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Participant Observation as a Tool for Understanding the Field of Safety and Security

Or How I Learned the Ethnographic Approach in an Attempt to Encompass the Complexity of Social Situations
Frédéric Diaz
Traduction de Helen Arnold
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’observation participante comme outil de compréhension du champ de la sécurité [fr]


La faible visibilité offerte par un objet tel que le champ de la sécurité de grands événements sportifs et culturels en France, ainsi que sa difficile accessibilité, ont rendu nécessaire une méthodologie permettant le contact direct avec le terrain et les acteurs: l’observation participante. Si l’utilisation d’une telle méthode reste délicate, puisque l’implication personnelle du chercheur entraîne la modification de l’objet et conduit donc à une certaine forme de subjectivité, elle reste néanmoins la seule qui permette, grâce à un changement constant d’activité, de position hiérarchique, ou de distance par rapport à l’objet, de diversifier le point de vue du chercheur et de rendre compte de la complexité de l’objet étudié.

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My deepest thanks to Philippe Robert (CNRS-GERN, Guyancourt, France), Jean Poupart and Mylène Jaccoud (Ecole de Criminologie, CICC, Montréal, Canada), Jean-François Cauchie (Department of Criminology, Ottawa, Canada) for their close reading and essential remarks.

“Much of the literature on controversial police topics breaks down into two categories: uncritical work by well-informed insiders, and critical work by uninformed outsiders” (Gary Marx, 1988)

  • 1 Coenen-Huther, 1995, 6.
  • 2 Ibid., 6.

1It is because practices that persisted in being incomprehensible and “unfathomable begin to become meaningful, through patient observation, like the pieces of a puzzle that hinge together little by little, that the field worker feels rewarded for his obstinacy.1 Although observation is mentioned in the manuals and methodology courses, it remains a minor genre in the range of tools available to sociologists for their studies. “Constraints of time, size and object, plus the need to quantify, verify and establish proof convincingly in the eyes of the lay person, can only lead them to prefer other research techniques.2

2However, observation is still a tool, a method for the comprehension of the mechanisms of social interaction and of life in society.

  • 3 Ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967) views institutions “as the outcome of an ongoing process of cons (...)
  • 4 K. M. Van Meter, 1992, 648.

3The present article is the fruit of an encounter between sociology and ethnology, and is based on two theories of social reaction: interactionist and ethnomethodological perspectives. The former, so as to plead for going back to field work and taking the standpoint of actors rather than of institutions; the latter, so as to focus on the practices implemented by those actors.3 “The question is (then), how actors produce their worlds, what rules generate those worlds and govern the actors’ judgment.”4

  • 5 Jaccoud, Mayer, 1997, 211.
  • 6 K. M. Van Meter, 1992, 648.

4Observation of phenomena and of actors is inherent in any scientific approach. It “has asserted itself, then, as the primordial condition for the construction of knowledge in the social sciences (as well as in the pure sciences), by establishing a direct relation, but also a distance, between subject and object.”5 “While sociologists necessarily work on objectivation so as transform their empirical objects into sociological objects, the social actor too performs a similar labor, so as to interpret the surrounding world and thus, accomplish his or her actions.”6 This would mean that there are as many social realities as there are actors. Sociologists may then define their motivation as the description, accounting for and understanding of the collective dimension of human life and social relations.

  • 7 The notion of field is intended here as defined by Bourdieu (1989, 14) :the structure of a field (...)

5The postulate that this writer would like to defend is as follows: participant observation is the most appropriate method for attempting to understand the complexity of a field7 such as safety/security. The concept of safety/security (henceforth designated as safety) is then understood through the demarcations set up by the actors when organizing sports and cultural events. This concept of safety will be analyzed, with attention to the practices and techniques for ensuring safety, the roles of the various private actors (private security companies, organizers of shows) and public actors (the city, police, fire department, medical emergency services) and their interactions.

6In this article I will first explain the motivations behind participant observation. The low visibility of the field of safety gradually led me to go from an interview and observation scheme (in which there was little to observe if I stayed in an outsider position) to a participant observation scheme.

7However, although the latter scheme definitely facilitated access to data, it nonetheless brought into the forefront the idea that there was a risk of only seeing one viewpoint (that of the organizer) and therefore a need, at some point, to put the object at a distance so as to view it as an observer rather than as an actor.

8This methodological scheme is similar to the one used by some sociologists from the Chicago school, with the limits, controversies and debates raised by this approach.

9The point here is to emphasize the specific contribution of the approach used, which resides in the variety of functions endorsed, which enabled us not only to define the safety problems as viewed by the actors, and the practical responses, but also, and above all, to relativize each experience.

  • 8 Diaz, 2003a. This thesis was based on sixteen different fieldwork experiences : the World Soccer Cu (...)

10The narrative form will be employed here to describe a research project that began in 1998,8 and has continued over the last year at the Centre International de Criminologie Comparée of the University of Montreal, in what may be described as a progression from learning to a degree of “mastery” of work in situ. The idea is to give a detailed account of the question underlined in a collective work by Poupart, Deslauriers, Groulx, Laperrière, Mayer and Pires (1997, 212-213), which is to say, the conditions under which research is done, as well as the practical problems encountered, focusing on three key points: i) my position and role as observer, my relation to the particular fieldwork context; ii) the criteria governing the validity and accuracy of the study, ranging from the choice of the sites observed and of the target group sampled to the theoretical production and the generalization of the findings; iii) ethical questions pertaining to the relations between professional people working in a particular sphere and scientific research. Through an articulation between extant writings and the narrative of my seven-year experience in fieldwork, I will attempt to determine, firstly, the motivations and limits of the use of participant observation in a research framework. The method corresponds to the specificity of the object. Secondly, I will then explain the phases and tools involved in this original method. The method then becomes the object of the study.

A Method for an Object – On the Choice of Participant Observation: Justification, Limits and Definition

  • 9 The expression “personal observation ” was originally used by Webb (Webb, Webb, 1932, 50), and it i (...)

11Sociologists have two qualitative methodological tools at their disposal: observation and interviews. In this debate, we will concentrate more specifically on one of the two: observation, and on one of the forms it may take in participant observation: that is, direct observation, or observation in situ, in the situation.9

12But what, specifically, are the different forms taken by observation, and what is the content of what we call “participant” observation?

