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Studies of the Mundane by Participant Observation

Participant observation is a method that can be used to study the mundane as a paradox. A paradox is created in the tension of human differences and in the pressure of opposing beliefs. We shall see shortly how the mundane is a paradox and studied in the midst of conflicting views, but let me first note how the method of observation is a paradox. This method stands with two opposite standpoints, both of which are true. The question is how that opposition gets resolved in a study of the mundane.[1]

The method is based on the idea that truth is found inside one’s self and outside at the same time. It is a tension between two very different sources of truth.

We are personally involved inside a mundane world and simultaneously outside it. We are participants in the mundane, but equally separated from it as observers. We live in this tension of difference between involvement and detachment, constantly. We are between our identity with the world and our non-identity with it. The answer to what is mundane stands in the tension of such opposite standpoints. The question is how we can get to the truth about our subject.[2]

So, studies of the mundane in this opposition of different standpoints begin with what we think is true inside, but it must be reconciled by what we see outside. We become the subject and the object of our own inquiry. And for this reason, serious students of the mundane know that this method will lead them toward things they would have never before imagined. Let me explain.[3]

When we start exploring what is mundane, we think at first that the subject can be depicted as simple, or that it is plain. We might think that it is earthy, depending on the context. As we pursue such meanings, however, the mundane becomes more than what we first thought.

Observers of the mundane have begun to see that the subject is not just simple, alone. The data have shown that the mundane is also complex, especially when observers take a long hard look at data. After searching, observers see that the mundane cannot be just plain, alone. The mundane is not always “out there” clear to see, as something obvious, rather, it is often hidden. After searching, other observers see that the mundane is not earthy, alone. Indeed, some data show it to be unearthly, depending upon the observer and the context. [4]

Does this sound strange? Let me illustrate what you might think is absurd.

Certain observers have already defined what we think mundane as divine and heavenly, not earthy at all. Buddhists argue that when ordinary words and plain phrases used everyday are repeated like a mantra, they are brought into a state of bliss. The ordinary leads some observers to ecstasy. The routine can be hypnotic. Christian mystics see the divine hidden in the mundane. It is in the boring routines of life that they find sacred moments. A cloistered monk, devoted to the contemplative life, saw the divine in the routine of dish washing.[5]

Take another angle on how observers go from the mundane to the sublime. When Brandeis sociologist Morrie Schwartz was dying of ALS, he said the mundane was a heavenly place to be. Morrie’s last days on earth involved much suffering, and so when Mitch Albom at one point asked him what he would do if he had only one day of perfect health. Morrie said:

“Let’s see… I’d get up in the morning, do my exercises, have a lovely breakfast of sweet rolls and tea, go for a swim, then have my friends come over for a nice lunch… Then I’d go for a walk, in a garden with some trees, watch their colors, watch the birds, take in the nature that I haven’t seen in so long now…”

“That’s it.”

“That’s it.” [6]

Mitch the observer then reflects on how this moment of happiness for Morrie was so mundane, “so simple, so average,” he said. But it was heaven for Morrie.

What is going on here?

This subject of the mundane is part of the paradox of being human. It keeps revealing new dimensions of the human subject as we study it. It leads toward contradictions, and in the process it brings us to a better understanding of ourselves.

Whatever is contradictory to a subject at hand gives it distinction, and could give it more definition. The opposite of any object of inquiry is actually a partner in the formation of its meaning. Its partner supplies insight into its character.

How does this work? How do we learn what is mundane?

If we want to understand the mundane, we start with what we think it is, but also with what it is not. We look into the entire context in which we see it. We look around it, behind it, above it, and below it. We look at the web of connected meanings that define the mundane in a setting, just to get it right.

Consequently, the mundane is not fully understood ahead of time, not demystified prior to its investigation, not that plain. The subject is understood only slowly, through long-range inquiry, only context by context. What is mundane can be right under our nose, beyond our eyes. We need in some cases to look in a mirror to see it. But then we would see it in reverse.

So, the mundane can be unnoticed and different observers can have different interpretations. This keeps the subject full of mystery.

The Mundane: Its Mystery and Meaning

The method of participant observation suggests that the long-range study of the mundane is a rounded inquiry. It is a cyclical search, not just a linear pursuit. Any effort to know the mundane will require cycling back to the subject again, and again, to understand it. We have to learn it from the outside, then again from the inside. We need to experience it in a personal way. You cannot know the mundane as something simply “out there” as though it were on some printed page, or as resting in the mind alone. It is in the body, mind, and spirit, and in the patterns of society.

The mundane begins with some feature of everyday life. But then when we interpret it, we move up higher in the mind. We move into the realm of thought. We attempt to understand our subject at a level more elevated than our eyes can see. Now it is not just plain and straight; its meaning enters maximum thought.

