The Role of the Participant-Practitioner in Ethnography: A Methodology of Leveraging Field-Based Interests in Social Investigation

ASpiring/rising model PAK Cha Hyeon -- whom I got to know through Facebook/Instagram after getting to know dozens of Korean "paepi" -- agreed to pose in and model the street fashion clothing of Korean high fashion designer YANG Hee-deuk, while I added value by shooting "street photography" at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) complex in a studio-lighting, fashion editorial style. 

ASpiring/rising model PAK Cha Hyeon -- whom I got to know through Facebook/Instagram after getting to know dozens of Korean "paepi" -- agreed to pose in and model the street fashion clothing of Korean high fashion designer YANG Hee-deuk, while I added value by shooting "street photography" at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) complex in a studio-lighting, fashion editorial style. 

Main argument

The paradigm of the "participant-observer" who studies a group as a "fly on the wall" while observing but not interfering with a social group has necessarilyshifted for certain ethnographers into one of the "participant-practitioner," or an actor in a social field whose entry access to and actions within the field is defined by the other actors in it, and who, by being as specifically interested (whether commercially, personally, or otherwise) as other members of the field, is able to learn the "rules of the game" and thereby navigate the group and gather data as a field insider. This is a researcher who gathers social data by trying to describe the social reality of the field according to the rules of its ethnomethodology.

I have been doing just this -- and developing the theoretical rationale along the way in the sense of   "grounded theory," (Berthelsen et al)-- using street fashion photography as a figurative lens, along with the actual one attached to my cameras. My recent methodological tool is one of a new kind of photo-sartorial elicitation in which I position different field actors into a new relationship centered around the production of picture that can not be of specific use to the actors in the field, but also elicit new angles and insights on what is happening on the literal field of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza during the bi-annual Seoul Fashion Week event. Unlike traditional forms of photo elicitation, this is something far beyond simply giving cameras to subjects and hoping they will produce photographs that will shed light on an aspect of their identity or better outline the nature of their social status within a group or field or even showing images to interview subjects.

Indeed, this project involves the active recruitment of field participants in the process of creating a picture, a common project. I will be acting as not a mere participant-observer. The status of participant-practitioner is a function of my status as a practitioner within the field itself -- and while this involves technically "interfering" with or actively altering field conditions, the important point to remember is that as a participant-practitioner, my practices are bound by the rules of the field and the dictates of my interests as defined via the other field actors.  Both approaches/positions are actually quite similar in that they involve more than mere "participation" but actually abandon the front of objectivity-as-putative-social-neutrality. As a participant-practitioner, I constantly function within the parameters of recognition/decision that I, as a field participant, navigate a number of field positions and actors in order to elicit an observable effect in/via a photograph within the context of a project that will yield mutual benefits for all field members participating, which can yield considerably useful insights about the nature of social conditions/rules/roles/norms within the field. 

I do this primarily by focusing field actor participation around a photographic project since photographs are the prime social currency within the particular field of fashion, with exchange rates to desired social action and participation far higher than even direct payments/incentives of fiscal currency might provide. Some points to consider about different ways of looking at the street fashion (or any ethnographic) portrait:

  1. as a mere illustration of the photographic subject
  2. as an integrated summary of all the ethnographic interactions that happened behind the picture in order to produce it
  3. as a collection of visual data points and a map of their spatial, semiotic, or social relationships
  4. as a piece of social currency within the field



In the bigger picture, this part of the article is both a response to and enhancement of ideas put forth by John Levi Martin (Martin).

What Martin is talking about is an extended metaphor taken from the physical sciences for use in social science, simply stated. And it has great utility as an explanatory metaphor, especially when explaining many far-ranging and diffuse social phenomenae.

Often, people seem to treat social phenomena as something discreet and definable, akin to something "real" that one can pick up and touch with one's hands. However, the problem here is defining something that is inherently difficult to see, which is the defining characteristic of most social phenomena -- you can't see the ism itself, but only its effects. Sure, sexism and racism, like gravity, all exist; but you can't see those things themselves. Like Isaac Newton in the apocryphal story connected to his name, he didn't “see” gravity, as indeed no one can or ever has, but could clearly see its effects in the apples falling from the tree. If one goes up into a tower and drops an apple, a rock, and a feather at the same time, we know that they're going to be pulled down, as all mass is inside a gravitational field. Einstein complexified this difficult question by stating that gravity is not a force transferred by some medium or particle across empty space. And that was the essential problem. What is the medium of transference of energy within a field? Is there some movement of a magical ether or some other mysterious thing that we can't see? No, says Einstein. Gravity is the warping of space-time around any object possessed of mass. And that leads us to the major aspects of field theory that will define the theory for us and explain it.

