Field Experience: Notes on Participant Observation in Qualitative Research on Girl-Child Street Hawkers in Yobe State

Cite this article: Ningi, A. I. (2021). “Field Experience: Notes on Participant Observation in Qualitative Research on Girl-Child Street Hawkers in Yobe State”.  Sokoto Journal of History Vol. 10. Pp. 19-26.


Aisha Ibrahim Ningi

Department of History,
Yobe State University Damaturu


The paper gives an account
of the author‟s field experiences with emphasis on participant observation as one of the qualitative data
collection techniques. This technique has been used in a variety of disciplines as a tool for collecting data about people,
processes, and cultures
in qualitative inquiry. The qualitative inquiry is adopted because the
objective is not to make a generalisation, but to explore the research
problem with a view to establishing a detailed meaning
of the central phenomenon from the informants‟ actions through
observations. This observational technique
would enlighten the readers about the context in which informants used the
meaning that their actions hold in
their lives. Being the technical tool, the extended observation while in the
field lasted for a whole period of
six (6) months precisely from February to August, 2015. Thus, being an “insider”, the author got continuously
engaged observing activities of interest and daily recording of field notes in various
forms in order to present
the world of the host population in human contexts.

Keywords: Qualitative, Ethnography, Fieldwork, Participant Observation, Research


The main focal
points for this study include the outcome of the fieldwork undertaken during a
study on the girl-child street
hawkers in Yobe State. From the beginning, a qualitative approach was adopted as part of the process of
qualitative inquiry. The justification for the adoption of qualitative approach has to do with the fact that the
objective was not to make a generalisation, but to explore the research problem
with a view to establishing a detailed meaning
of the central phenomenon from the informants‘ viewpoints.
Consequently, the author (hence researcher) dove deep and relied on a wide range of sources of data which
helped to produce an in-depth, and holistic portrait of the people being studied. In this regard,
Krauss (2005) defined qualitative inquiry as one of the range of approaches through the exploration of both behaviours and human experience. Thus, the submissions made by Krauss show how using
a qualitative approach seeks to inquire and explore what others do and

In the same
vein, the method adopted for the study was ethnography where a considerable
period of six months was spent in the
field. Thus, the concept of ethnography is defined as ‗a written description of a particular culture - the customs, beliefs,
and behaviour based on information collected through fieldwork‘ (Harris, 2001:p.22). He added that
fieldwork is an essential attribute of ethnography
and the process enables the researcher to generate reliable and sufficient data
for an extended period of six to twelve months. In another development, Fine (2003) uses 
the term

―peopled ethnography‖ to describe
text that provides an understanding of the setting,
that describes theoretical implications through the
use of pictures and other images, based on field notes from observations, interviews, and products
of the group members. He further puts forward that ethnography
is most effective when one observes the group being studied in settings that
enable him or her to explore the
planned or organized routines of behaviour. Accordingly, the participant observation is the beginning step in
ethnographic studies. In this way the
researcher not only becomes familiar
with the spatial dimensions of the research setting and its socio-cultural
dynamics, but also how
those dynamics may change at certain times of the day, week or year (Fine,

Description of Study

Yobe State has
a multicultural inhabitant with an amusing, diverse historical and cultural
heritage. Agriculture is the mainstay
of the economy involving at least ninety percent (90%) of the rural population. Most at times the girl-child
are the once used for the sale most of the proceeds of their parents. In the area of education, the
state remains one of the educationally disadvantaged states in the federation. The study sites included
Damaturu, Potiskum, and Bade Local Government Areas respectively.

The selection
criterion for Damaturu L.G.A. was informed by the fact that it is the state
capital which also has the largest
number of street hawkers and with less number of girls in schools (YBS, 2014).
The main site selected was the market
and bus terminal
in the metropolis. In Potiskum

L.G.A. a busy
site in the heart of the city with major intersections was chosen. The site was
chosen not only by its heterogeneous
nature, but because of its strategic location and being the economic nerve centre of the state. In Bade L.G.A.
the main market famous for its fish sales was chosen as well as its location deep into the hinterland with a large
conglomeration of people from various ethnic
groups. Therefore, the target informants for this research were drawn from this
L.G.As with each representing the three senatorial districts of the state. In all, study sites enclosed
major intersections, streets,
and markets in an attempt
to better capture
the street hawking
dynamics of girls
a practice commended
when undertaking qualitative approach (Merriam, 2014; Creswell, 2013).