For example, “cause and effect” is an ordinary basis for explaining what goes on each day. If we see the word “cause” in our data (indicating the reason why an ordinary event occurred), we would soon see that this simple term is also complex. Interpreting our data on “cause” brings us up and outside the data into “causation.” We are now into theory. We remember that Aristotle described types of causes with different meanings. We ponder. We are into our head, and in a very different mood. We are on a diametrical path to know our subject. But we still keep learning what the mundane means as we circle around it.

As we explore different dimensions of the mundane, we see the paradoxes of humanity. Some observers of the mundane see it as “the minor, redundant and commonplace scenes of life” that are part of the secular order. A steady study of what is secular, however, should lead these observers to see its opposition, the sacred. Some observers then might deconstruct it. On the other hand, some might find a moment to go into rapture. Observers are that different in their perception of things. How do we get to the fact and the truth?

Human nature is brimming with contradictions (e.g. secular/sacred, ordinary/extraordinary) that must be seen in order to get to the fact. In my next essay, I will explain how I saw words in my fieldwork data that were ordinary until I looked again and found them extraordinary.

We think that the mundane begins and ends in everyday life. But each contrary angle leads us further into what it means to be human.

Being Human: The Perennial Paradoxes

Studying the mundane in the long run should account for opposing standpoints. Not one standpoint is sufficient alone to explain the mundane, but they all make a contribution.

When we study the mundane from a scientific standpoint, for example, we learn a lot. But over time by this pursuit alone we will fail to understand the non-sense and non-empirical nature of our subject.

When we explore the mundane from an intellectual standpoint, we learn a lot. But again over time we will lose our subject, failing to grasp the feeling that resides in it.

We can distort our subject by staying aloof with scientific reasoning and intellectual reflections. Indeed, we could destroy what is most fascinating about a mundane subject. Every subject has some absurdity and some emotion in it. We understand it partly through — but also apart from — science and the intellect.

If we believed that the mundane were only a type of behavior, limiting our inquiry to the meaning of observable conduct alone, we would miss its inner meaning. It would be a study with meaning drawn from the standpoint of behaviorism. The behavioral approach is a beginning, but not the end of this inquiry into what is human.[7]

If we believed that the mundane was only a political subject, we should learn a lot. But over the long haul we would miss our subject. We could begin to believe that everything is political. Then, we would miss the non-political nature of the mundane.

What is non-political? Well, the non-political mundane could mean that the subject has no device. The mundane in this sense is outside politics and is viewed as having a non-strategic and non-pragmatic character. Being political is always strategic in some way. But our subject is equally “being,” not political. Notice the subtle play in this change of perspective.

The non-political could mean that we see the mundane in the cadence of some music or in the rhythmic movement of human bodies. The mundane could be a work of art. A discerning observer could see people talking and notice the synchronic movement of their bodies, as coordinating with each other’s thoughts unconsciously. They might even respond together with the sound of passing traffic. This is a social rhythm of bodies, a behavior unnoticed by the people talking. And these bodies have no politics or public motivation.

Myron Orleans at one point considered the mundane to be majestic.

The tangible sense that we all have to ignore the majesty of the obvious is itself puzzling. Why do we not continuously encounter others who are aware of their artistic work in constructing the routine routinely?[8]

The long-range study of the mundane is an open attack on ideology, an assault on one perspective claiming the truth. But let me go further with this point.

The participant observer examines the mundane from different standpoints such as the political, intellectual, behavioral, scientific, or artistic, but the long-range task for theorists is in finding balance and connection and new perspectives on the subject. Finding “balance” is being able to see the mundane in the round of life, from many different standpoints. Finding “connection” means being able to see associations developing among these standpoints. Finding “perspective” means gaining new insight on the subject in light of all angles. [9]

Some philosophers take the essence of different standpoints like those we have just mentioned and link each into a larger perspective. They seek to name the “essence in each standpoint” as the philosophers say, and then convert them into a new understanding. They try to capture each essence, and bring them all together in a new light. But if we were to stay here and cogitate more, we would soon be in another single perspective. We do not have time to stay with philosophy as though it was the end of inquiry, and not just part of it.

So, what can we conclude?

A careful study of the mundane requires a suspension of belief.

Observers should always be aware of what lies beneath.

When observers assume one standpoint on what is mundane (e.g. “everything is political”), others will move in patiently to discover what is unseen. Observing the “unnoticed” is staying alive to the subject. The mundane will then tell us more about what it means to be human.

The Mundane with Many Meanings: Working with Opposites

It is good to take one outlook on what is mundane and then stay open to opposite outlooks. The larger truth is in the contradiction. If we are curious about our nature, we embrace the paradox. Here is an example.