Within a field, there are 5 rules or conditions to think about objects that fall within its influence. The field, in both the physical sciences and social sciences senses:

1. Causes "changes in the state of some elements but involves no appeal to changes in states of other elements."
2. “Changes in state involving interaction between the field and the existing states of the elements" and
3. "The elements have particular attributes that make them susceptible to the field effect.”
4. “The field without the elements is only a potential for the creation of force."
5. The field itself is not directly measurable; its existence can only be proved by its effects.” (CITATION)

In the end, according to Martin, “Field theory, then, has several generic characteristics no matter what the domain of application." And that is key to our purposes here, as social scientists trying to explain phenomenae in social fields. (Martin)

So, moving from the ideas of gravitational or electromagnetic fields in physical science, let's postulate that the social field defined by its effects on agents within it is one that is shot through with the “global fetish”, an aspiration to a vaguely-defined “global” that is shared by all agents within the field and indeed has come to partially define the legitimacy of the field itself. We should also not forget the way that Bourdieau imagined the field in his employment of field theory, as the arena of struggle for primacy within it, with cultural capital as the deciding factor of success. 

For the sake of ease of discussion, let us try to compress the lengthy idea of an intertwined and cross-permeated field of fashion in Korea that is shot through with global aspirational desire -- with a certain globality -- parallel to the way that the related forces of electricity and magnetism have come to be expressed as electromagnetism. The resulting field generated within and defined by agents in the Korean fashion fiels affects agents as diverse as Korean high fashion designers, the fashion design associations they constitute, overseas and domestic fashion buyers, international and local press outlets, and the paepi that are a major point of concern of this paper in a variety of different ways.   The field -- and its global charge --  affects the nature and behavior of the agents, which then interact with one another in terms of their altered characteristics and resultant different self-interests.

Before moving on from a review of theory to a discussion of the paepi and the field of fashion they enter, it is necessary to take a brief aside to mention a South Korean societal phenomenon that charges the field of fashion with a specific and peculiar valence. 


In sum, we gain access to informants as neither insiders (we can never truly become one) nor outsiders (as agents within the field, we are certainly not outsiders), but as equals as defined by our reason to be there and by our obvious vested interests in entering into a field-based relationship with other members. It is very unlike the basic tenets of most ethnographic work, which entails entering communities as an academic/scholar/researcher who is explicitly prohibited from having any strong interests in being there. 

As a researcher trying to gather data in the real social world, often from reluctant informants, it is useful to think about the social capital we are already leveraging when we expect non-interested (and uninterested) subjects to cooperate in allowing access to their social groups and communities from which we hope to glean useful social data. The first question we should ask of ourselves as researchers should be the very one that the subjects surely ask themselves when asked to give their participation: "What do I get out of this?" This is especially true when dealing with youth cultures and subcultures with members are often possessed of significant deficits in cultural capital.

Since, as researchers (like journalists), we often cannot pay for cooperation, we should acknowledge that subjects are often indeed expect to 'get something' from participation. If the researcher hails from one of the culture's top academic institutions, the subjects may be looking for more than just legitimation and verification of the researcher's credentials. But even if it is a middle school student thinking (erroneously) that cooperating with a researcher from Seoul National University may help him or her gain access to college, or that giving an interview to a researcher on K-pop might get him or her access to a star they might want to meet, subject most certainly do factor in a researcher's apparent cultural capital as part of the participation equation. This is a factor that it is difficult to deny exists. I am simply postulating here that entering the social group or community as a field member clearly marks:

  1. a clear reason to walk through the door in the first place
  2. a concrete means of interaction between individual members
  3. a clearly evident benefit to interacting in the first place
  4. socially mediated evidence of interaction that in itself is data

In this sense, a field-based raison d'entrer ("a reason to enter") can result and far better access and quality of social data gathered. And it should we not, as researchers, have a much better answer to the question, "Why are you here?"

Working Bibliography and Reading List

Berthelsen, C. B., Lindhardt, T., & Frederiksen, K. (2016). A discussion of differences in preparation, performance and postreflections in participant observations within two grounded theory approaches. Nordic College of Caring Science: METHODS AND METHODOLOGIES, 31, 413–420. Retrieved from internal-pdf://

Du Gay, P. C. N. (1997). Doing cultural studies : the story of the Sony Walkman. Culture, media and identities. London ; Thousand Oaks Calif.: Sage, in association with The Open University.

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17(1), 13–26.

Katz, J. (2006). Ethical escape routes for underground ethnographers. American Ethnologist, 33(4), 500–507.

Lee, H. J. (2008). Global Fetishism : Dynamics of Transnational Performances in Contemporary South Korea. World.

Levi-Martin, J. (2003). What Is Field Theory? American Journal of Sociology, 109(1, July), 1–49. Retrieved from internal-pdf://

Oliver, J., & Eales, K. (2008). Re-evaluating the consequentialist perspective of using covert participant observation in management research. Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 11(3), 244–357. Retrieved from internal-pdf:// (1).pdf