Identification of Target Informants and Sampling

The primary
aim has been the researcher‘s concentrations on a group of key informants with common cultural features.
As what matters in qualitative approach is not the size or making
generalizations, but rather the ability to understand how complex social
phenomena are occurring or have
occurred in a particular social setting (Madison, 2005; Creswell, 2013).
Instead, emphasis is being placed on
key informants with deep knowledge on the issue being studied to ensure
credibility and efficient research.
The research had put into considerations about where, when, who, what and how the observation data would be
collected. Earlier, a familiarization study was first conducted to clarify issues such as the location of the
street hawkers, and time of the day suitable for the observation.

Based on the
results of the familiarization study, and the recommendations of the
gatekeepers, key informants were selected in each of the three areas with a maximum
concentration of street hawkers.
So, the research focused on school-age girls between the ages of nine to
fifteen years who got themselves
hawking on the streets due to the deep-rooted societal recognition of
socio-cultural values. The researcher
is interested in the meaning of such value elements, as behaviour, and the interaction of the members
of the selected group. The researcher adopted
the purposive sampling strategy
because of the deliberate choice of the informants as well as the qualities the
informants possess.

Table 0-1 Informants Selection


Key Informants

No. of Informants




Purposive Sampling

Girl Hawkers


Purposive Sampling

Traditional rulers


Purposive Sampling



Purposive Sampling




In all,
seventeen (17) informants were purposely selected. However, the focus here is
only on the street hawkers. Also, the
three (3) traditional rulers selected from each of the three (3) L.G.As served
as the gatekeepers. As the traditional rulers, they are the custodians of
tradition and closer to the people at the grassroots who
helped and:

Provided entrance to the

Helped the researcher and located the people
that were initially interviewed, and

Assisted in the identification of places of study.

The Significance of the

While in the
field, the goal is to see people‘s behaviour on their terms in which the
research team discovers otherwise
elusive trends that would inform readers and stakeholders‘ future strategies. Moreover,
the participant observation technique has been described as the primary
method used by a
researcher while doing fieldwork. Accordingly, as Harris (2001) puts it, fieldwork
is a form of inquiry that requires a
researcher to be immersed personally in the ongoing social activities of any individual or group carrying out the
research through a blend of historical, observational, and interview
techniques. In this study, therefore,
observation technique involved in turn produced a data such
as descriptions, resulting in one product: narrative description (Weisner, 1996).

While in the
field, Wolcott (2001) suggests that fieldworker(s) ask themselves if they are
making good use of the opportunity to learn what it is they want to know. He further
advises that fieldworkers ask themselves if what they
want to learn makes the best use of the opportunity accessible. In this paper, the notes on the observation to be
provided focused on the street-hawkers who
have no access to any of the available systems of education. These key
informants were carefully chosen and
provided with a comprehensive and in-depth understanding towards girl-child street-hawking instead of education in
Yobe State, Nigeria. Nonetheless, after selecting the research sites, the research team visited the
community leaders and established good rapport with the local participants and the community people. The
initial visit effectively facilitated the progress of the fieldwork (Merriam, 2014). The researcher
observed and participated in studying the informants‘ daily activities in
varying degrees.

In this case
therefore, participant observation was used as one of the techniques for data
collection. This particular technique is unique because the informants were approached in their own locations rather than them coming to meet the research
team (Yin, 2009). Similarly, Schensul,
et al (1999) all agreed
and lists the following
for using participant observation in research:

1.       To discover and guide
relationships with informants;

2.       To assist the researcher get the outlooks
for how things are prioritized and organized, what are the cultural parameters and how people interrelate;

3.       To show the researcher what the cultural
members deem to be important in social interaction, behaviours or manners, and taboos;

4.       To help the researcher
become known to the cultural
members, thereby easing facilitation of the research
process; and

5.       To provide the researcher with a
source of questions to be addressed by the informant.

Therefore, it
is important to report that participant observation involves active observing,
improving memory, writing
detailed field notes, informal interviewing, and perhaps most importantly, exercising some patience. This technique
enabled the researcher to learn about the daily routine or activities of the people under
consideration in the natural setting through observing those activities. It provides the framework for development
of sampling strategies and interview guides. This goes with Kawulich (2005) views that defined
participant observation as a method in ethnographic research through learning and exposure to
or involvement in the day-to-day or routine activities of participants within a shared cultural
setting. Hence, with the adoption of this method, the researcher relies heavily on up-close, personal
experience and possible participation, not just observation in order to
show the reality and the specific
character of the informants.

