Participant observation

In participant observation the observer participates in ongoing activities and records observations. Participant observation extends beyond naturalistic observation because the observer is a "player" in the action. The technique is used in many studies in Anthropology and Sociology. Often the researcher actually takes on the role being studied; for example, living in a commune, becoming a firefighter, enrolling in flight training school, working in a mental hospital (or passing as a patient), being a cocktail waitress, living among the mushroom hunters of the northwest, or joining a cult. More....


A related approach is ethnography – the study of particular people and places. These need not be exotic locations. Ethnography, sometimes referred to as field work or qualitative sociology. It is a more of an approach than a single research method in that it generally combines several research methods including interviews, observation, and physical trace measures. Good ethnography truly captures a sense of the place and peoples studied.


There are obvious trade-offs in participant observation research. The researcher is able to get an "insider" viewpoint and the information may be much more rich than that obtained through systematic observation. It has probably already occurred to you that there are potential problems. Consider the two sources of error in systematic research: bias and reactivity. These difficulties are magnified in participant observation. Events are interpreted through the single observer's eyes. The technique generally involves taking extensive notes and writing down one's impressions. Clearly one's own views can come in to play. There is the problem of "going native" which means becoming so involved with and sympathetic to the group of people being studied, that objectivity is lost. Because the observer is a participant in the activities and events being observed, it is easy to influence other people's behavior, thereby raising the problem of reactivity -- influencing what is being observed.

In-depth example: Older adults

The qualitative - quantitative divide

Systematic observation uses clearly-defined categories (often with operational definitions) and collects quantitative (numerical) data. In contrast the data of participant observation are extensive field notes describing events and impressions. They may also include extensive in-depth interviews. Thus the data are more likely to be qualitiative - description that is NOT reducible to numbers.

Within the scholarly community there are fierce defenders of one or the other of these perspectives -- quantitative versus qualitative. They are fond of pointing out the limitations of the alternate view.  "The whole is more than the sum of its parts" asserts the qualitative researcher. The concern is that reducing observations to mere counts results in an unforgivable loss of information. The quantitative number lover points out the arbitrariness of personal descriptions of events and how they are subject to bias.  Arguments have gone on for decades and will probably continue for many more.

Both sides make important points and reveal that no single approach or technique has a corner on the truth. Multiple methods are more likely to produce an accurate view of behavior. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses. A good researchers selects the method most appropriate to the problem at hand, and uses several different methods if possible.

Systematically-acquired data - clearly-designated decision rules, operational definitions, and proper sampling procedures -- permits generalization to similar situations. Narrative description of a qualitative sort provides depth and richness to our understanding. Quantification and qualitative description are not mutually exclusive; both are possible.

Stresses on the observer

Participant observation and ethnography are probably the most stressful research methods for the researcher. People with whom one is interacting may make unreasonable demands. As a participant, one may observe illegal behavior. Ethical dilemmas are commonplace in participant observation. Does one "rat" on fellow employees? Or keep quiet and perhaps risk public safety?

Reliabiity and validity in qualitative research

Individual field notes are not reliable. They lack independent confirmation. Checks on the observer's accounts may be available through other methods or from the work of other researchers. Use of additional observers will increase reliability. Because of their detail, the observations of a participant observer may be more valid than those done in a more systematic but less in-depth way. Validity can be increased by checking with other available data, for example, if the observers claims the group being studied does not engage in any illegal behaviors, yet many of the group members have been arrested, there would be reason to question the validity of the observation.

Next section: Strengths and limitations