Participant observation is one type of data collection method typically used in qualitative research. It is a widely used methodology in many disciplines, particularly cultural anthropology, European ethnology, sociology, communication studies, human geography and social psychology. Its aim is to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, sub cultural group, or a particular community) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their cultural environment, usually over an extended period of time. The method originated in the field research of social anthropologists, especially Bronisław Malinowski and his students in Britain, the students of Franz Boas in the United States, and in the later urban research of the Chicago School of sociology.
History and development
Participant observation was used extensively by Frank Hamilton Cushing in his study of the Zuni Indians in the later part of the nineteenth century, followed by the studies of non-Western societies by people such as Bronisław Malinowski,E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and Margaret Mead in the first half of the twentieth century. It emerged as the principal approach to ethnographic research by anthropologists and relied on the cultivation of personal relationships with local informants as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating in the social life of a group. By living with the cultures they studied, researchers were able to formulate first hand accounts of their lives and gain novel insights. This same method of study has also been applied to groups within Western society, and is especially successful in the study of sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity, where only by taking part may the observer truly get access to the lives of those being studied. The postmortem publication of Grenville Goodwin's decade of work as a participant-observer with the Western Apache,The Social Organization of the Western Apache, established him as a prominent figure in the field of ethnology.
Since the 1980s, some anthropologists and other social scientists have questioned the degree to which participant observation can give veridical insight into the minds of other people. At the same time, a more formalized qualitative research program known as grounded theory, initiated by Glaser and Strauss, began gaining currency within American sociology and related fields such as public health. In response to these challenges, some ethnographers have refined their methods, either making them more amenable to formal hypothesis-testing and replicability, or framing their interpretations within a more carefully considered epistemology.
The development of participant-observation as a research tool has therefore not been a haphazard process, but instead has practiced a great deal of self-criticism and review. It has as a result become specialized. Visual anthropology can be viewed as a subset of methods of participant-observation, as the central questions in that field have to do with how to take a camera into the field, while dealing with such issues as the observer effect. Issues with entry into the field have evolved into a separate subfield. Clifford Geertz's famous essay on how to approach the multi-faceted arena of human action from an observational point of view, in Interpretation of Cultures uses the simple example of a human wink, perceived in a cultural context far from home.
Method and practice
Such research involves a range of well-defined, though variable methods: informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the life of the group, collective discussions, analyses of personal documents produced within the group, self-analysis, results from activities undertaken off or online, and life-histories. Although the method is generally characterized as qualitative research, it can (and often does) include quantitative dimensions. Traditional participant observation is usually undertaken over an extended period of time, ranging from several months to many years, and even generations. An extended research time period means that the researcher is able to obtain more detailed and accurate information about the individuals, community, and/or population under study. Observable details (like daily time allotment) and more hidden details (like taboo behavior) are more easily observed and interpreted over a longer period of time. A strength of observation and interaction over extended periods of time is that researchers can discover discrepancies between what participants say—and often believe—should happen (the formal system) and what actually does happen, or between different aspects of the formal system; in contrast, a one-time survey of people's answers to a set of questions might be quite consistent, but is less likely to show conflicts between different aspects of the social system or between conscious representations and behavior.
In participant observation, a researcher's discipline based interests and commitments shape which events he or she considers are important and relevant to the research inquiry. According to Howell (1972), the four stages that most participant observation research studies are establishing rapport or getting to know the people, immersing oneself in the field, recording data and observations, and consolidating the information gathered.
|Howell's (1972) participant observation phases||Description|
|Establishing Rapport||Get to know the members, visit the scene before study. Howell states that it is important to become friends, or at least be accepted in the community, in order to obtain quality data.|
|In the Field||Do as the locals do: It is important for the researcher to connect or show a connection with the population in order to be accepted as a member of the community. DeWalt & DeWalt (2011) call this form of rapport establishment as “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”. Also mentioned by Howell, DeWalt & DeWalt state that the researcher must strive to fit in with the population of study through moderation of language and participation. This sets the stage for how well the researcher blends in with the field and the quality of observable events he or she experiences.|
|Recording Observations and Data|
|Analyzing Data||Thematic Analysis: organizing data according to recurrent themes found in interviews or other types of qualitative data collection and |
Narrative Analysis: categorizing information gathered through interviews, finding common themes, and constructing a coherent story from data.
