Participant Observation Essay

Pages: 5 (1614 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 6  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Doctorate  ·  Topic: Children

Participant Observation: The Beach

For my observation of social interactions assignment, I chose to observe a beach on a nice day. One of the most unusual features of a beach is that it tends to draw a fairly wide array of people, of different ages and social classes. On the boardwalk the day I engaged in my participant observation study, a number of older couples were walking, often staring ahead into space, not talking to one another, even though they appeared to be married. They seemed to be dutifully exercising. Only one or two of the older couples chatted with one another and appeared to be enjoying their walk.

The teenage couples on the boardwalk had a very different attitude. Some strolled hand-in-hand, like one muscular-looking teenage boy and his girlfriend in running shorts. Another girl, dressed in a bikini and a pair of jeans, stared into the horizon. A slightly older twentysomething couple cruised by on bikes, followed by a tired-looking man still wearing his gas station uniform. A gaggle of teenage girls also biked by, giggling and shrieking together. Even when a car passed, then a group of professional bikers zipped by, the girls refused to make a single file, and instead traveled in a 'pack.' This was also true of a group of younger boys on dirt bikes.

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On the beach, a number of people were splayed out on lawn chairs or beach blankets. They were, by and large, the only people alone on the beach. Some of them looked up at the sun, clearly soaking in the rays. I wondered if many of them spent most of their days at the beach, given the state of their tans. It was relatively cool for a beach day, but their skin looked like they had been roasting in the sun all summer, or perhaps their entire lives. A few older women did not worship the sun, but instead -- fully clothed -- hid behind beach umbrellas, reading books. I wondered if they were seeking some quiet 'alone' time.

Essay on Participant Observation Assignment

Some parents with small children allowed the toddlers to play on the beach and wade ankle-deep in the water. A few braver souls, mostly adolescent boys in long shorts, ran in and out of the surf. Few people actually delved into the water, other than some surfers with boogie boards and full-length surf boards. They wore wet suits and had a more serious attitude about the water than the casual beach-goers. The surfers ran into the water as if on a mission, and did not make eye contact with the other people on the beach.


One of the notable features about a beach is they way in which individuals can socially segment into distinct groups even though the beach is technically a natural environment. One of the means at their disposal is their use of geographical space. Some of the older people used the boardwalk to take their exercise, keeping away from the more crowded sandy area. Other beach-goers used the shade of their umbrellas on the beach itself, or simply pulled their chairs or towel away from the crowds. "Material forms play a fundamental part in the creation and establishment of forms of sociability" (Tilley 260). The beach's presence itself within a community can create and shape the evolution of that community, as well as sub-cultures.

For example, the nearby presence of the ocean can foster a 'surfer culture' or a body-focused culture where beauty dominates one's social persona. People who feel comfortable hiding in clothing or not moving around very much are likely to avoid the beach, and seek out other areas in which to socialize. The presence of a public beach in a community can also support healthy living in the form of running, swimming, and biking, and encourage even seniors to move their bodies by walking by the water. This can help create social networks formulated around positive, rather than negative behaviors. The beach can provide a place to work out, even for people who cannot afford the gym. It can be a common meeting-place, but this social expansiveness also creates an incentive for people to try to segment themselves within members of their age group and social class, because of the beach's potential for democracy. The shore's material presence can result in an intermingling of classes and ages but even certain segments of society still find the need to make divisions. These divisions can be based upon brands of the minimal clothing worn, or the activities individuals participate in, on the shores. On one hand, being in a sand and salt-infused place would seem to make wearing bathing suits and flip-flops the ideal attire, regardless of income. But there is always resistance and 'push-back' to that democracy as people try to emphasize their identity as it exists away from the ocean area.

Segregation amongst the beach-goers was achieved through motion as well as spatial divisions: individuals on bikes, because of their speed, could come and go as they pleased, weaving in and out of foot traffic. They did not have to acknowledge the others and formed their distinct society. This was a very common way for young people to create their own private spaces. They shouted to one another in a linguistic display of their unity, often using one another's names or slang that could not be identified by a casual listener: exhibiting the deployment of "language as cultural knowledge" (Keating 287). Surfers and swimmers similarly used activity to socialize amongst themselves, and shut others out. They too have their own special vocabulary and ways of relating to one another -- casual swimmers screamed at friends, while surfers on the shores, getting ready to go into the water, talked about the quality of the waves and compared the best places to get discounts on surfing gear.

Age is always a divider in any social situation, but it is particularly manifest on the beach, where athleticism and mobility define people's ability to enjoy themselves. A few runners in spandex as well as adolescent and older bikers whizzed by the elderly 'walker' couples. The different age groups seemed to be living in different seasons, as the older individuals wore pale track suits and khakis, while most of the younger people wore shorts and bathing suits, and often carried cell phones or iPods. And adolescents in bathing suits shouting greetings to one another on the beach, or on bicycles formed another 'world,' a world connected by motion and language. While childhood, by some ethnographers has been called a "microcosm" of adult society, as the assumptions and needs of adulthood are imposed upon the body of the child, in American society it is very typical for adolescents, even younger adolescents to create their own, clearly-defined societies, language and social enclaves distinct from adult culture (James 247). However, even these enclaves could be said to manifest the values of the dominant culture -- the clothing brands worn by some of the teens demarcated them as belonging to a specific high school and social class, as did their participation in the expensive sport of surfing in some cases.

On the beach, many young couples were hampered with the need to watch small children. This kept them separated from the less inhibited teens that were able to fully enjoy the beach. Stage of life and companionship affected the way the beach was used, although the surfers were a mixed crowd of old and young -- mostly men and teenage boys, but one or two women. The common interest of surfing seemed to bond these individuals, while marriage, going to the same school, having the same age or gender, or belonging to the same family bonded the other beach-goers. The unity of a common interest vs. An age group was also evident… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Participant Observation" Essay in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Participant Observation.  (2010, September 28).  Retrieved August 8, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Participant Observation."  28 September 2010.  Web.  8 August 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Participant Observation."  September 28, 2010.  Accessed August 8, 2020.