Being a Participant Observer: Best Practices for an Effective Site Visit

March 14, 2018

Source: Rosov Consulting


This is a Jewish summer camp. This camp is participating in the Hiddur Initiative, a multiyear project of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Maimonides Fund, and The AVI CHAI Foundation. Hiddur aims to deepen the ways in which eight Jewish summer camps across the country think about Jewish education. Rosov Consulting has been working closely with funders, stakeholders and the camps themselves for the last two years, and my visit is part of our annual “site observations” at all eight camps.

As part of Hiddur, the camp’s director, assistant director, and lay leadership work with a coach to identify areas in which they can “amplify” or “beautify” what they do, Jewishly. My goal during this 24-hour visit, as well as the seven others I conduct, is to gain a deeper understanding of the camps’ efforts.

On the one hand, my short visit to this camp may seem insignificant. What can I possibly observe in only 24 hours that is meaningful? On the other hand, my research experience and my years as a practitioner have taught me that in the context of camp, where everything moves quickly and each day is jam-packed with meaning, the rhythms of one day can be equal to one month in “camp time.”

Still, as with any evaluation or research activity, this visit requires careful planning and execution in order to be productive. I’ve learned that more than any other factor, the key to a successful site visit is becoming a participant observer. One must simultaneously earn the trust of the members of the camp community, and at the same time maintain an outsider’s perspective.

As a participant, I have the distinct advantage of seeing things unfiltered, as they naturally unfold. More importantly, I also have the opportunity to experience what it feels like to be part of the camp community. As much as possible, I need to feel like I am a part of what is going on. For the moment, I don’t care about the forest—I am only interested in the trees. I want to sing, dance, taste, smell and breathe everything that this camp has to offer.

Yet, as an effective observer, I need to take a step back to make sure I separate myself from the experience and my emotions. I must not miss the forest for the trees.

How do I become a participant observer, particularly in the context of a Jewish summer camp? Below are seven practices I try to keep in mind, always:

  • Look the part
  • Set up “home base”
  • Survey the Jewish scene
  • Feel the Rhythm of a Jewish day
  • Watch and learn
  • Plan for unstructured time
  • Put on a friendly face

Becoming a participant observer is a contradictory exercise. The key, I believe, is knowing how—and when—to switch hats. But this isn’t an easy dance. It’s challenging to transition (sometimes in the span of only a couple minutes) from participating, to observing, to recording, to processing. When done right, though, the data collected from such an experience is rich and invaluable.

Read more at Rosov Consulting.



Updated: Aug. 06, 2019