Undoubtedly, through
observation the researcher grasps, cached, heard, and at the same time comprehends the informants‘ actions and
viewpoints regarding their socio-cultural values. Indeed, meaning has been the essential concern of
the author which was an integral part of the whole process. Yet, whatsoever the meanings and importance resulting
from the information received during the
observation in particular and the whole data collection process in general,
there must never be an
attempt to influence the informants.

Likewise, it
is worth noting to understand that the most important factor in determining
what a researcher should observe is
the researcher‘s purpose for conducting the study in the first place (Merriam, 1998). The preceding point of
views shows where to begin looking depends on the research question, but where to focus or stop cannot be
determined ahead of time. To help any researcher
know what to observe, Denzin and Lincoln, (2005); Musante and DeWalt (2002) all suggested that he or she study what is
happening and why; sort out the regular from the irregular activities; look for discrepancy to view the event in its entirety
from a variety of viewpoints; look for the negative cases or exceptions; and, when behaviours exemplify the theoretical purposes for the observation, seek similar
opportunities for observation and plan systematic observations of those events or behaviours. However, such
events may change over time, with the season, for example, so persistent observation of activities
that one has already observed may be necessary.

Notes on the Informants in Consideration

It is worthy
of note to reiterate that the participant observation gives a distinctive
insight to gain awareness, revealing
what people are really doing, instead of what they say. Consequently, this observation differs from the interviews
because it enabled the research team to obtain a first-hand account
of the phenomenon of interest
rather than relying
on someone else‘s interpretation

(Marshall and Rossman, 2014). For example,
specific things observed
by the research team include
the following:

1.      The girls hawking dynamics
at home, on the streets,
markets, and those along major

2.      What they sell, how they
dress, and their behaviours
while outside their homes.

3.      The parents‘ role in positioning
the girl‘s role within the family structure.

4.      The general roles of
both males and females.

5.      Decision making within the family, which shows who are involved and who are not,
who go to school and who do

In giving out
the notes on participant observation, it is important to say that the
researcher observed the behaviour
pattern of the girls on the streets, their relationships with customers and
their attitudes towards one
another. Also observed were the local settlement pattern, house structure, and
the parents. Afterwards, the
observations specifically took place in the locations believed to have some relevance to the research questions
(Musante and DeWalt, 2002; Merriam, 2014). In addition, the researcher has particularly noted how the
street hawkers used mornings, and evenings to carry out the bulk of their hawking activities, leaving afternoons more
flexible and therefore with potential for socializing.
As such, the research team uses afternoon for reflections notes taken while
conducting the observations. The
ideas behind the choice are to make sense of such data soon after it has been gathered
and collected.

Notes on the General
Descriptions of the Street Hawkers

Again, as part
of the participant observation, the distinct cultural appearance and identity
of the girls in preparation to the
major intersections and markets has been detected. In all the study areas, observation revealed that the girls‘
cultures of wearing unique dressing, including their hairstyles as well as their face make-ups
etc. are art forms with practical meanings.
These are body beautifications for the enhancement of their beauty
while on the streets at all times
(Berthelot, 1991).
Routinely, the researcher noticed how an eyeliner and lipstick blackened their
lips, and they have pinch of nose
rings. They also have their hair plaited with age-grade hair braids and some mixture of yellow, white and red glue made
from pliable stones that are often spread all over their faces (Usman, 2010, Atkinson, 2003b; de St Croix, 1972). The
general descriptions of the street hawkers‘
appearance in such local dresses and age-grade hair braids indicate that most
of them had to do it in order to compete with
their peer groups while on the