13There is a debate within the academic community, including in sociology and anthropology, on the forms to be taken by observation. In the case of “ simple ” observation, the person remains outside the group, to describe it. In the case of participant observation there is an attempt to enter the group, to be a part of it so as to study it more closely.

14But my choice was not a haphazard one, it was the result of a conclusion drawn after my first year of research, a year before I began my doctoral thesis. It was also based on some seminal writings whose most controversial points will be mentioned before I go on to assess what I thought I was—or was not—doing, in a reflexive attitude, at a time when I did not know what I would or would not be able to achieve.

Justification of the shift from “ simple ” observation, external to the object (completed by interviews) to participant observation, and its limits

A first year of research, which enabled me to define five features of the field of safety/security:

  • 10 Be he sociologtist, ethnologist or anthropologist.

15My first studies involved fieldwork in unknown territories. My only tool was my doubts, my questions and my observations. When the observer10 first arrives in the fieldwork situation he is unfamiliar with his surroundings, and must therefore adopt a methodology which enables him to account for the complexity of the particular field.

A complex field: many actors, many spaces

  • 11 An overview of this first year of research may be found in Diaz, 1998 ; 2001.

16In January 1998, when I began my study,11 I had only a vague idea of what safety represented for the organization of sports and cultural events. My point of departure was the French act on orienting and planning safety (LOPS) of January 21, 1995, which established legal liability for private organizers and distributed responsibilities between private and public actors depending on the spaces involved in the event. On the basis of that act and those consequences, the responsibilities of the different actors were structured according to the private and public spaces involved in the event. My motivation, then, was to see and analyze how that act applied, practically, in real situations.

17The group targeted by my research (PhD in political sociology and comparative politics, University of Paris X-Nanterre) included twenty individuals. I had established an organization chart of the main actors intervening in the field of safety. The idea then was to try to contact them and meet them. Over an eight-month period I succeeded in meeting the main officials, both public and private, including various specialists in safety matters. I had prepared a grid for my interviews, with key questions along four lines: personal history and responsibilities, active and passive safety arrangements, determination of risks, interactions between actors. I was trying to understand the paths followed by these individuals, what had brought them to occupy their present position, and their role during the event. In addition, I tried to have as accurate as possible a vision of the arrangements made, as they were defined by the actors, on the different aspects of safety strictly speaking (and in particular, reception of the public and control of drug dealing), but also on the assistance end (especially medical aid, fire fighting and crisis management). In addition, I looked at the inside of private space as well as the outside (stadium patrols, fencing, surveillance cameras, the command post, police forces and so on). Next, I tried to understand what the main risks were, from the viewpoint of the different actors, during the competition, and what they thought about them. Last, I was intent on bringing out any interactions between the various actors involved in safety.

  • 12 Mendras, Oberti, 2000, 133.

“It is through a more individualized, deeper relation with the person, thanks to the interview, that the sociologist attempts to immerse himself in the sense given by actors to their practices. The challenge then consists of going beyond the mere individual pronouncements so as to bring out the more fundamental aspects contained in some particularly enlightening excerpts, which make it possible to understand the phenomenon or the social group studied.12

18For me, interviews were the preferred tool for obtaining precise information. The idea was to identify resource people and to cross the information obtained from them with that of other actors in the field. I felt it was essential to obtain as exhaustive as possible a vision of all of the types of actors involved, through interviews.

the discrepancy between a necessarily simplified discourse (the interview) and the reality in the field

19But these interviews made me sensitive to their limits, mostly affected by the naivety that separates the student from the professional. Those limits were also due to the simplified discourse that was served to me, owing to the time allotted to the interview, in particular.

20I also became aware of the disparity between what I was told by the actors (but also their behavior, positions, attitudes, action and decisions and so on) and their practices. These actors tended to speak very positively about their arrangements and methods, and how they functioned. Rarely did they mention any problems encountered.

Low visibility of the field of safety: demanded by the actors to deflect attention (although, paradoxically, there is a preventive dimension in making some arrangements visible so as to be threatening)

21The limits also resided in the interviewee’s interrogations about the researcher’s motivations. The actor interviewed is always wondering, legitimately, how his discourse will be interpreted and analyzed, and to what end.

22Officials make a strong claim to the right to protect themselves from public attention, whereas, paradoxically, the fact of publicizing the arrangements (in the mass media in particular) definitely has a preventive dimension: “ exhibit yourself so as not to have to take action; conceal yourself to take action”.

No access to arrangements as long as there is no climate of trust between the actors and the student or researcher

23The student, like the researcher, must therefore prove himself trustworthy, so to speak. It is the time variable, mostly through writings, meetings and experience that will make his research legitimate, and thus establish the basis for a climate of trust. As the study advances, the researcher gains experience and knowledge, thus becoming less and less alien to the milieu he is studying. His web of knowledge widens, and his questioning becomes less “naive”, more relevant, and by the same token more legitimate.

A peculiarity of this object: the difficulty in perceiving efficiency if everything goes well

24Lastly, the specificity of “ deviance and social control ” as a field resides in the difficulty, for an outsider, in realizing what problems are encountered, particularly when the object involved involves marginal deviancy. Specialists who have paid special attention to the safety problems raised by crowds have shown that contrary to popular opinion, they usually involve very little serious violence; there is generally no major incident (Diaz, 2003a, 2003b; Fillieule, Jobard, 1998).

Seminal texts (particularly by the Chicago school) criticizing or legitimating the choice of participant observation

25Two main forms of criticism may be noted, based on a twofold limit: seeing only one point of view and therefore having a sort of “prejudiced view”, a lack of objectivity; and the necessity of setting the object at a distance so as to see it through the eyes of an observer rather than as an actor.

26Durkheim (1895) states that descriptions by actors are too vague and ambiguous to be used by scholars for scientific purposes.

27According to Bourdieu (1978, 68), “the sociologist only has some chances of succeeding in the work of objectivation if, he himself an observer observed, he subjects everything to objectivation, not only everything he is, his own social conditions of production and therefore the ‘limits of his mind’, but also his own work of objectivation, the hidden interests invested therein and the benefits they promise.”

