Participant observation is research method where the researcher not only observes the research subjects, but also actively engages in the activities of the subjects (Musante & DeWalt, 2010; Kawulich, 2005). They are both observing and participating.
This method is particularly useful in the social sciences, where researchers aim to understand complex socio-cultural phenomena from an insider’s view. This can involve long-term immersion in the field to gather detailed and nuanced data.
Participant Observation Examples
1. Workplace Observation
A researcher studying the dynamics of a corporation might take a job within the company. This way, they can observe the corporate culture, hierarchies, office dynamics, and interactions in their natural settings from an employee’s perspective.
Brief Explanation: This participant observation study discussed in this paper focused on researchers embedding themselves within an agile software development community. They aimed to understand how this community works and evolves over time. The researchers used methods like interviews and close interaction to gain insights.
Citation: Kumar, S., & Wallace, C. (2016, May). Among the agilists: participant observation in a rapidly evolving workplace. In Proceedings of the 9th International Workshop on Cooperative and Human Aspects of Software Engineering (pp. 52-55).
2. Cultural Immersion
A researcher moves to a foreign country or unfamiliar community, immersing themselves in the new culture. They observe social customs, languages, and day-to-day activities to understand the group’s socio-cultural practices.
3. Formal or Informal Group Meetings
A researcher might participate in group meetings (civic organizations, religious bodies, support groups, etc.) to observe group dynamics, decision-making processes, or the impacts and implementation of collective regulations.
4. Online Groups
A researcher might join an online community, game, or forum to understand the virtual behaviors, online social interactions, dynamics, etiquette, and patterns. This is often a part of ‘digital ethnography’.
Brief Explanation: This participant observation study focused on how new players learn to join the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) community and culture. The researchers watched and interviewed both experienced and new players to understand how novices become part of the D&D world. They found that some novices needed in-game training to learn their roles, while others quickly learned by participating in online communities and watching games. The study showed that becoming a part of the D&D community involves both playing at the table and engaging with the wider online D&D world.
Citation: Giordano, M. J. (2022). Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Novices in a Dungeons and Dragons Community. Simulation & Gaming, 53(5), 446-469.
5. Police Work
A researcher may ride along with police officers to observe their day-to-day activities, decision-making processes, and their interactions with the community.
6. Homeless Community
A researcher might spend time incognito in homeless communities to observe first-hand the struggles, social norms, coping mechanisms, and the impact of local policies on these communities.
7. Religious Festivals
A researcher participates in religious festivals or public ceremonies to understand the associated cultural symbols, rituals, conduct, and beliefs.
8. Healthcare Settings
A researcher could embed themselves in a hospital or clinic to observe interactions between healthcare providers and patients, to understand patient-care protocols, or assess workflow efficiency.
Brief Explanation: This participant observation study was about researching obesity in children by observing them in their everyday activities. The researchers wanted to understand how children think about food and their bodies. They found that talking to children through regular interviews might limit their responses. Instead, by watching children in their natural environments, the researchers gained better insights into how children view their bodies and health. This approach allowed them to see beyond the typical spaces where research is done and understand children’s experiences more deeply.
Citation: Gunson, J. S., Warin, M., Zivkovic, T., & Moore, V. (2016). Participant observation in obesity research with children: Striated and smooth spaces. Children’s Geographies, 14(1), 20-34.
9. Subculture Observation
A researcher might immerse themselves in a particular subculture, such as biker clubs, punk or goth communities, or online fandoms, to observe their practices, codes, relationship dynamics, and shared identities.
10. Sporting Events
A researcher could join a soccer league, a boxing gym, or an extreme sports club to examine the dynamics, customs, procedures, and participant motivation within these organizations.
11. Ethnobotany Study
A researcher could join a community in a remote location to study their use of plants for medicinal, nutritional, and other purposes, their knowledge transfer methodologies, and associated cultural practices.
12. Educational Settings
A researcher might participate as a teacher or a student in a classroom to understand teaching methods, student behavior, the impact of classroom environments on learning, or the effectiveness of certain educational policies.
Sample Study: The place of humor in the classroom
Brief Explanation: This study looked at humor in classrooms, specifically how much and what kind of humor teachers and students use. The study explored both positive and negative effects of humor, as inappropriate humor can be bad. The researchers were participant observes in 105 Greek primary school classrooms and found that teachers used humor about twice per teaching hour on average.
Citation: Chaniotakis, N., & Papazoglou, M. (2019). The place of humor in the classroom. Research on young children’s humor: Theoretical and practical implications for early childhood education, 127-144.
13. Consumer Behavior
A researcher might pose as a shopper in a retail store to observe and understand consumer behavior, shopping habits, influences on purchasing decisions, effectiveness of product placements, and impacts of store environments on consumer choices.
14. Campaign Observation
A researcher may join a political or social campaign to observe the strategies utilized, the internal structures and conduct, and the dynamics of public engagement.
15. Prison Settings
A researcher might work as a guard or administrator in a prison setting to study the attitudes, behaviors, and interactions of inmates and prison staff.
