Participant observation is one of the types of data collection used by practitioner-scholars in qualitative research or ethnography. Methodologies of this type are employed in many disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, communication studies, human geography, and social psychology. It involves becoming intimately familiar with an individual group and their practices through intensive engagement in their cultural environment, usually over a long period of time.

During the European and American voyages of scientific exploration, it was developed. During the year 1800, one of the precursors of the method was Joseph Marie, baron de Gérando already affirmed that: “The first way to get to know the Indians is to become like one of them, and it is by learning their language that we will become their fellow citizens.” The method was popularized by Bronislaw Malinowski and his students in Britain; the students of Franz Boas in the United States; and, in the later urban research, the Chicago school of sociology students.

Participant Observation

In disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, communication studies, political science, social psychology, and even market research, participant observation is widely used.

Participant Observation
Participant Observation

As a way to give you a broad overview of this methodology, we have compiled the most significant characteristics, its importance, and some types of participant observation. These are things you can put into practice during your next study session.

What Is Participant Observation?

The participant observation method, also called ethnographic research, is when a sociologist actually becomes a member of the group they are studying. This is in order to collect data and understand the phenomenon. In participant observation, the researcher plays two separate roles at the same time: subjective participant and objective observer. Sometimes, but not always, the group is aware that the sociologist is studying them.

Participant observation is aimed at gaining a deeper understanding and familiarity with a certain group of individuals, their values, beliefs, and lifestyles. The group is often a subculture within a larger society, such as a religious, occupational, or community-based group.

In order to conduct participant observation, the researcher often lives within the group, becomes a member of it, and lives as a member of their community for an extended period of time, gaining access to intimate details and happenings within the group.

Anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas pioneered this research method. This research method was adopted as a primary research method by many sociologists affiliated with the Chicago School of Sociology in the early 20th century. Participant observation, or ethnography, is a primary research method used by qualitative sociologists around the world today.

Importance Of Participant Observation

Participant observation helps you understand what people do and compare it to what they say. Thus you let researchers know if the people with whom you are conducting a study act differently from what is described.

Additionally, it enables the researcher to better understand what is happening within a given group and its cultural context. This enables them to make more credible interpretations based on their observations.

The researcher can also collect qualitative data through various types of interviews as well as quantitative data through surveys and different quantitative observation techniques.

Characteristics Of Participant Observation

Participant observation has historically been associated with field research in which the researcher stays in a small community for extended periods of time.

Characteristics Of Participant Observation
Characteristics Of Participant Observation

The methodology is currently applied in a wide range of settings and for a wide range of periods of time, from a single interaction to many years. It is characterized by the following points:

  • Fieldwork involves long-term interactions between the researcher and the participants.
  • Studies a wide range of relationship dynamics, such as differences in status, power, and educational differences, as well as degrees of formality. Gender, social class, health, and other factors can contribute to differences in power.
  • The variety of settings, from close interpersonal interactions to observing public gatherings and actually participating in social events.
  • Research often takes place in unfamiliar settings, making her presentation and interaction with others especially sensitive.
  • The ethical codes of the groups studied may differ from those of the researcher’s country or institution. The principles may also differ from those of the host government, non-governmental organizations in the area, or funding agencies.
  • The changing nature of the researcher’s relationship with the studied group over time.
  • Using technology to document observations, including mapping, photography, video, and audio recording.

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Types Of Participant Observation

After you know what this method is and what its most common characteristics are, we will discuss the types that exist.

Types Of Participant Observation
Types Of Participant Observation

Passive Participant Observation

The researcher observes and records the behaviors of the subjects in their own environment without interacting with them in any way.

Many studies that use this form of participant observation involve researchers observing people’s behavior and communication in public places, such as restaurants, coffee shops, transportation hubs, and even on the Internet using innovative methods such as netnography.

Active-Participant Observation

Therefore, researchers converse with their subjects and participate in the daily life of the groups they study, including their activities, customs, rituals, routines, etc.

Researchers’ commitment to these groups varies. Some researchers restrict their interactions to interviews, while others involve themselves in every aspect of their subjects’ lives.

In this type of participant observation, researchers live among different ethnic, cultural, or religious communities for long periods of time.

Covert And Overt

In covert participant observation, researchers do not inform their subjects of their presence and, if they do, do not identify themselves as investigators, whereas in open participant observation they do.

When the investigation is open, investigators often do not inform those they meet that they are investigators, nor do they inform them that they are researchers, as this could unnecessarily interrupt conversations and events.

Covert And Active

Observation by a participant in the conversion process has several advantages. Through participant observation, researchers can gain access to a group that they would not otherwise be able to observe. In addition, they can learn about the practices of the group as the members do.