28The second limit evidenced by Bourdieu (1978, 67) is that “there is no denying the practical contradiction: we all know how difficult it is to be both caught up in interplay and an observer of it”. When you play you can’t do everything at once, you can’t play and take the time to see what you are doing.

29Conversely, several authors (and especially Chapoulie, 1985, 1996, 2001) have used the sociological tradition of the Chicago school to show the invaluable contribution of observation in sociology. This begins with Thrasher (1927) and Whyte (1943), and later participant observation with Anderson (1923) and differently, Shaw (1930, 1931), or again the interactionists with their theory of labeling and the disciples of Hughes (1996), but also Mead (1934), Blumer (1962, 1969) and later Becker (1963, 2002). Lastly, we may add the ethno-methodologists following in the footsteps of Garfinkel (1967), who look at the ways in which actors construct their reality in the course of their everyday activities.

30Sociologists should cease to be strangers observing strangers to report to other strangers (Coulon, 1992). They should, henceforth, report on observations made, not as complete strangers, but as members of an in-group to some extent (Hughes, 1996).

  • 13 .Blumer, 1962, 188.

“To catch the process, the student must take the role of the acting unit whose behavior he is studying. Since the interpretation is being made by the acting unit in terms of objects designated and appraised, meanings acquired, and decisions made, the process has to be seen from the standpoint of the acting unit . . . To try to catch the interpretative process by remaining aloof as a so-called “objective” observer and refusing to take the role of the acting unit is to risk the worst kind of subjectivism – the objective observer is likely to fill in the process of interpretation with his own surmises in place of catching the process as it occurs in the experience of the acting unit which uses it.”13

  • 14 Blumer, 1966, 542.

“One would have to take the role of the actor and see his world from his standpoint. This methodological approach stands in contrast to the so-called objective approach so dominant today, namely, that of viewing the actor and his action from the perspective of an outside , detached observer (...). The actor acts toward his world on the basis of how he sees it and not on the basis of how that world appears to the outside observer.”14

  • 15 Hughes, 1996, 276.

“Finding them where there are, staying with them in some role which, while acceptable to them, will allow both intimate observation of certain parts of their behavior, and reporting it in ways useful to social science but not harmful to those observed.”15

  • 16 Hughes, 1996, 276.

“For the sociologist was now reporting upon observations made, not in the role of the stranger, but as a full member of the little world he reported on. He observed as a member of an in-group but, in the act of objectifying and reporting his experience, became of necessity a sort of outsider.”16

  • 17 Poupart, Lalonde, Jaccoud, 1997, 330.

31Here we are clearly at the crux of fundamental issues as to the “role of the research worker and of his subjectivity in the production of knowledge”.17

  • 18 Ibid., 331.

In the positivist perspective, knowledge of reality necessarily involved the elimination of any possible sources of bias, including those connected with the researcher’s own status and ways of thinking. In other words, if researchers are to arrive at truly objective knowledge of reality, they must be neutral and make sure that factors such as their cultural or social identity, for example, will not in any way interfere with the process of gaining knowledge… . In more recent writings, there is an attempt to rehabilitate the place of the researcher as social actor in the research process. The researcher’s subjectivity is viewed not only as inseparable from the process of construction and production of data, but also as a resource in its own right in the knowledge-gaining process, provided, however, that researchers remain critical of their own approach and constantly exhibit a reflective attitude toward its underlying postulates.18

Choosing to do “Active”, “Immerged” Fieldwork, Multiplying Fieldwork Situations and Varying Activities with Different Hierarchical Positions, Alternating between Phases of Observation, Thinking and Action

32On the strength of these references, I therefore chose integration in the organization of these sports and cultural events. I would study these events on two levels: everyday life and the long term. To keep pitfalls to a minimum, I had to gain acceptance by the people I met, and create regular, in-depth communication with the different actors in the field. In this case, that meant achieving direct contact with the fieldwork situation and the actors therein. The safety mechanisms, operational techniques, inter-group and interpersonal relations are so complex that one must take part in them to gain any understanding. I therefore felt it necessary to be a part of the very organization of the event. Understanding of social complexity requires direct contact with the actors and the objective study of their practices.

33According to the terminology used by Patricia and Peter Adler (1987), three broad categories may be distinguished: i) a “peripheral” role: in contact but without participating; ii) an “active” role: with participation and responsibilities; iii) an “immerged” role, as natural member with the same feelings and the same goals as actors in the field. I set myself somewhere between the “active” and the “immerged” roles. “Active”, since from 2000 on I began to work within groups as a salaried worker with a varying load of responsibilities and colleague-to-colleague relations; “immerged”, since working on special events is more than a job, it incites people to surpass themselves, to believe in some ideas, for a common goal—that is, the show must go on.

34Moreover, to reduce “prejudice”, lack of objectivity and the observer’s distance, I felt it relevant to attempt to be integrated in a variety of positions for each of the events studied. This change of activity also helped me to understand the viewpoints of the different actors in safety (and especially, the differences between public institutions and private organizers). It gave me some distance with respect to my own participation, by assimilating the motivations of other actors. Last, by multiplying fieldwork contexts, and moreover, for short periods (a feature specific to the special event scene), I was able to systematically extract material that refined my analysis and enabled me to very rapidly resume my distance from the object studied.

  • 19 Hughes, 1996, 275.

“Other ways of solving the dialectic include being a part-time participant and part-time reporter, privately participant and publicly reporter, or publicly participant and secretly reporter.”19

  • 20 “It must be said that the limit between observation in situ , the ethnographic approach and fieldwo (...)

35This method of observation in situ20 has the advantage of reducing the social distance that may separate the student (or the researcher) from professionals in the field studied.

36The difficulty, then, was to put these remarks into practice, and to conceive the conditions of achievement of participant observation.

A Method as Object: Conditions and Achievement of Participant Observation

  • 21 For further developments, the reader is referred to Diaz, 2001, 2003b, 2005 and 2006 (forthcoming).

37It may seem problematic to separate the object and issues of research from the method, and certainly all the more so when the method is taken as the object of the research. The point of this second part is not to look for the theoretical questions motivating this approach and the perspectives that method may contribute, in terms of results.21 The analysis of a field such as safety is viewed as extremely difficult (Bayley, 1994). The researcher must therefore find the means enabling him to approach the complexity of the field.

