Thomas Grammig

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Participant Observation Proposal

Participant observation is a controlled experiment of soliciting opinions and reflections of individuals by sharing professional experiences.  International co-operation projects in industry are specific applications of participant observation.  Their dynamics, cultural complexity, power differentials and variety of tacit knowledge are high.  In fact, so high that the question whether participant observation is possible is equally important as the quality of the analysis and the participation of an observer requires a disciplined experimental methodology.  Co-operation in industry requires exchanging and combining knowledge and, equally critical, the relational basis of trust. When the firms and institutions concerned are willing to address the quality of project implementation, governance and social relevance of the project, participant observation has significant potential for feedback to all project participants.  The more prominent the following conditions, the bigger is the methodology´s potential.

+ The technical experts active in the project come from different types of organizations (firms, NGOs, administrations,
        academia), different countries, or different professions. In industrial contexts these differences in expert
        orientation reflect their individual professional past.
+ These experts have to combine their know-how to achieve the project´s objectives.
+ The project outcomes comprise technical features that should be relevant for other organizations and individuals
        than those immediately involved in it.

The following elements are essential so that a researcher becomes a part in the exchanges between project participants without exerting influence (which would bias his presence and weaken the experiment):

a) All project participants are introduced to the researcher at the same time, ideally in a general meeting or other event for all participants and the most senior person clarifies questions about the researcher´s affiliation and role.  The form of this introduction is actually less important than the uniformity for all participants.  The participants can judge the researcher in order to explain their work to him and when they have the same basis, their judgments are easier to understand.

b)   The researcher is present during project implementation for a period of one week to three months, depending on the intensity of the co-operation between the experts.  During this presence he will be as passive as possible and not introduce any impression or opinion on the project. He will invariably be asked for information and advice by participants and will respond to these questions in a general manner avoiding reference to specific conditions in the project studied.  His responses are honest, constructive but passive and non-directive. Many responses will concern context specific social meaning for technical objects. He will refer to social science results on technical change, social learning and always point to a separation of the political, economic and cultural dimensions of technical objects treated.

c) During the presence, the researcher interviews several participants in individual, non-structured and open exchanges.  If the interviewed participant accepts, the interview will be taped.  The tapes and transcripts will remain the property of the researcher.  If suitable, interviews can be conducted jointly with a small number of interviewees.  How many, when and where the interviews are conduced will depend on the research progress.

d) The analysis of the participant observation will be available in written form to all participants. When these are accepted by the responsible person, recommendations for changes to the project´s implementation can be discussed amongst the participants.  The researcher is available for discussions about the changes with the participants.

 The research objectives I propose to pursue are knowledge management, organizational learning, human resources management, industrial clusters, sector investment programmes, blending of know-how or the role of local knowledge. The reorientation of project activities can comprise division of responsibilities and roles amongst experts, consultation and communication standards, tacitness, task structuration, benchmarks, designing teams, administration and reporting routines and so on.
Essential elements of the results will be the definition of three latent processes governing the transfer of technical knowledge.


Coombs R, A Richards, P Saviotti, V Walsh, 1996, Technological Collaboration,  Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Grammig T, 2012, Technical Knowledge and Development: Observing Aid Projects and Processes, London: Routledge.

Mosse D, 2014, Knowledge as Relational: Reflections on Knowledge in International Development, Forum for Development
, 41/3: 513-523.

Schein E, 1999, Process Consultation Revisited, Reading MA: Addison Wesley.