In general, researchers can influence group behavior with their presence. However, in this form of participant observation, the groups are not aware of being observed so they do not consciously change their behavior.

Covert And Passive

In covert and passive participant observation, researchers are less likely to change the behavior of their subjects, since they do not actively engage with them and they are unaware that they are being observed.

As observation is passive, researchers cannot experience the lives of their subjects firsthand.

Open And Active

If observation is open and active, participants can participate in and experience their subjects’ activities as their subjects would. However, they also run the risk of changing the behavior of their subjects through their interactions with them. In addition, their subjects may change their behavior unknowingly because they are being observed.

Open And Passive

As with covert or passive participant observation, researchers do not run the risk of altering the behavior of the groups they study due to their interaction with them.

However, the guinea pig effect can be problematic for this form of observation. This is because it is unlike covert and passive participant observation since the participants are aware they are being watched. Additionally, researchers cannot experience the world as it is as subjects would.

Limitations To Any Participant Observation

  • Observations about a group of people or events are never enough to tell the full story.
  • This is due to the selective nature of any type of recordable data process: it is always influenced by the researcher’s views of what is relevant and significant.
  • Similarly, the researcher’s worldview affects how he or she interprets and evaluates the collected data.
  • It is possible that the researcher does not accurately portray what the participant is or does not understand the meaning of the participant’s words, thus drawing inaccurate generalizations about the participant’s perceptions.

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Participant Observation Methodology

Participant observation (PO) is a research method that involves immersing the researcher in the day-to-day activities of the participants. Typically, the goal is to record conduct under as many circumstances as possible. PO differs from naturalistic observation in this regard since naturalistic observation does not involve interactions between the researcher and participants.

PO had historically been associated with a form of research in which the researcher stayed for extended periods in a small community. PO is currently used in a wide variety of settings, and over long periods, from a single interaction to years.

The methodology has several inherent characteristics that can lead to ethical issues if not properly understood. Among them are the following.

  • Interaction between researchers and participants is often long-term.
  • The dynamics of the relationship, such as status differences between the parties, power differences, and educational differences, as well as levels of formality. Gender, class, health, and other factors may contribute to power differentials.
  • The variety of settings, from informal interpersonal interactions to public meetings and participation in social events.
  • Most of the time, the researcher will be conducting research in settings that are unfamiliar to her/him, making the researcher’s self-presentation and interactions with others more sensitive.
  • The ethical codes of the groups under study may differ from those in the researcher’s home country or institution. These principles may also be different from those followed by the host government, non-governmental organizations in the area, or funding agencies.
  • Changing roles and relationships between researchers over time.
  • Documentation of observations using technology, including mapping, photography, video, and audio recordings.

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Participant Observation: Advantages And Disadvantages

A list of PO’s advantages

1. It provides evidence that supports a proposed theory.

In participant observation, a large amount of qualitative data is collected that can be used for a variety of purposes. By doing so, researchers can gain a clear picture of how people live and interact. Individuals involved in this work witness these social encounters personally, making the first-hand information useful for proving the validity of proposed theories.

Since it is based on direct observations, it can also be used to prove or disprove particular theories.

2. Participant observation provides researchers with high levels of flexibility.

The participant observation method is more flexible than other methods that use this approach for qualitative research. Researchers are able to keep an open mind by following up on different ideas, theories, and directions if something interesting occurs while they are working.

When participants first begin their participant observation work, they are able to find answers to questions they may not have known to ask. In participant observation, something that does not fit an expectation is not subject to the same rules as those that apply to quantitative methods.

3. Participant observation provides more insights.

Participant observation allows researchers to develop empathy by sharing their experiences with the targeted demographic. Each participant gets to act as a member of that small group, which allows more insight into specific points of view, social values, and the meaning of other actions. Factual data are provided instead of assumptions about people’s behaviors or decisions.

4. It provides practical advantages to data collection that other methods cannot provide.

When a specific demographic has trust issues with researchers or people who live in isolation, accessing these groups is difficult. It is natural for individuals to be suspicious of anything that is unfamiliar to them. Participant observation allows data collectors to gain more trust and rapport with groups so that we can learn more about them.

Participant observation is useful for studying gangs, juvenile delinquency, and religious indoctrination based on cults.

5. Participant observation can provide insight into changing attitudes.

Qualitative research does not always have to be focused on the big picture. This approach is often used by businesses to capture changing attitudes about specific consumer products or services. It can also be used by businesses to assess changing workplace perspectives. A proactive way of tackling ideas or circumstances that could be problematic if left unchecked can ensure the survival of a project, idea, or commercial venture.