  • 22 Bouvier, 2000.

38My methodology is entirely within the scope of the qualitative socio-anthropology approach.22 This led me to choose the methods of participant observation and interviews, and later comparison, for my approach. From the outset of my thesis, the comparative dimension became essential. “It makes it possible to draw up taxonomies and sequences, then to establish correlations.” (Bouvier, 2000, 56)

  • 23 Schwartz, Schwartz, 1955, 343.

During my second year of doctoral research I had to gradually change my strategy, then, as I used participant observation. This was made possible by access to fieldwork situations, and was based on three criteria: “observer’s experience, awareness, and personality”.23

  • 24 Coulon, 1992, 14.

39“Researchers can only have access to those signifying social productions of actors, which are private phenomena, by participating, equally, as actors, in the world they propose to study. Symbolic interactionism holds that it is the actors’ conception of the social world which is the main object of sociological research, in the last analysis.”24

  • 25 Blumer, 1969, 5.

40Social significations must be viewed as “creations that are formed in and through the defining activities of people as they interact”.25 This implies that the observer who proposes to understand and analyze these significations must adopt a methodological posture which makes this analysis possible.

Private Security Jobs are Readily Accessible, Enabling Observation to be Increasingly More Participant in the Object Studied

  • 26 This would have been much more difficult to achieve had I been studying an occupation such as docto (...)

41My research took place between 2000 and 2004, as an increasingly participant investigation. This is one of the peculiarities of that investigation. Following the phase of socializing with the milieu studied, I decided that I myself had to do some of the work I intended to study and on which I would report. This was made possible by the fact that the various private security jobs, and more generally, the positions connected with the organization of safety/security for sports and cultural events, are easily accessible.26

The Three Criteria defined by Schwartz and Schwartz (1955): the observer’s personality, experience and awareness

The observer’s personality and training: socialization with the milieu studied

  • 27 Peretz, 2004, 52.
  • 28 Rock singer for three years, with several concerts in halls accommodating 50 to 500 spectators; soc (...)
  • 29 I have been passionately interested in all sorts of sports since my earliest childhood, an attentiv (...)

42As Wax (1971), quoted by Peretz, pointed out, all observers are not interchangeable, and the characteristics of each individual partially determine the milieus to which he has access.27 The first step in conducting an observation depends on the worker’s relations with the milieu to be observed, namely: whether or not he effectively has relations with it; the worker’s own personal characteristics (sex, age, ethnic group and social class). Although, as I have emphasized, I knew very little about the field of social control and deviance, on the other hand I was very well acquainted with the sports and cultural (especially the musical) milieu, both as actor28 and consumer.29

  • 30 The Printemps de Bourges and the Eurockéennes in Belfort were studied in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002, (...)
  • 31 For the technical aspects, at the Printemps de Bourges, as manager of the safety commissions, then (...)
  • 32 Chapoulie, 1984, 597.
  • 33 The analysis would be incomplete if it did not mention that one of the consequences (not one of the (...)

43In addition, by doing fieldwork repeatedly in the same places year after year,30 I was able to gain training in some areas31 and to be employed in several positions. This is what makes for the peculiarity of my qualitative methodological approach: it evolved toward a participant method as my research progressed. This was not so from the outset, as was the case for “Roy (1952, 1954) [who] worked on the production line before doing his study on braking, Becker (1963) [who] was a jazz pianist before undertaking the study to be republished in Outsiders, Dalton (1959) [who] was a business executive, Davis (1959) [who] worked as a cab driver to pay for his education”,32 and more recently, Esterle-Hedibel (1995), who took a job as street educator, or Bossis (2003), as court clerk. Rather, in my case, year after year, event after event, I started with a simple observation post in jobs requiring very little skills (security guard), then went from low-skill positions to responsible positions (manager, safety coordinator).33

The experience itself: criteria of validity based on changes in activity, a multiplicity of fieldwork situations, distancing between active research and theoretical work, everyday contact and the long term

44I therefore felt it relevant to attempt to take on different positions for each of the events studied. Over and beyond the few experiences described here in order to give the reader a better idea of the various functions I occupied, the idea is to understand my trajectory and its evolution, the role of chance and of deliberate strategies in the choice of the positions held, as well as of the constraints imposed by these positions.

  • 34 On this point, the methodology cannot be separated from the object and the academic questions tied (...)

45I had a deliberate strategy in the choice of fieldwork situations. It was based on four main criteria: the manifestation is susceptible of attracting a great many people; the event entails considerable stakes (for the mass media, economic, political, in sports or culture); the places and shows are viewed as references in terms of the handling of safety; the sports and cultural calendar and my own availability between 1998 and 2004. Next, I had a deliberate strategy involving the decision to hold positions touching on the problems of safety and first aid. But there is an element of chance, tied to the context of the events and the needs of the organizers. Chance certainly was a factor at the beginning of the project, in the first jobs I got, and it gradually became less important as my personality and experience and the motivations of the research project34 gave me more freedom to choose positions (although there is no denying that these very features simultaneously induced constraints). I was concerned with being exhaustive in the functions I occupied. There was the concern with occupying those positions most apt to reveal the stakes connected with passive safety (the structures, architecture, grandstands and so on) for one event (the Bourges Printemps in 2000 and 2001), those connected with active safety (the human apparatus, the private security professions in different capacities and at different hierarchical levels and so on.) for another event (Eurockéennes in Belfort, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002) as well as the stakes involved in interactions between private and public actors and negotiations between those actors (Aurillac 2000 and 2001; Vieilles Charrues in Carhaix, 2001 and 2002). It that sense, I tried to have my safety-linked positions with private enterprises be exhaustive.

Manager of safety commissions, then site manager at the Printemps in Bourges

46I had observed the Bourges Printemps in 1999 as a spectator, and was well aware that it was difficult for me to have an objective vision of what transpired there, in terms of safety. I could record a number of facts, such as the names of the enterprises working there, their position at a given point in time, their attitude toward the public, etc. I could also observe the places where the police forces were active, their various interventions and so forth. But on the other hand I was unable to get an overall picture of all of the arrangements, find out the exact number of people working on the location, the problems encountered throughout the event and the interactions between all of the institutions. For that reason, when I met the technical manager at the end of the festival, I offered to work for him at the following year’s festival, on the basis of my two previous years of research.

