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Witness to Conflict: Coming to Terms with Observer’s Guilt

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Elizabeth M. Olsson | 26 September 2018

Writing Notes Hand Fieldwork Observation Notepad
Source: by author

I attended a seminar yesterday where the facilitator asked the group: What do you find most stressful about your fieldwork? Without hesitation, I raised my hand and divulged that I felt profoundly guilty when I witnessed a conflict situation and didn’t intervene. The facilitator thought this was a reasonable response, thanked me for sharing, and moved on to the next volunteer. I, however, was stunned by what I said. Up until that point, I had never seriously considered the problematic nature of observing real life conflict situations or the emotional burden that I carried when I reflected on my own (in)action after observing them. Prior to this seminar, I had operated under the assumption that researchers in general and ethnographic researchers in particular simply gather, analyze, and report data. They are there, they watch, they ask questions, they critically examine what’s going on, they report what they see to others, but they don’t intervene. Of course, research is neither that straightforward nor that ethically unproblematic. The fact of the matter is, qualitative researchers interact with the world and, in doing so, they make choices with significant implications for themselves and their participants. This blog post serves as a reflection on the principal ethical dilemma I face as an ethnographic conflict researcher: observer’s guilt.

But, before I get into that, I should probably clarify what ethnography means to me. Ethnography is a research methodology that I use to observe and make sense of authentic experiences from the perspective of the people who participate in those experiences. In my research, I sit in the back of classrooms, take notes, and attempt to see and understand what is going on around me. I also ask a lot of questions. I interview the teachers and students that I observe to get their take on the situations that unfold during lessons. And, in the process of doing this, I inevitably become a participant in the situations that I observe. No matter how unobtrusive I attempt to make myself, I am there and, in being there, I affect those around me. In some instances, I act as a teacher, helping students understand challenging concepts. In other instances, I act as a counselor, helping teachers recover from a particularly difficult lesson. In still other instances, I become an instigator, asking provocative questions that force students and teachers to re-evaluate situations in new and often uncomfortable ways.

All of this is problematic, but what I find the most stressful about my research is witnessing a conflict, writing it down, asking about it, analyzing it, but, ultimately, doing nothing helpful when it occurs. For example, I have observed several instances of bullying in the classroom. I have observed bullying between students, I have observed teachers bullying students, and, more recently, I have observed students bullying teachers, but I have never intervened. I have never stood up during an observation and told a bully to stop. I have never re-directed a bully’s anger, or even so much as told a joke to shift the attention away from someone experiencing emotional pain. Knowing this, causes me a tremendous amount of guilt.

However, reflecting on these situations also helps me to see that it difficult, if not impossible, to recognize low-level destructive conflict as it is occurring. I have never sat inside of a classroom, observed a situation, consciously labelled that situation as physically or psychologically harmful, and decided to do nothing. Instead, I realize the significance of a situation in retrospect and hold myself accountable for inaction during a situation that I didn’t understand as it was occurring. This is the ethnographic conflict researchers burden: to spend enormous amounts of time and energy dissecting observed situations, and deciding upon normatively and strategically correct or valuable responses without the ability to go back in time and enact them. The thing is, if I don’t recognize that bullying is occurring right in front of me, I can’t hold myself accountable for doing something about it. Luckily, as a researcher, I am in a position to learn from the mistakes I have experienced— my own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others— and to not only understand those mistakes, but to help students and teachers better recognize them and do something about them when they occur in the future. After all, no researcher can change the past, but every researcher has the potential to influence the future.


Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student at SGS. Prior to coming to SGS, she worked as a classroom teacher in the United States, Japan, Sweden, and the Occupied West Bank. Her research interests include interpersonal classroom conflict, the school's democratic mission, and resistance among educational actors. She serves as the writing coach for IR1111.



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