Types of participant observation
Participant observation is not simply showing up at a site and writing things down. On the contrary, participant observation is a complex method that has many components. One of the first things that a researcher or individual must do after deciding to conduct participant observations to gather data is decide what kind of participant observer he or she will be. Spradley provides five different types of participant observations summarised below.
Participant Observation Type Chart.
|Type of Participant Observation||Level of Involvement||Limitations|
|Non-Participatory||No contact with population or field of study||unable to build rapport or ask questions as new information comes up.|
|Passive Participation||Researcher is only in the bystander role||limits ability to establish rapport and immersing oneself in the field.|
|Moderate Participation||Researcher maintains a balance between "insider" and "outsider" roles||this allows a good combination of involvement and necessary detachment to remain objective.|
|Active Participation||Researcher becomes a member of the group by fully embracing skills and customs for the sake of complete comprehension||This method permits the researcher to become more involved in the population. There is a risk of "going native" as the researcher strives for an in-depth understanding of the population studied.|
|Complete Participation||Researcher is completely integrated in population of study beforehand (i.e. he or she is already a member of particular population studied).||There is the risk of losing all levels of objectivity, thus risking what is analyzed and presented to the public.|
Limitations To Any Participant Observation
- The recorded observations about a group of people or event is never going to be the full description.
- As mentioned before this is due to the selective nature of any type of recordable data process: it is inevitably influenced by researchers' personal beliefs of what is relevant and important.
- This is also plays out in the analysis of collected data; the researcher's worldview invariably influences how he or she interprets and evaluates the data.
Impact of researcher involvement
Participant observation can only do so much for the researcher because the sole presence of the researcher in the field will influence the participants' behavior (see:observer-expectancy effect). Researchers engaging in this type of qualitative research method must be aware that participants may act differently or put up a facade that is in accordance to what they believe the researcher is studying. This is why it is important to employ rigor in any qualitative research study. A useful method of rigor to employ is member-checking or triangulation.
While gathering data through participant observation, investigator triangulation would be a way to ensure that one researcher is not letting his or her biases or personal preferences in the way of observing and recording meaningful experiences. As the name suggests, investigator triangulation involves multiple research team members gathering data about the same event, but this method ensures a variety of recorded observations due to the varying theoretical perspectives of each research team member. In other words, triangulation, be it data, investigator, theory or methodological triangulation, is a form of cross-checking information.
Member checking is when the researcher asks for participant feedback on his or her recorded observations to ensure that the researcher is accurately depicting the participants' experiences and the accuracy of conclusions drawn from the data. This method can be used in participant observation studies or when conducting interviews.Member-checking and triangulation are good methods to use when conducting participant observations, or any other form of qualitative research, because they increase data and research conclusion credibility and transferability. In quantitative research, credibility is liken to internal validity, or the knowledge that our findings are representative of reality, and transferability is similar to external validity or the extent to which the findings can be generalized across different populations, methods, and settings.
A variant of participant observation is observing participation, described by Marek M. Kaminski, who explored prison subculture as a political prisoner in communist Poland in 1985. "Observing" or "observant" participation has also been used to describe fieldwork in sexual minority subcultures by anthropologists and sociologists who are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, as well as amongst political activists and in protest events. The different phrasing is meant to highlight the way in which their partial or full membership in the community/subculture that they are researching both allows a different sort of access to the community and also shapes their perceptions in ways different from a full outsider. This is similar to considerations by anthropologists such as Lila Abu-Lughod on "halfie anthropology", or fieldwork by bicultural anthropologists on a culture to which they partially belong.
As with any form of research dealing with human subjects, the researcher must ensure the ethical boundaries are never crossed by those conducting the subjects of study. The researcher must have clearly established boundaries before the onset of the study, and have guidelines in place should any issues cross the line of ethical behavior. One of the issues would be if the researcher is studying a population where illegal activities may occur or when working with minor children. In participant observation, the ethical concern that is most salient is that of informed consent and voluntary participation. There is the issue of deciding to obtain informed consent from every individual in the group of study, obtain the informed consent for participant observation from the person of leadership, or not inform anyone of one’s true purpose in fear of influencing the attitudes of members, thus skewing the observations recorded.