47At the time, the festival was having problems with the administration over the safety commissions. Since the incidents at the Furiani stadium in Corsica on June 5, 1992, those safety commissions had been made compulsory. A commission, composed of representatives of the prefect, the mayor, the prevention and first aid agency and the direction départementale de l’équipement (the county-level agency of the national road and facilities directorate) inspected the festival every day throughout its duration and pointed out a number of safety-related problems. Their inspection covered the respect of regulations having to do with fire prevention, the risk of panic and accessibility for the public, especially for people with low mobility. Moreover, the commission took up much of the technical manager’s time, since he had to follow it around all afternoon so as to consult with it before making the changes needed to have the place meet the safety requirements. The technical manager therefore asked me to be the liaison manager with the safety commissions, and to do everything I could to meet their demands. The position was exactly what I needed, since it enabled me to take part in the organization of the festival by working at a real job and moreover, one that was centrally located in the interactions between administrative agencies and a private organization. It gave me access to all of the information I needed, and enabled me to attend all of the preparatory and post-festival evaluation meetings. I found myself where I had hoped to be, at the heart of the event, in a role where I had to be familiar with all of the structures and all the people in charge of each location. My function was to accompany the safety commission to every location within the festival, to act as intermediary between the commission and the site manager and to be the representative of the festival, making sure that the modifications needed in order to respect the legal obligations were actually made. I held that position for two consecutive years, in 2000 and 2001.

48For the 2002 festival, the Maison de la Culture (cultural center) of Bourges asked me to manage its two theaters (seating 1,000 and 500), including reception of the public and the ticket office, reception halls, the cafeteria, the local France Inter radio station for live broadcasting and so on. This role of site manager meant I was in charge of both the building in which I worked and the staff I headed. In all, there were no less than 40 people running the places under my supervision, including maintenance workers, private security guards, people monitoring access and tickets, etc. This enabled me to realize the role played by a manager in securing the safety and reception of the public and the entertainers, ensuring maintenance of the facilities, monitoring the working hours of employees, handling the circulation of people and the various problems encountered with the public. I was no longer in the strict safety framework and could look into other matters which may affect safety in one way or another. For instance, I had to oversee the different jobs done by the employees, along with their role, make sure they were properly clothed, were friendly and courteous toward the public, make sure the theaters were well kept and maintain surveillance through a system of searches and checkrooms for some sorts of objects.

49Last, I met often with the main actors involved in the safety of the festival outside of that event itself, and especially with the head of the private security agency, the person in charge of first aid and prevention, the sub-prefect and the main private secretary of the prefect. These talks helped me to refine my research project and to get to the heart of the subject, making a distinction between my work during the festival and the research questions tied to my thesis, with the advantage of the experience and problems encountered during the festival.

Private security guard and assistant safety manager for the Belfort Eurockéennes festival

a first interview to clear the ground

50Again proceeding along the same methodological lines, I asked to meet the technical manager of the festival four months before it began. The technical manager of a festival coordinates all the on-site logistics. It is he who organizes and handles every aspect connected with the management of the equipment, the mounting of the structures and management of the personnel. In particular, he is in charge of all safety/security questions concerning both the facilities and the safety personnel. But as I had discovered previously, the limits of a “simple” interview, even one lasting three hours, were soon evident, and I therefore requested that I be allowed to analyze the safety arrangements during the festival.

Meeting with an official in charge of the safety/security of a festival: his function and missions

51I was met by the safety manager two days before the beginning of the festival. I later learned that our meeting was supposed to last only one hour, after which he could, if he chose, leave me to my own sad fate in the midst of the spectators for the rest of the festival. But things went differently, and I was lucky enough to be able to follow his every move, 20 hours a day. In exchange I served as his chauffeur, secretary and aide-mémoire, and we developed a genuine working relationship.

52In five days he taught me how a safety manager handled the safety of a festival, what arrangements he made, how he handled conflicts, how he developed relations with the administration. He showed me the importance of preliminary work, with risk evaluation, participation in preparatory meetings with the public safety services, decisions as to which private security agencies would be hired and what would be demanded of them. He taught me his work as coordinator, managing 120 workers from a security guard company, spread over the campgrounds, the entrance points and throughout the site, as well as 50 first aid agents; also, his role as interface with the administration and how he coped with points of tension. Last, he allowed me to attend the various meetings held during the festival and the assessment meetings based on feedback afterwards. This gave me a comprehensive view of the safety problems encountered during a festival, from the inmost position, since he supervised everything.

My first job as security guard: guarding a space

53The following year I entered his security company as a full-fledged security guard, while playing the role of assistant after my 12 hours a day as a guard. The first thing I was asked to do was to spend three days in the woods. I saw no more than twenty people a day, mostly people in charge, and none of the spectators. I learned nothing about the function of a security guard aside, definitely, from his humility, but it is true that by accepting that role I certainly won the confidence of the safety manager.

54The second year I was able to get a better full-time perspective on the mission of a security guard, since I worked at different duties in the VIP area. After my hours as security guard, I returned to my job as assistant, with interventions throughout the premises. As time went by the manager completed my training and handed more work, and more important work, over to me. That ranged from the distribution of objects (fire extinguishers) to making sure there were no “leaks” in the separation between the area open to the public and the first aid area, delivery of messages to security guards, etc. The following year I retained the same type of duty at one entrance point between the area open to the public and the VIP space while continuing to work as assistant outside of the times when the site was open to the public. My position as security guard gave me an idea of how the public regards a simple security guard on duty. In particular, I realized how difficult it is to stay calm and receptive when faced with a very diversified public.

A different duty in 2002: the flying squad

55Along with the set positions guarded on a site, there is, simultaneously, a “flying squad” function. As its name indicates, this squad moves around the area. It is composed of a group of guards (5 in 2001, 3 in 2002) who do whatever is needed and cover all sorts of missions. For example, they may be called in if some spectators try to go on stage, for a fight between two people, to reinforce coverage of an area and so forth. Their main mission is to limit drug dealing (mostly cannabis and ecstasy) by taking in any dealers found on the premises. It was in 1999 that the administration first discovered the existence of a great many dealings (selling and consumption) on the site. The following year, in accordance with a recommendation from the prefecture, the festival safety manager suggested the creation of a team of guards in charge of taking in dealers caught in the act and putting them off premises and into the hands of the gendarmerie which would record the facts. This experience placed me at the center of the partnership between the police forces and the private organizer, then. I was able to analyze the roles of each actor, the modes of operation set up and the results of those procedures.