6. It opens the door to speculation among researchers.

Researchers utilize participant observation to gather data regarding the areas they choose to study within a population group through speculative means. Changing decisions regarding how to gather this information are also part of the learning process. This means that someone can act on instinct to determine where useful information is available rather than relying on structures designed by someone outside of the target demographic.

7. There are more ways for researchers to produce real results.

When participant observation is used as the primary data collection method, the targeting processes of qualitative research become evident. In this way, a sampling group can compare the processes, parts, and participants of an entire organization or demographic all at once. It helps speed up the process of gathering information to prove or disprove an idea while keeping overall project costs down compared to other methods.

8. The information gathered by participant observation is predictive.

Even though the data gathered by researchers through participant observation are difficult to generalize, they do possess a protective quality. In other words, if a similar group of people experiences an equal set of variables, their experiences will be somewhat similar. We can see how people might react in future situations when they have specific experiences or values that drive their decision-making processes.

9. Observing participants can be an open-ended process.

In quantitative research, there is a well-defined beginning and end to the data collection process. In qualitative research, such as participant observation, an open-ended approach is used. This method can continue as long as funding continues to be provided for the work, even though a defined starting point is essential for almost any information-gathering effort.

As a result, researchers can get beyond the superficial responses some people give, so that the information they can access is based on their rational thinking processes.

10. They provide insight into an individual’s or group’s attitude.

The human species is a creature of habit, even though people can be unpredictable. A similar set of circumstances tends to make each person react in the same way. The reason for this is most people prefer routines. Participant observation can turn these activities into usable data for studies in marketing, psychology, anthropology, and other fields.

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List Of The Disadvantages Of PO

1. There is a high risk of bias entering the data from participant observation.

To collect authentic data, researchers must be directly involved with the demographic they are studying. There is a severe risk of participating in the social dynamics of those individuals. This means that the information collected has a higher risk of bias than it would be in other forms of qualitative research. When someone begins to sympathize with the perspectives or attitudes of the research group, the information is no longer reliable.

2. The sample size of the study is relatively small.

The participant observation method works well when researchers have the opportunity to study a small sample size directly. When the targeted demographic is so narrow, it is almost impossible to draw generalizations from the data being gathered that influence the rest of society. Information is only applicable to a small group of individuals. This time-consuming approach may not be beneficial unless the theory or idea under discussion can receive direct study through the group in question.

3. It takes a lot of time to collect factual data using participant observation.

Before participant observation studies start producing results, they require several years of data collection. Having trained researchers who can establish rapport with a targeted demographic is essential. This is in addition to their willingness to become part of that demographic for the duration of the project. When covert methods are the only way to gather information, it can become extremely stressful.

Another reason why bias can creep into data collection is this disadvantage. As a result of spending so much time with people, it is difficult to avoid forming relationships with them that have an impact on you.

4. This qualitative research method raises ethical questions.

The disadvantage of participant observation is unique to covert methods that can be used to gather data. If researchers must lie to individuals about who they are or what they do, direct observations may not be entirely accurate. The act of deceiving people to get research information about them is typically not acceptable. There may be ethical choices to be made about participating in an immoral or illegal activity during the research process.

5. Data collected through self-selection can be biased due to self-selection.

Self-selection can be problematic when researchers put out a call for participants to gather qualitative data. People who readily volunteer for projects like this often have a specific agenda they wish to accomplish. Therefore, the information that is gathered through participant observation is not authentic, even if it appears to be so.

This disadvantage can only be overcome by distributing the individuals in the studied demographic so that no one can unduly influence the information-gathering process. So quantitative influences can sometimes undermine the benefits of participant observation.

6. Participant observation is heavily dependent on the skills of the researcher.

To collect data using the participant observation method, researchers need to know where to look for data and how to ask the right questions. By failing to recognize that some information might not be accurate or available (or vice versa), errors can be introduced that would affect the outcome of this work. A critical insight can be missed if you do not ask the right questions.

7. Data collected through participant observation is somewhat subjective.

During participant observation, researchers have complete control over the information they want to gather.

As a result, the perspective of the person collecting the information can affect the results in a way that they would prefer. Similarly, if one researcher believes that the pursuit of a data tangent is worthless, and another feels that it is a critical element to a successful outcome, the information that each gathers will have a different purpose.

8. Participant observation collects situation-specific data.

Humans remember things in unique ways. This means that the interaction between the participant and the researchers is crucial to the success of this work. Without clear documentation and transcription, there will be less data rigidity in the final postulation. A majority of people make decisions in the heat of the moment rather than taking a logical and well-thought-out stance – particularly in reactionary circumstances.