In the course
of the participant observations, the researcher further identified with whom
the street hawkers mingle with, which
is very essential as it affects their general security. In particular, the researcher uncovered the unruly adoption
of unmannerly behaviour often displayed by some of the street hawkers. However,
it has been observed that such behaviour
is being displayed
whenever their cheeks or
shoulders are pressed by male ‗customers‘ and they appeared to be impolite.
Thus, the researcher shared the
opinion of Usman (2010) who reported that this kind of behaviour is not only very disturbing to their parents, but
also disturbing to every other well-meaning community member who deems such undesirable to their culture and religion.
The religion of Islam clearly abhors
this negative conducts of girl-child involvement in street hawking in order to
augment the family income. In this
regard, Almighty Allah in a glorious verse in the Qur‘an in the clearest expression possible commands that the
father shall bear the cost of their feeding and clothing on equitable
terms…‘ (Qur‘an 2:233). Also observed
was how such bad conducts
generate concern to the religious
leaders of their communities during the course of the interviews. So, some of
the parents especially mothers who
had previously witnessed such utterances often condemned it and kept reprimanding the girls. Such mothers saw it as a duty to constantly remind their daughters about  their
 ―expected  moral
 behaviour  and  conduct
 private  or  in  public.
 Besides,  the researcher noticed that some
mothers become emotional while they talked about the issues of molestation of their daughters by some unscrupulous customers.

Again, observations
at most of the major intersections revealed that there was a tendency for men and other customers to be brazen in being
hostile towards the street hawkers who did not appear in the Hijab (the usual
attire worn by most Muslim ladies inYobe State). It is worth mentioning here that, the researcher only tried to
understand the overall setting and ultimately helped others gain a better understanding about how the participants involved
were seen in that specific
situation (Mahdi, 2010).The
whole process paved the way for the researcher to involve in interpretive, descriptive, and naturalistic undertakings
of the world of the targeted informants (Lincoln and Denzin, 2005). This further buttressed the fact that people were
been studied within their natural settings
while struggling to make sense of the phenomenon and the meaning they attached
to their actions and values (Lillis, 2008).

Discussion on Participant Observation Technique

While there is no one way that is best for conducting research
using participant observation, the most effective
work is done by the researcher who viewed the informants as collaborators; to
do otherwise, would have turned to
waste of time and human resources. As Schensul et al (1999) emphasised, the relationship between the
researcher and informants as collaborative researchers who, through building
solid relationships, improve
the research process
and improve the skills of the researcher in conducting the research.

Therefore, conducting any kind of observations involves
a variety of activities and considerations for the researcher, which include ethics,
establishing rapport, selecting
key informants, the processes
for conducting observations, deciding what and when to observe, keeping field
notes, and writing up one‘s findings.
By so doing, people's behaviour
would be resourcefully studied in everyday contexts, rather than under experimental conditions created by the researcher. Consequently, the technique provided the researcher with
in-depth information mainly generated from
the few key informants, as it helped in spending considerable time in the
field. In addition, a primary
consideration in any research study is to conduct the research in an ethical
manner, letting the community know
that one‘s purpose for observing is to document their activities. Fine (2003) advises that for ethical reasons, some of
the field notes be made publicly to strengthen what the researcher is doing in
collecting data for research


It is important
to sum up that both the fieldwork and observations over a period of time are
the cornerstones of ethnographic
method in which the researcher has drawn from a broad array of research strategies. In the same way, the
researcher uses multiple strategies for recording the data, including
audio recording, photography and, especially, copious
field notes. The researcher combines data gathered via these
techniques with direct observation, to create a kind of person-in- environment representation of the subjects (Longhofer and Suskewicz, 2014).

observation technique has been useful to the researcher in a variety of ways.
It provides the researcher with ways
to determine who interacts with whom, to check for nonverbal expression of feelings,
grasp how participants communicate with each other, and check for how much time is spent on various hawking
activities. Participant observation allows the researcher to check definitions of terms that
participants use in interviews,
observe events that informants may
be unable or unwilling to share when
doing so would be impolite, impolitic, or insensitive, and observe situations informants have described in
interviews, thereby making them aware of inaccuracies or distortions in the description
provided by those informants (Marshall and Rossman, 2014).

some scholars
Musante, Dewalt and Dewalt (2002) believed that ―the goal for the design of research using participant observation
as a technique is to develop a holistic understanding of the phenomena under study that is as objective
and accurate as possible given the limitations of the technique. One must also, consider the types of questions
guiding the study, when designing a research
study and determining whether to use observation as a data collection method.
Equally important is that the site
under study must be taken into account, what opportunities are available at the site for observation, the
representativeness of the participants of the population in that site, and the strategies
to be used to record and analyse the data.



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