Technical counselor for the city of Aurillac

56The events described above had been observed from the viewpoint of the private organizer. It was important for me to do the same for the viewpoint of another major actor: the city. The involvement of the latter in the management of this festival was particularly strong since most of the events took place in the city center, on specially outfitted squares or sites such as school courtyards, gymnasiums, public gardens or anywhere on the streets.

57The secretary-general was in charge of organizing those elements of the event for which the city was responsible. He was therefore the first person I met, for an overview of the various safety arrangements and the interactions between the various actors involved in safety. He was also my main contact throughout the festival. He suggested that I assist him during the festival, and that I serve as counselor for safety matters. I was therefore able to determine the missions of a town hall in the organization of safety, first aid and prevention, over the entire event. Those missions were of three sorts: the circulation of vehicles and pedestrians, and parking of vehicles, by the municipal police force; street-cleaning by the city cleaning department; prevention and control of drug dealing, and above all, the reception of what is known as “drifters”.

Coordinator of safety and first aid for the Vieilles Charrues festival in Carhaix

A first year for defining needs and appropriate responses

58I had decided to keep this festival for the end. It was the last event I covered before writing my thesis, but above all, it was the event for which I held the most responsible position and also, for which I did ongoing preparatory work throughout the year between the 2001 and the 2002 editions.

59For years, up to the mid 90s, the Eurockéennes festival in Belfort had been the largest in terms of numbers of spectators, and then, in a matter of years, the Vieilles Charrues festival became the largest in France. It seemed relevant for me to participate in it, then, in order to complete my field work.

60Two months before the festival I met the production manager and described my four years of research, my participation in various festivals and sports events, and my desire to be involved in that event. The person in charge of outdoor safety had recently left, and I was named to replace him, since the position was vacant.

61Actually, the job was not very well defined, and my position varied with the concrete needs and the objectives I set for myself. My four years of researching had led me to identify the overall situation, how to behave with different people, how to set rules for making premises safe, the kinds of responses needed with respect to first aid and safety. I also had to define my work in connection with the existing personnel and their missions. It took me two weeks to find my niche and to show the need to name a safety coordinator.

Safety coordinator

62As coordinator I was in charge of everything having to do with safety, first aid and prevention. In addition, I had to draw up the dossier on safety and handle the interaction between the private organizer of the festival and the administration, which mostly meant the national gendarmerie and the county-level firefighting and first aid departments. My work therefore began early, in October 2001, with preparatory assessment meetings with the main officials from the private organization, with emphasis on all of the technical aspects. I worked on every theme: safety, parking grounds, campgrounds, logistics and technical services. Once they had all been assessed, the preparatory work for the 2002 edition could begin. The general manager also asked me to write up the safety dossier, which is the main document describing the event, given to the administration a month before it begins. The constitution of this report led me to think about all of the problems tied to the safety of an event, and enabled me to enter into close relations with some representatives of the administration, for whom I was the main contact, along with the general manager. The report was divided into twelve points: description of the festival, the entertainment program, practical information, overall organization with the various contacts for the administration, definition of the boundaries of the premises and their environment, the chain of command for the organization of safety (missions of safety coordinator, the safety manager and assistant manager, the safety headquarters, the gendarmerie), the chain of command for the organization of first aid, first aid resources on the premises, means of communication, private security agencies, the regulations and various plans. I also took part in selecting the private companies. There had been problems at the entrances in 2001, leading us to change the company that worked there. I recommended the company that worked at the Printemps in Bourges, which I thought had been very professional. Similarly, we used the same group of guards as at the Belfort Eurockéennes to try to limit the presence of drug dealers on the premises. The procedure used and the coordination with the administration were the same.

  • 35 “Researchers studying groups or situations that are familiar to them have to replace their prior at (...)

63Through these different experiences, we see the importance of changes of position and changes of viewpoints, so as to obtain information as close as possible to the complexity of the field studied. I was not “familiar”35 with these situations and was able to take some distance at the end of each of the events studied, none of which lasted very long. Another advantage was that I studied these events from hierarchically different positions. Some jobs, such as security guard, were close to the grass roots level, while others were more distant, such as site manager or technical counselor, or again, involved great responsibility such as security coordinator at the Vieilles Charrues. These positions correspond to different points of view. But one might object that active observation is caught in the trap of the possibility of making decisions (actually there is very little freedom in this respect, given the constraints connected with the duties and the number of actors involved). In this sense, we may speak of a position in which one has increasingly less freedom as one rises in the hierarchy, given the confidentiality of the information received, in particular. Now the fact of holding a position carrying weighty responsibilities does not prevent one from reflecting on that position once the event is over. Still and all, as a decision-maker and participant in negotiations, I lose one form of neutrality. I am bound by the demands of my employers. So, in order to partially avoid that trap, I resolved that in the future I would act more as a counselor and leave it to the decision-makers to act. This was the position I adopted, in particular, at the International Jazz Festival and the Francofolies in Montreal in 2004. In counseling one may set forth all of the possibilities for evaluating and implementing arrangements, and especially one may include the viewpoints of all participants in the negotiation. In doing so one does not take sides with any particular actor.

Awareness: the difficulty of preserving the goal of scientific neutrality while meeting the demands of professional activity

64Like any research on individuals and social groups, on actors and their practices, my work raised ethical and deontological issues. By taking interest in actors and in both private and public security institutions, and by becoming a full-fledged actor in the field of security toward the end of my research, I had to make some “compromises”.

65My subject, security, involved a field in which information had to remain confidential, and could not be released. It was my duty, then, to preserve secrecy. Things were clear, however, with my contacts. The articles I wrote were automatically sent to them before they were submitted for publication. The aim of my research was quite clear and well-defined, even if there was an employer/employee relationship from the second year on. I was there for the purposes of my doctoral research only, and was viewed in that perspective.