Thus, participant observation captures more of a snapshot in time than a long-term perspective. It can provide useful data in a variety of industries, but it does not have value when considering future circumstances.

9. Replicating the results of participant observation can be challenging.

The subjective nature of participant observation and qualitative research means that it may be difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate the results in the future. Thus, the findings from these efforts may not be accepted in some scientific and sociological circles. Although a highly structured study in a specific population group may get independent verification, the boundaries one would have to create would tend to turn this work more toward quantitative research.

10. Researchers must be familiar with the subject matter they study.

Observation studies are most successful when researchers are familiar with the population group and the theory under study. When neither of these elements is present among the group of workers who will collect data, then the lack of understanding can lead to information not being collected. This is even when someone with experience might identify it as useful data.

It would be difficult for a journalist to conduct an interview about magnetic fields if their experience is in sports reporting. Would they know the right questions to ask? Does the respondent have enough understanding of the subject to pursue a tangent if one occurs? This is why qualitative research is often seen as weaker than quantitative research unless the skills of the people who gather the data can be verified.

11. The analysis does not provide a statistical representation of the interventions gathered.

Qualitative research, including participant observation, collects data on individual perspectives, reactions, and responses. This means the information gathered during this work cannot be measured as there are no structures available to do so. The information can be used to compare how specific situations occur within distinct population groups. Despite this, is no way to provide a quantitative sample or statistical representation of what is presented.

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Ethical Conduct

In order to conduct PO ethically, it is imperative for researchers to reflect on the general principles outlined in the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS) and how they can best be applied to PO. They should consider the following when completing the ethics protocol.

  • Methodology: As much as possible, researchers should describe the contexts of PO, what possible interactions might be involved, how data will be collected, the kinds of issues that might be discussed more formally, and detail the anticipated process. The limitations of predicting what will happen during research are acceptable, but the specifics that can be anticipated should be stated.
  • Participants: Describe the people and discuss ethical issues that may arise in the context of the research. Unless they are relevant to your methods, sample size and inclusion/exclusion criteria can be ignored. The researcher should also explain how s/he plans to enter the field and make people more aware of his/her presence and the nature of the research project.
  • Potential harms: According to the nature of the research and the vulnerability of the group, the researcher should provide as much detail as possible regarding the extent and variety of potential harm to participants. Violations of confidentiality may have severe repercussions depending on the risk of harm involved.
  • Privacy and confidentiality: Researchers should state how they will safeguard data once they are collected and how they will handle sensitive information. The data security requirements outlined in other University policies and guidelines should be followed. Researchers should discuss how they would respond to a request for information if there is a foreseeable risk that information may be requested by third parties.
  • Informed consent: Researchers should elaborate on the appropriateness of a particular informed consent process (written or verbal) for the setting/group studied and include a mechanism for informing the community/group/individuals about the researcher’s identity, purpose, and the topic of the research and method; appropriateness of seeking informed consent from group leaders or spokespersons; and the informal/formal means of obtaining informed consent, given the setting/group studied. In certain contexts, it is appropriate to explain any ethical dilemmas that may arise or limitations to ideal procedures.


In order to conduct participant observation, researchers must become subjective participants. This is in the sense that they use information gained from personal involvement to interact with or gain further access to the group under investigation. Surveys and direct interviews often lack a dimension of information when conducted.

The method also requires researchers to be objective and record all that happens around them without letting their emotions or feelings influence their findings.

While reviewing the advantages and disadvantages of participant observation, it is imperative to keep in mind that authentic objectivity is an ideal state. Despite this, it is rarely realized in practice. We all see the world through different lenses because of our environment, personal choices, and individualized influences. In other words, the only researcher who is 100% accurate is an unbiased individual who is familiar with the small demographic in question.

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What are participant observation examples?

Participants observe and participate in a hospital over a period of nine months in order to gain an understanding of the perspectives and experiences of nurses and patients.

What are the four types of participant observation roles?

Four different positions on a continuum of participant observation roles are:

  1. Complete participant
  2. Participant-as-observer
  3. Observer-as-participant
  4. Complete observer

What is the technique of participant observation?

In participant observation, sometimes referred to as ethnographic research, a sociologist actually becomes a part of the group they are studying. This allows them to gather data and understand the phenomena they are studying.

Why is participant observation used?

Participant observation helps us see and understand what people are doing, which we can compare with what they say. By doing so, we can find out if people are doing something different from what they claim to do.

What is the key element of participant observation?

In some ways, participant observation is both the most natural and the most challenging method of collecting qualitative data. By immersing and participating, the researcher discovers the hows and whys of human behavior in a particular context.

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