic, steel or honey. Ants, however, have the unusual ability to act as either a liquid or a solid, and Hu hopes further research into this ability will help engineers design self-healing structures such as bridges capable of sensing and mending cracks.

To find his ant architects, Garnier sometimes spends days with his collaborators wandering the rainforest on an island in the Panama Canal. But once in close range, the target is easy to spot: Huge swaths of army ants in search of food for their voracious young sometimes cover the length and almost half the width of a football field. Ants from this nomadic species, named for their characteristic marching columns, blanket their surroundings. To expedite their relentless foraging, the ants rapidly build bridges over gaps in their path or across trees, using their own bodies as building blocks to create a smooth and expedient path for their kin. Scientists have long studied these curious creatures, exploring the evolutionary advantages of their foraging and bridge-building tactics, but Garnier and collaborators are among the first to study exactly how the structures form. They build obstacles in the path of the marching column and record the ants as they build a bridge.

Like fire ant rafts, bridges are built based on simple rules and possess surprising strength and flexibility. As soon as an ant senses a gap in the road, it starts to build a bridge, which can reach a span of tens of centimeters and involve hundreds of ants. Once the structure is formed, the ants will maintain their position as long as they feel traffic overhead, dismantling the bridge as soon as the traffic lightens. “The exact timing of their decision to join or leave the structure maximizes stability as a function of traffic on the trail,” Garnier said. “The rules of behavior in forming and dismantling the bridge are optimally designed to handle the traffic.”

Garnier’s team is now studying how individual ants cling to one another to create the structure and how ants at the fastening points can hold the weight of 100 comrades. “I think this is a new, very exciting approach,” said Bert Hölldobler, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University who has been studying ants for more than 40 years.

One of the most exciting findings to emerge from studies of living architecture “is how dynamic and rich this process is,” said Scott Turner, a biologist at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. Garnier’s work shows that ants build and disassemble bridges according to changing needs. Preliminary work from Hu’s group, which also studies bridges, shows that the structure’s properties, such as strength and integrity, evolve with changing conditions.

Although Hölldobler is excited about all three projects, he cautions that just because a model mimics real ant behavior doesn’t mean it reflects what’s actually happening. He cites the case of a model of desert ants that re-created their complex foraging expeditions without the need for a chemical trail marker, created at a time when scientists had found no evidence for one. But Hölldobler’s team later discovered that the insects do indeed use chemical markers, limiting the usefulness of the model.

Also currently missing is an evolutionary approach to understanding the ant behavior. “If we can understand how rules emerge from other rules and how they change with the environment, that would be extraordinarily fruitful,” said Adami, who is planning to work with Garnier on this question.

Meanwhile, engineers are already dreaming up useful applications. They hope to use ant construction principles to design modular robots that can self-organize. Adami imagines a swarm of robots sent to Mars to build a structure from Martian soil ahead of the arrival of humans. The beauty of a decentralized system is that a project can succeed even if individual parts fail.

Dynamic ant architecture might also provide insight into how to make buildings more adaptive, changing its properties based on how many people are inside, for example. To make a living building, “you need to continually monitor the environment and what effect the swarm has on the environment,” Turner said.

Ants might even shed light on the complex organization of the organ we use to study them — the brain. The behavior of an ant community resembles the organization of neurons into a functioning brain, Hölldobler said. “Each neuron is relatively dumb, but if you take billions of neurons, they interact in a way that we have only scratched the surface of understanding.”

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