66The point at which the ethical dimension was most touchy was the one raised by Tremblay (1985, 31): the fact of not taking sides. As I worked on risk management, my work produced changes in the relations between various actors, and especially between private and public actors (Sabourin, Grenier, 1993). I took part in setting up arrangements and strategies for action which had repercussions in the field.

67Last, the fact of having set up an intervention squad to take in dealers on the premises raises an ethical problem, in which the participant observer has to make a clear separation between his position as researcher and that of the worker paid to find a solution to the problems encountered by private and public safety actors.

The Observation Itself: Inseparable Phases of Interaction with the Surroundings, Interviews, Observation, Note-Writing and Diversified Reading

  • 36 Peretz (2004, 53-78) distinguishes between clandestine observation in a closed setting, open observ (...)

68If we apply the distinction operated by Peretz (2004, 71),36 I did open observation of formal organizational groups. I will attempt to provide a synthetic, systematic narration, as complete as possible, of the various phases of my observation. This, as Peretz points out, seems to be lacking in most research.

Previous relations with the milieu to be observed

69I have now acquired a degree of expertise—although I dislike the term—in a field in which we see the various members of the organization function by trial and error, on the basis of their own experience. But people are rather poorly informed of what is done elsewhere, essentially owing to lack of time. Because I had worked in different places, the actors found that having the viewpoint of someone outside their organization was interesting for evaluating their work and introducing improvements.

Entering the milieu

70This made it easier for me to enter the milieu and to negotiate with officials. There is a sort of give-and-take: access to field work, to individuals and to information in exchange for advice. This supposes, then, that one be aware of which side one is on: with the private or public actors, for example, in the case of the organization of these shows.

71But in contrast to my experience in France for instance, where I was a salaried worker, in Montreal I was completely independent, free to move around, meet people and make my own schedule, among other things.

72Being a researcher also provides legitimacy, of a very different sort than that of a security counseling company, which may have interests (financial, for instance) in giving particular advice.

Settling down in the organization and developing relationships: observing, writing (taking notes, recording and charting observations), analyzing and presenting findings (differences between academic and professional expectations)

73First, there is a role defined for the observer by those observed. Then the field work itself begins. The idea is to try to understand the space, the actors circulating within the space, and the organization, roughly at first, then increasingly precisely. There is then a constant to-and-fro movement between observation, more or less formal interviews and the analysis of documents. The fact of having institutional legitimacy makes it possible to take notes and make recordings, and facilitates first contacts, although there may be some resentment against an outsider whose “hidden” motivations, or what they suppose are “hidden”, are not necessarily known to them. Everyone must be placed on equal footing, and people’s confidence must be won so as to learn more. There is no secret, it takes time and personal investment to ease relationships.

74The fact of having worked for several years and in several contexts also teaches you what to look at and where. The interpretative framework I developed in the course of the thesis helped me to collect information faster. To complete your approach, you add a log book, a diary or a tape recorder.

75Next comes the time to present your findings, with different objectives depending on whether you are addressing an academic milieu or a professional one, with the limit that you must respect confidentiality to avoid being excluded from the field. This is an extremely delicate time, in which the legitimacy of the research project is at stake, and which will—or will not—lay the bases for a more in-depth, long-term study, which is one of the foundations of participant observation.

  • 37 Diaz, 2001, 2003b, 2005 and 2006 (forthcoming).
  • 38 Beaud, Weber , 1998, 9-11.

76This article may be reproached for not going into the analysis of ethnographic data. What does this method contribute in terms of findings? This was not my intention here, and readers are referred to other published (or forthcoming) articles in specialized journals.37 The methodology is inseparable from the object and from the attendant research issues. The point of this research project was to advance knowledge on the management of safety and practices therein during gatherings involving large crowds. The objective was to uncover the negotiated distribution of responsibilities between the different actors (private and public) involved in ensuring the safety of these events, and to discover the technical and human arrangements set up to prevent accidents, offending and violence. The idea was to list the elements of knowledge and know-how; to determine those preventive measures that are effective and those that are not. “Above all, ethnography is an attempt at understanding, by bringing the distant closer, by making what is foreign familiar . . .By definition, the ethnographer is someone who is not content with overviews, who does not confine himself to the categories already in existence for the description of the social world (statistical categories, dominant or standardized categories of thinking). He is skeptical by principle with respect to “generalizing” analyses and pre-established ways of carving up the social world. The ethnographer claims the right to have a priori doubts about the ready-made explanations of the social order. He is always intent on going to take a closer look at social reality . . . It is this curiosity which [leads him] to push investigation farther, to observe in detail, to proceed by close-ups or zooms, when other sociologists systematically take a view from farther above and farther away.”38 For the theme of the negotiation of responsibilities and the roles of institutions and actors in the field of safety, I felt it was necessary to adopt a method that yielded an understanding of the stakes of that negotiation, as well as of the interplay of powers and interests, by immersing myself in the everyday life of those organizations, mostly through preparatory meetings.

  • 39 Jaccoud, Mayer, 1997, 243.

77The second limit was that in some sense my research project had led me to a degree of involvement with actors on the safety scene such that I was obliged to make decisions, using the means given to me, and as a rule on the short term, so as to meet the expectations of the organization. It was outside of the scheduled events that my research work became fully meaningful in that it obliged me to “be constantly alert to new ideas and to questions requiring verification39 and to work on the long term. My position and personal involvement led me to modify some elements in the management of the event itself. That was particularly true of the last two festivals on which I worked: the Printemps in Bourges and Vieilles Charrues in Carhaix. For the first time I was managing a location, with all of its dimensions (the shows, reception of the public, communication, the staff, etc.), and I was therefore able to integrate the safety dimension with the other dimensions, and to make it a factor in its own right. We had to take people into the place, offer them shared emotions during a show and, a few hours later, put them safely back on the street by which they had arrived. For four years I had had the word safety on my mind, through the elements furnished by actors in safety, and in the space of ten days I myself had to take a position in which to structure a location and make sure it would be safe. The main difficulty resided in the need to integrate theoretical issues such as the balance between freedom and safety in an operational apparatus handling real risks: the need to integrate the issue of new governance of safety with the reception of the public and prevention of potential crises; protection of the public and the negotiation of roles and responsibilities between the various actors.