The anthropologist Robert Redfield completed a study of the mundane in a Mexican village called Tepoztlan in 1930. He saw people in their common life as friendly, affectionate, and cooperative. Oscar Lewis re-studied the village in 1950 and criticized his interpretation. Lewis saw village life as virtually the opposite, full of hostility, jealousy, and suspicion. His findings produced considerable controversy among anthropologists.[10]

Which observer represents the truth?

Here are two hypotheses that throw some light on the problem.

First hypothesis: Redfield looked at what was manifest (i.e. the obvious) in village life. Oscar Lewis looked at what was hidden (i.e. latent and unnoticed). Lewis used psychological tests, like the Rorschach and the Thematic Apperception Test (T.A.T.), to determine what was happening everyday. In the light of these tests, we can pose a corollary: Redfield looked at what was conscious to the villagers. Lewis looked at what was unconscious to villagers. He could have seen what lies beneath.

Second hypothesis: Redfield and Lewis were both biased in what they saw to be mundane. They each programmed attributes of their own personality into the study. In other words, what they saw in the final analysis was a mirror of their own mind and temperament.

What does this teach us?

It was common knowledge that the two anthropologists had very different personalities. One critic of the two Tepoztlan studies put the problem succinctly to me one day in a way that supplies a sense of the difference: “Robert Redfield was a gentleman and Oscar Lewis was a rascal, in fact, a scoundrel.” he said. (Lewis, by the way, was my teacher at the time.) Many such onlookers argued that they each projected their personal dispositions into the study.

I do not mention this case to make a serious analysis of the problem. I simply point to the challenge it presents for ethnographers of the mundane.

Hypothesis #1 challenges us to be aware of what is manifest versus latent in the life of villagers. Correspondingly, it summons us to be alert about what is conscious versus unconscious in ordinary life.

Hypothesis # 2 heightens our awareness of the observer’s role in programming and shaping data. It suggests that we should be alert to what is conscious and unconscious to the observers.

An ethnographer’s “bias” does not invalidate a study. Bias is inevitable. But more, bias is revealing. It tells us to examine how connections are made between what the observer sees and what actually exists in the subject. A careful observation could lead us back to hypothesis # 1. One observer may see what is manifest in the mundane by his/her bias while the other may see what is hidden.

The two hypotheses above are thus closely related. They remain as lessons for students of the mundane. They tell us about an intricate complexity in the observer, and equally in that which is observed. Questions about what is “unconscious” vs. what is “conscious” can be posed evenly about the “observer” and the “observed.” The difference in what is latent and manifest, conscious and unconscious remains to be examined in studies of the mundane.

In sum, studies of the mundane from the standpoint of participant observation reveal how the subject is filled with paradox. The paradox is about contradictions in a world that we see on the outside, but interpret from the inside. Future studies should tell us still more about how we are involved and detached and how people have a personal and collective unconscious.

Most of the world goes unnoticed. People live by the conventions of society and therefore they miss a lot. This is why mundane studies should be around a long time. They keep informing us about unseen mysteries, about a world that is ordinary and plain enough it seems, but which we have yet to fully see and understand.


[1] Participant observation emphasizes human experience as the ground for knowing the world, but the whole story does not come easily. David Garson argues that special emphases can be given to participant observation as both a phenomenological method and an empirical technique. The method emphasizes intersubjective understanding and empathy. Garson says that I emphasized four elements in this approach:

1.Awareness of time: Record the temporal phases of research according to the sequence of experience of the observer in relation to the milieu (e.g. newcomer, provisional member, categorical member, personalized rapport, and imminent migrant – that is, as the researcher is about to leave the community).

2.Awareness of the physical environment: Record the relations of people to their physical environment as they perceive it, not as the researcher conceptualizes or even experiences it.

3.Awareness of contrasting experiences: Record the experiences of people under contrasting social circumstances; meanings cannot be assessed under one set of circumstances because they are relative to the setting.

4.Awareness of social openings and barriers: Record the changes in meaning as the participant observer is admitted into narrower social regions, transitioning from stranger to member to insider. Determining vocabulary concepts is a major focus of participant observation, seeking to illuminate the intersubjective meanings of critical terms. In general, the participant observer seeks out the meaning of the experiences of the group being studied from each of the many different perspectives within it. Severyn Bruyn (The Human Perspective: The Methodology of Participant Observation (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966)

On the other hand, Morris Zelditch emphasizes participant observation as an empirical technique. Here it is an opportunity for in-depth systematic study of a particular group or activity. He outlined three elements of this approach: enumeration, interviewing, and an involved detailed study of social settings. Zelditch and others emphasized the 1.Enumeration of frequencies of various categories of observed behavior, as in interaction analysis. Often there is an explicit schedule of observation geared to hypotheses framed in advance of participation. Participation observation in this case may lead to an alteration of hypotheses and observation schedules. 2.Informant interviewing to establish social rules and statuses. There may be systematic sampling of informants to be interviewed, content analysis of documents encountered, and even recording of observations in structured question-and-answer format. 3.Participation may also be used to observe and detail illustrative incidents.