Pros and Cons of Participant Observation
- Generation of rich and detailed data: Participant observation allows the researcher to collect data that is in-depth and rich in detail due to the firsthand experience (Balsiger & Lambelet, 2014; Gunn & Logstrup, 2014). The researcher can record observations, feelings, and interpretations, capturing the complexity of human behavior and providing a context for understanding it.
- The naturalistic and real-world context: In participant observation, data is collected in the natural environment of the subject, thus providing a more realistic picture of what is being studied. Observations are less artificial than controlled settings, such as in laboratory experiments (Spradley, 2016; Musante & DeWalt, 2010).
- Flexibility: The researcher has the ability to adjust the research focus as the study progresses. If during the course of observation, the researcher identifies new aspects of the research question or encounters new paths of enquiry, there is the possibility to explore these (Spradley, 2016).
- Insider perspective: By participating actively in the group or community being observed, the researcher acquires an internal perspective, thus gaining access to the members’ perceptions, values, and views which might not surface through other research methods (Kawulich, 2005).
- Risk of subjectivity: Personal biases and the involvement of the researcher in the group being studied can lead to the observed behavior being interpreted subjectively (Jorgensen, 2020). The researcher’s presence might alter the research environment and the behavior of those being observed, which could further influence the data’s validity.
- Time and resource intensity: The participant observation method often requires the researcher to spend a large amount of time in the field. It may also necessitate the learning of a new language or culture, or it can involve travel and accommodation expenses, if the observation is taking place in a different region (Lambelet, 2014; Jorgensen, 2020).
- Difficulties in replication: Since the observations are not only determined by the observed phenomena and participants, but also the unique interpretation of the observer, replication of studies can be very difficult (Jorgensen, 2020).
- Ethical considerations: There can be ethical dilemmas, such as concerns about privacy and informed consent. In participant observation, the line between observing and participating can sometimes blur, potentially leading to ethical dilemmas if subjects do not know they are part of a study (Musante & DeWalt, 2010).
- Problem of data overload: Participant observations can generate a significant amount of data, including personal observations, conversations, interviews, and documents, presenting a challenge when it comes to data management, coding, and analysis (Spradley, 2016). As a result, effectively synthesizing all the available information can pose a significant complication.
Participant Observation vs Ethnography
Participant observation generally occurs in the social sciences during qualitative field research. The participant enters the setting, participates and observes, then leaves.
However, an extended version of participant observation, where the participant remains immersed in the setting for a sustained period of time, is called ethnography (Spradley, 2016).
While the two methods overlap, there are some key differences, explored below:
- Participant Observation: This approach involves a researcher immersing themselves in a social setting and observing behaviors, interactions, events, and activities (Jorgensen, 2020; Kawulich, 2005). The researcher participates in the activities to a certain extent to better understand the group or culture while also maintaining a level of detachment, often entering and leaving settings.
- Ethnography: This is a broader research method that often includes participant observation, but goes further, where the researcher becomes a member of the group for a sustained period of time. This provides an in-depth ‘thick description’ of everyday life and practices. The goal of ethnography is to understand the social world in the same way as the people being studied. It typically involves a variety of data collection methods such as interviews, surveys, and document analysis, in addition to participant observation.
Overall, while participant observation focuses on observation and participation in certain activities, ethnography seeks to provide a broader cultural context and deep understanding of the socio-cultural phenomena at play.
Participant observation is a useful tool for qualitative research, often generating richer insights than quantitative research or even other qualitative methods like interviewing alone. It can be done in a range of settings, including workplace, school, religious, cultural, and even prison settings! Overall, it’s useful for helping researchers to dig beneath the surface, but does have drawbacks such as lack of generalizability and researcher subjectivity.
Balsiger, P., & Lambelet, A. (2014). Participant observation: how participant observation changes our view on social movements. Methodological practices in social movement research, 144-172.
Chaniotakis, N., & Papazoglou, M. (2019). The place of humor in the classroom. Research on young children’s humor: Theoretical and practical implications for early childhood education, 127-144.
Giordano, M. J. (2022). Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Novices in a Dungeons and Dragons Community. Simulation & Gaming, 53(5), 446-469.
Gunn, W., & Logstrup, L. B. (2014). Participant observation, anthropology methodology and design anthropology research inquiry. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 13(4), 428-442.
Gunson, J. S., Warin, M., Zivkovic, T., & Moore, V. (2016). Participant observation in obesity research with children: Striated and smooth spaces. Children’s Geographies, 14(1), 20-34.
Jorgensen, D. L. (2020). Principles, approaches and issues in participant observation. Routledge.
Kawulich, B. B. (2005, May). Participant observation as a data collection method. In Forum qualitative sozialforschung/forum: Qualitative social research (Vol. 6, No. 2).
Kumar, S., & Wallace, C. (2016, May). Among the agilists: participant observation in a rapidly evolving workplace. In Proceedings of the 9th International Workshop on Cooperative and Human Aspects of Software Engineering (pp. 52-55).
Musante, K., & DeWalt, B. R. (2010). Participant observation: A guide for fieldworkers. Rowman Altamira.
Spradley, J. P. (2016). Participant observation. Waveland Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]