Exploring the Pleasures and Perils of Participant Observation in Researching Heterosexual Identities


  • Letitia Smuts University of Johannesburg




participant observation, reflexivity, qualitative fieldwork, feminist methodologies, heteronormativity, compulsory heterosexuality, research ethics, researcher safety, best practices, South Africa


In this paper, I investigate the benefits and potential risks associated with utilizing participant observation to gain a deeper understanding of sexual identity. Specifically, my focus is on examining how young, heterosexual, middle-class, cisgender individuals in South Africa perceive and understand their heterosexual identities, exploring how privilege and heteronormativity shape their experiences. In my ethnographic study, I employed various qualitative data collection methods, including participant observation, to analyze how normative practices were negotiated and sustained in contemporary South Africa. As a feminist researcher, I reflect on the epistemological and methodological choices I made in the study, with reflexivity and positionality playing crucial roles in data collection and analysis. Drawing on experiences in three distinct social spaces in Johannesburg—high-end nightclubs, Tupperware-style sex-toy parties, and traditional braais [barbecues]—I examine the advantages and challenges of participant observation. This paper contributes to the broader discussion on the method's use, highlighting its potential to offer a nuanced understanding of a normalized phenomenon while acknowledging associated risks.


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Author Biography

Letitia Smuts, University of Johannesburg

Dr. Letitia SMUTS is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities, Department of Sociology, at the University of Johannesburg in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has over 15 years of experience teaching research methodology at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. Her research interests include heteronormativity, sexuality, gender, and stigma.


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How to Cite

Smuts, L. (2024). Exploring the Pleasures and Perils of Participant Observation in Researching Heterosexual Identities. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 25(2). https://doi.org/10.17169/fqs-25.2.4163



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