Participant Observation

We have been in Auroville for almost two weeks, have chosen our organizations, and are preparing to begin work after the New Year. Through our readings (Participant Observation by Danny L Jorgensen and Participant-observation by Eric Laurier) and discussions we have learned about Participant Observation as a method in becoming involved in the community around us. The interaction with the local community is what has drawn most of us here. Observation and participation is something that it comes naturally to everyone since, at a simplified level, it means watching and mimicking. The challenge is to notice the nuances that happen in everyday interactions and be able to take a step back at the end and look at the big picture.

I was first attracted to India more than ten years ago through a book that many students in our AUP-Linnaeus group have read, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I was excited to arrive in India and I have to admit when we first arrived I tried to take pictures of everything. It is easy to get sensory overload in India with all the noise, the fast pace, and the chatter in a language you do not understand. According to our readings this is being a “tourist.” So how do you take regular tourist or researcher observation and turn it into participant observation? Daily, I found myself taking less pictures, taking more notes, and keeping my head on a swivel to try to pick up some cultural specifics of our Tamil counterparts. I began by learning some Tamil: Vanakkam! (“welcome” or “hello”); Nandri! (“thank you”); Iillai (“no”). Then I picked up some gestures—saying yes with a head bob. These simple things seem to open the door a little bit for us into the Tamil culture.

I am looking forward to begin work. Our group of students will participate in a number of different organizations that work with Tamil people and Aurovillians. The first step has been to introduce ourselves to our organization managers and listen to their specific needs. We have a lot of work ahead of us to produce photos, write content for websites, create logos, grant writing, interviews to conduct, and videos to edit. Over the next two weeks our experience of India will change through our hands-on work.

In the article “Sustainable Development” by Edward Carr (Encyclopedia of Environment and Society, 2007) it is said that sustainable development is the linkage between issues in environmental, social, economic, and political concerns. We have observed firsthand how these issues often inter-work in this community and in our work we hope to participate in the steps towards developing sustainable solutions.

By Karin Johnson

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