78It is possible for researchers, sociologists involved in sociological action, to take on these functions. They should not stay in their ivory tower, but should change their relations with practitioners so as to bring out responses to societal problems.

79Lastly, no more than any other research method, participant observation cannot make any claim to exclusivity. Other approaches must be used. I, for instance, realize the limits of using the qualitative approach only. I see it necessary to use tools such as analysis of networks, mapping and the constitution of databases on the problems encountered, among others, in an attempt to cover the complexity of a field such as safety, and ultimately, in particular, to evaluate the arrangements implemented.

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1 Coenen-Huther, 1995, 6.

2 Ibid., 6.

3 Ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967) views institutions “as the outcome of an ongoing process of construction and adjustment between the various actors and logics present” (Faget, 2002, 98). “This explains why ethnomethodology, methodologically speaking, requires that sociologists be direct witnesses to the phenomena they wish to observe and analyze, whenever possible. This implies, to various extents, a position of participant observer.” (Coulon, 1999, 202)

4 K. M. Van Meter, 1992, 648.

5 Jaccoud, Mayer, 1997, 211.

6 K. M. Van Meter, 1992, 648.

7 The notion of field is intended here as defined by Bourdieu (1989, 14) :the structure of a field is the state of the power relations between agents or institutions engaged in the struggle, or if we prefer, of the specific distribution of capital which, accumulated during previous struggles, orients subsequent strategies.” The field of safety/security alone would then involve several forms of struggles and by the same token of alliances, such as, in particular, the struggles (and alliances) over the definitions that actors may have of the concept of safety or of risk, the struggles (and alliances) for power between the private and the public field, or again, within each field, such as within the police, for instance.

8 Diaz, 2003a. This thesis was based on sixteen different fieldwork experiences : the World Soccer Cup (1998), the Paris-Saint Germain soccer season (1999), the World Rugby Cup (1999), the European Basketball Championship (1999), concerts at the Paris Bercy Palais Omnisports (1999), concerts at Paris’ Zenith hall (1999), the Printemps festival in Bourges (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002), the Francofolies festival (1999), the Eurockéennes festival in Belfort (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002), the Astropolis festival in Concarneau (2000), the international street theater festival in Aurillac (2000, 2001), the World Championship of road cycling (2000), the World handball championship (2001), the Roland Garros tennis tournament (2001), the Vieilles Charrues (Old Ploughs) festival in Carhaix (2001, 2002) and the Cannes festival (2002). For an overview, see Diaz, 2003b.

9 The expression “personal observation ” was originally used by Webb (Webb, Webb, 1932, 50), and it is in the late 30s that the expression “ participant observation ” seems to have appeared, in its present acceptation (Platt, 1983). Hughes is the inventor of the expression “ observation in situ ” or “ direct observation ” to designate the study of collective action or social processes through direct interaction (Chapoulie, 1984), quoted by Jaccoud, Mayer (1997, 212).

10 Be he sociologtist, ethnologist or anthropologist.

11 An overview of this first year of research may be found in Diaz, 1998 ; 2001.

12 Mendras, Oberti, 2000, 133.

13 .Blumer, 1962, 188.

14 Blumer, 1966, 542.

15 Hughes, 1996, 276.

16 Hughes, 1996, 276.

17 Poupart, Lalonde, Jaccoud, 1997, 330.

18 Ibid., 331.

19 Hughes, 1996, 275.

20 “It must be said that the limit between observation in situ , the ethnographic approach and fieldwork research is not always very clear-cut. Furthermore, some authors tend increasingly to drop the expression ‘observation in situ’, and to prefer ‘fieldwork research’ or ‘ethnographic approach’. These expressions, it is contended, better reflect the reality of research practices which make as much use of observation as of interviews and documents, in the last analysis.” Poupart, Lalonde and Jaccoud, 1997, 85-86.

21 For further developments, the reader is referred to Diaz, 2001, 2003b, 2005 and 2006 (forthcoming).

22 Bouvier, 2000.

23 Schwartz, Schwartz, 1955, 343.

24 Coulon, 1992, 14.

25 Blumer, 1969, 5.

26 This would have been much more difficult to achieve had I been studying an occupation such as doctor, lawyer, police commissioner or other.

27 Peretz, 2004, 52.

28 Rock singer for three years, with several concerts in halls accommodating 50 to 500 spectators; soccer player for 15 years, at the département level.

29 I have been passionately interested in all sorts of sports since my earliest childhood, an attentive reader of the sports press, and a fervent spectator of events in stadiums and entertainment halls. By the time I began work on my thesis I had attended close to 50 indoor shows and a number of festivals.

30 The Printemps de Bourges and the Eurockéennes in Belfort were studied in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002, the street theater in Aurillac in 2000 and 2001 and the Vieilles Charrues festival in Carhaix in 2001 and 2002.

31 For the technical aspects, at the Printemps de Bourges, as manager of the safety commissions, then site manager, which required an ERP2 level (that is, the diploma required for people in charge of places open to the public). Or again, my experience in the martial arts, where my degree (diplôme d’Etat) as sports educator gave me more confidence when working at the Belfort Eurockéennes.

32 Chapoulie, 1984, 597.

33 The analysis would be incomplete if it did not mention that one of the consequences (not one of the causes) was that this work enabled me, partially, to finance my academic work..

34 On this point, the methodology cannot be separated from the object and the academic questions tied to it.

35 “Researchers studying groups or situations that are familiar to them have to replace their prior attitude of immediate participation by that of the “disinterested” observer unfettered by the judgments and norms attached to the position they occupy . . . According to Hughes, the ability to adopt an objectivating attitude toward the subjects they study is partly due to some peculiarities of their social trajectories.” Chapoulie, 1984, 597-598.

36 Peretz (2004, 53-78) distinguishes between clandestine observation in a closed setting, open observation within an informal group and open observation within a formal, institutionalized group.

37 Diaz, 2001, 2003b, 2005 and 2006 (forthcoming).

38 Beaud, Weber , 1998, 9-11.

39 Jaccoud, Mayer, 1997, 243.

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Frédéric Diaz, « Participant Observation as a Tool for Understanding the Field of Safety and Security »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. II | 2005, mis en ligne le 14 février 2006, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Frédéric Diaz

Centre International de Criminologie Comparée, Université de Montréal, Canada.

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