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The Pitfalls and Potential of Participant-Observation: Ethnographic Enquiry in Volunteering

Abstract

Ethical issues of ethnographic research are long-debated, but the context of volunteering and voluntary organisations emphasises challenges and opportunities associated with this method. In this paper, we explore these rarely examined concerns with focus on participant-observation, in terms of ‘voluntariness’ of participants, responsibilities of researchers in maintaining boundaries and self-care of researchers themselves in such contexts. Reflecting on implications in ethnographic enquiry from research design to conclusions, we argue volunteering should be viewed as an important context highlighting ethical issues often seen as ‘tick-box’ exercises or generally accepted research limitations. The increased risks to participants through access, sampling and questioning processes, to ethnographers through emotional involvement and to volunteer-involving organisations are discussed through reflection on three distinct pieces of research conducted between 2009 and 2019. These issues are ethical as well as methodological, as data yielded may be rich, demonstrating immersion in the ‘community’, but also limited in credibility.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Hagan.

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Hagan, J. The Pitfalls and Potential of Participant-Observation: Ethnographic Enquiry in Volunteering. Voluntas (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11266-021-00421-y

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Keywords

  • Ethics
  • Participant-observation
  • Volunteering
  • Ethnography