The decision is based on the nature of the study and the researcher’s own personal thoughts on the cost-benefit ratio of the situation. Participant observation also brings up the issue of voluntary participation in events the researcher observes and records. There may be instances when members do not want to be a part of the study and request that all data collected pertinent to them be removed. In this case, the researcher is obligated to relinquish data that may identify the members in any way. Above anything else, it is the researcher’s responsibility that the participants of the study do not suffer any ill effects directly or indirectly from the study, participants are informed of their rights as subjects of the study, and that the group was justly chosen for study (The Belmont Report).
The American Anthropological Association and American Sociological Association both have comprehensive statements concerning the code of conduct for research.
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- ^Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940) The Nuer, a description of the modes livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- ^Mead, Margaret (1928) Coming of age in Samoa: a psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilisation. New York: William Morrow & Co.
- ^Spicer, Edward H. "Grenville Goodwin", Arizona and the West, Vol. 3 No. 3, Autumn 1961, pp. 201-204
- ^Geertz, Clifford (1984) "From the Native’s Point of View: on the nature of anthropological understanding," in Culture Theory: essays on mind, self, and emotion. Edited by R. A. Shweder and R. LeVine, pp. 123-136. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- ^Rosaldo, Renato (1986) "From the door of his tent: the fieldworker and the inquisitor," in Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography. Edited by J. Clifford and G. E. Marcus. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- ^Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.
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- ^Collier, John Jr and Malcolm Collier, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method, 1986.
- ^Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2001). "Participant Observation and Fieldnotes." In Paul Atkinson, Amanda Coffey, Sara Delamont, John Lofland, & Lyn Lofland (Eds.), Handbook of Ethnography. pp: 356-357. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
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Participant Observation is where the researcher joins in with the group being studied and observes their behaviour. This post covers the theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of using overt and covert participant observation in social research.
Participant observation is closely related to the ethnographic method (or ‘ethnography’), which consists of an in-depth study of the way of life of a group of people.
Ethnography is traditionally associated with anthropology, wherein the anthropologist visits a (usually) foreign land, gains access to a group (for example a tribe or village), and spends several years living with them with the aim of uncovering their culture. The ethnographic method involves watching what participants do, listening to them, engaging in probing conversations, and joining them in day to day tasks as necessary; it also involves investigating any cultural artefacts such as art work and any written work if it exists, as well as analysing what religious rituals and popular stories can tell us about the culture. Ethnographic research has traditionally involved taking copious field notes, and the resulting ‘monographs’ which are produced can take several months, if not a year or more to write up.
To cut a long winded definition short, ethnography is basically the same as participant observation, but includes the writing up of a detailed account of one’s findings:
Ethnography = participant observation + a detailed written account of one’s findings.
Participant Observation and the use of other methods
Most participant observers (or ‘ethnographers’) will combine their observations with other methods – most obviously unstructured interviews, and some will combine them with more formal questionnaire based research, normally towards the end of their study period, meaning many of these studies are actually mixed-methods studies. Nonetheless, Participant Observation is still technically classified, for the purposes of A-level sociology as a ‘qualitative’ method.
Overt and Covert Observation
An important distinction in Participation/ Ethnography is between covert and over observation.
- OvertObservation – this is where the group being studied know they are being observed.
- Covert Observation – this where the group being studied does not know they are being observed, or where the research goes ‘undercover’.
These both have their strengths and limitations – overt research is obviously more ethical because of the lack of deception, and it allows the researcher to ask probing questions and use other research methods. Covert research may be the only way to gain access to deviant groups, it may enable you to gain fuller ‘immersion’ into the host culture and avoids the ‘Hawthorne Effect’. However, ethically it involves deception and can be very stressful for the researcher.
