Participant Observation

Embodied Insights, Challenges, Best Practices and Looking to the Future


  • Kristy Nabhan-Warren The University of Iowa



fieldwork, ethnographic methods, participant observation, interlocutors, embodied methods


This article reflects on the method of participant observation (PO) and how the author has interpreted and practiced it throughout her career as an anthropologist of religion. The article concentrates on the embodied insights afforded by PO, as well as the physical, existential and ontological challenges of the PO method. The author shares examples from her own PO experiences and recommends best practices as well as some ideas for improvement. The challenges of conducting PO during an ongoing pandemic, and some lessons that may have been learned, are considered. The article ends with a brief reflection on the future of participation observation and what the pandemic has taught about what it means to be anthropologists.


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Author Biography

Kristy Nabhan-Warren, The University of Iowa

Kristy Nabhan-Warren is Professor and V.O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Chair of Catholic Studies in the Departments of Religious Studies and Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies, University of Iowa. She is the author of several books, most recently Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland (University of North Carolina Press, 2021).


Nabhan-Warren, Kristy 2013 The Cursillo Movement in America: Catholics, Protestants, and Fourth-Day Spirituality. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

forthcoming 2022 Blood, Flesh, and Faith: An Anthropology of a Packing Plant. In Existential Anthropology, edited by Don Seeman and Devaka Premawardhana. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pachirat, Timothy 2011 Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Further Reading

Jackson, Michael D. 1989 Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Excursions. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LaMothe, Kimerer, L. 2008 What Bodies Know about Religion and the Study of it. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76(3): 573–601.

Nabhan-Warren, Kristy 2011 Embodied Research and Writing: A Case for Phenomenologically Oriented Religious Studies Ethnographies. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79(2): 378–407.

The Virgin of El Barrio: Marian Apparitions, Catholic Evangelizing, and Mexican American Activism. New York: New York University Press.




How to Cite

Nabhan-Warren, K. (2022). Participant Observation: Embodied Insights, Challenges, Best Practices and Looking to the Future. Fieldwork in Religion, 17(1), 26–36.