Where the phenomenological approach emphasizes the participant observer experiencing the world through empathy, the empirical approach emphasizes the scientist making systematic observations and recordings of the milieu. This distinction is more a matter of emphasis than a dichotomy. Morris Zelditch, “Some methodological problems of field studies,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 67, No. 5: 566-576. (1962) See David Garson,

[2] In philosophy, a paradox is a statement that contains conflicting ideas. It is a statement in which two ideas are given to be true and is thus contradictory. In studies of the mundane, however, the conflict can be in a social setting as well as equally in the mind of the observer.

[3] Observers of the mundane should be aware of standing in a tension of differences. When they study an organization, they should look at the mundane from every angle, imagine themselves in opposite roles in the hierarchy, and observe events from contrasting positions and perspectives. They should assume different gender perspectives insofar as they can, take different appraisals on their subject from different status positions, looking at every obtuse angle for what is mundane. The mundane is studied in this tension of difference in any location, for example, looking at it on the street, in the family, the office, in body movements, anywhere, observing the unseen regularities of things and people in ordinary settings.

[4] Articles in the Journal of Mundane Behavior illustrate how observers are aware of the paradox and the way opposites are part of this type of study. The Editors point to the contradiction between the “noticed” versus the “unnoticed,” while other writers make different points. Gerard DeGroot shows how “the mundane” contrasts with “the unusual, the exciting, or the bizarre.” He describes how historians have missed that latency in the mundane. See his article, “‘When Nothing Happened’: History, Historians and the Mundane,” Journal of Mundane Behavior (JMB), Vol.2, number 1 (Feb. 2001). Shauna Frischkorn says that the photograph has been a kind of paradox, existing simultaneously as both document (decisive evidence) and artifice (subtle deception or trickery). She argues that by acknowledging this dual nature, many contemporary artists find that the photograph remains not only a provocative medium, but also the strongest way in which to communicate their ideas. See her article,”(In)Decisive Moments: Photographing the Commonplace,” JMB, Vol. 1, Number 3, October, 2000.

[5] The Cloud of Unknowing,

[6] Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie, (NY: Doubleday, 1997) p. 175-76

[7] The mundane is a type of behavior. It is a repeated course of action, but it cannot be understood from that one perspective alone. This inner-outer tension in knowing any subject keeps its meaning unfolding before us. We keep learning what we observe outside in terms of what it means inside our lives.

[8] Myron Orleans, “Why the Mundane? Or, My “Unassailable Advantage”: Reflections on Wiseman’s Belfast, Maine,” Journal of Mundane Behavior, volume 1, number 1 (February 2000).

[9] I gain perspective from my field notes. I notice how people who work intensely in one institution tend to reify what is common. The mundane becomes supreme. For people who are deep into government, “everything is political.” For people who are into religion, “everything is sacred.” For people who are deep into business, “everything is the bottom line.” The student of the mundane who specializes in one order of society could become entrained in the standpoint of an institutional order. Yet, as students of the mundane we know that not everything is political. Not everything is spiritual. Not everything is sacred. Not everything is a bottom line. Not everything is a market. Do students of the mundane allow for this mystery in the subject?

[10] Redfield had worked in the Mexican village of Tepoztlan in the early days of anthropology, publishing a monograph on the people in 1930. Years later, Lewis and a team of ethnographers revisited the site, publishing a monograph in 1951. The two works diverged on more points than could be accounted for by the passage of time. Ethnographic validity became a central issue in cultural anthropology. The problem of validity was first tackled through the use of linguistics. The discovery of the phoneme, the smallest unit of a meaningful sound, gave anthropologists the opportunity to understand and record cultures in the native language. This was thought to be a way of getting around the analyst’s imposition of his own cultural bias on a society. See Tara Robertson, Anthropological Theories,

Such tests as the Rorschach and the T.A.T. were not available to Redfield. Their use by Lewis to assess what was ordinary could have revealed what was hidden, and simply unnoticed by Redfield standing in a classic perspective. We have not yet fully evaluated the case. We do not know with certainty how to assess what is conscious versus unconscious in the observer or in community life.

The pursuit of the mundane should keep us informed about how we study the human condition. The differences on what was deemed mundane in Tepoztlan could have been located in the observers and village culture itself. Robert Redfield, Tepoztlan: A Mexican Village (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930); Oscar Lewis, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied (Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 1951).

Author: Severyn Bruyn is professor emeritus of sociology at Boston College and a member of the Journal of Mundane Behavior editorial board. Further works and more information can be found on his web site at

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