The Strengths of Participant Observation
The most significant strength of both types of participant observation is the high degree of validity the method achieves. There are at least five reasons for this:
You can observe what people do, not what they say they do – In contrast to most other methods, participant observation allows the researcher to see what people do rather than what people say they do.
Participant Observation takes place in natural settings – this should mean respondents act more naturally than in a laboratory, or during a more formal interview. This should mean the Hawthorne effect will be less, especially with covert research. You also get more of a feel for respondents’ actions in context, which might otherwise seem out of place if in an artificial research environment.
Digging deep and gaining insight – the length of time ethnographers spend with a community means that close bonds that can be established, thus enabling the researcher to dig deeper than with other methods and find out things which may be hidden to all other means of enquiry.
Verstehen/empathetic understanding– participant observation allows the researcher to fully join the group and to see things through the eyes (and actions) of the people in group. Joining in allows the researcher to gain empathy through personal experiences. This closeness to people’s reality means that participant observation can give uniquely personal, authentic data.
Flexibility and generating new ideas – when completing questionnaires researchers begin with pre-set questions. Even before starting to collect the data, therefore, the researchers have decided what’s important. The problem with this is what if the questions the researcher thinks are important are not the same as the ones the subject thinks are important. By contrast, participant observation is much more flexible. It allows the researcher to enter the situation with an open mind and as new situations are encountered they can be followed up.
There are few practical advantages with this method, but participant observation might be the only methods for gaining access to certain groups. For example, a researcher using questionnaires to research street gangs is likely to be seen as an authority figure and unlikely to be accepted.
Interpretivists prefer this method because it is respondent led – it allows respondents to speak for themselves and thus avoids a master-client relationship which you get with more quantitative methods.
The Limitations of Participant Observation
One theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of reliability. It would be almost impossible for another researcher to repeat given that a participant observation study relies on the personal skills and characteristics of the lone researcher.
Another theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of representativeness. Sociologists who use quantitative research methods study large, carefully selected, representative samples that provide a sound basis for making generalisations, In contrast, the groups used in participant observation studies are usually unrepresentative, because they are accessed through snowball sampling and thus haphazardly selected.
Critics also question how valid participant observation really is. They argue the method lacks objectivity. It can be very difficult for the researcher to avoid subjectivity and forming biased views of the group being studied. Also researchers decide what is significant and worth recording and what’s not, therefore, it depends on the values of the researcher. In extreme cases, researchers might ‘go native’, where they become sympathatic with the respondents and omit any negative analysis of their way of life.
A further threat to validity is the Hawthorne Effect, where people act differently because they know they are being observed, although participant observers would counter this by saying that people can’t keep up an act over long time periods: they will eventually relax and be themselves.
Also, the methods lack a concept of social structures such as class, gender or ethnicity. By focussing on the participants own interpretation of events, the researcher tends to ignore the wider social structures, which means giving only a partial explanation.
Firstly, this method tends to be time consuming and expensive in relation to the relatively small amount of respondents. It can take time to gain trust and build rapport, and so for this reason, it may take several days, weeks or even months, before the respondents really start to relax in the presence of the researcher.
Participant Observation also requires observational and interpersonal skills that not everyone possesses – you have to be able to get on with people and understand when to take a back seat and when to probe for information.
Gaining access can also be a problem – many people will not want to be researched this way, and where covert research is concerned, researchers are limited by their own characteristics. Not everyone can pass as a Hells Angel if covert observation is being used!
Ethical problems are mainly limited to Covert Participant Observation, in which respondents are deceived and thus cannot give informed consent to participate in the research.
Legality can also be an issue in covert research where researchers working with deviant groups may have to do illegal acts to maintain their cover.
Some advantages of Overt compared to Covert Observation
Students often think that Covert Observation is superior to Over Observation, however there are five reasons why Overt might be a better choice of research method:
1. You can ask awkward, probing questions
2. You can combine it with other methods
3. You can take on the role of the ‘professional stranger’ – respondents might tell you things because they know you are not ‘one of them’
4. It is less stressful and risky for the researcher
5. It is easier to do follow up studies.
Learning to Labour by Paul Willis – A Summary
Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods
Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 1 and AS Student Book
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