5 Aug 2022


Participant Observation: Definition, Methods & Examples

Format: APA

Academic level: University

Paper type: Research Paper

Words: 3440

Pages: 11

Downloads: 0

Does everyone understand what it means to join the group to be studied as a researcher and follow up on their activities for day practicing in all their activities? Does the presence of the researcher mean that more information will be obtained during the study? As a research strategy, participatory observation has been for long been used to obtain information on various fields that may include communication studies, sociology, cultural anthropology, and even social psychology . The underlying aim of this kind of research study is that the researcher will seek to gain a deeper understanding of the intended research groups . Sometimes it is impossible to gain intimate familiarity about issues of a specific group without having a keen consideration of how the people live as well as the various aspects of their culture that they hold dear . Various researchers have delved into the topic of participant observation by focusing on its effectiveness as well as how it compared with other research studies that exist which may include interviews, focus groups, and even participatory action research . 


Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas have been noted to be the main pioneers of this method and their contributions to the development of participant observation have been enormous ( Laurier, 2016) . Sociology has been a field that has widely adopted this method . The main area where this form of study is used widely today includes the qualitative sociology . For the method to be effective, the researcher has to be a subjective participant in that they will have to use the information that they have obtained from interacting with the communities to get a deeper understanding of the various aspects of the society they are investigating . The researcher has to be keen and record or that he or she has seen and observed . It is advisable that the observer has to be free of influence by emotions while they are taking observations in the group they are observing . This might affect the quality of the findings in the study . It is always recommended that the researchers must remain objective throughout the research period . Beings elf aware in the process is essential in informing of any bias that might exist which in turn will affect the quality of findings in the study . A highlight of this method has seen people take sides, especially on its effectiveness . Some think that it is a good method to be used in the collection of data in the field but there is another group that is skeptical about the effectiveness of this research method . The method is essential in the field of research because of providing information that is valid, insightful, allows for flexibility, as well as dynamism (Sedano et al . , 2020) . The paper will highlight why the participant observation method is effective in the field of research . 

It’s time to jumpstart your paper!

Delegate your assignment to our experts and they will do the rest.

Get custom essay


To start with, participant observation can be noted to be an effective method of providing valid information . This is achieved through the provision of a clear image of the lives of people where the research has been done . All this is made possible because of the fact that the researcher is included in the daily lives of the people and thus gets firsthand information on the various activities that they are involved in (Rice at al . , 2017) . The method heavily relies on the ability of the researcher to observe and interpret what is going on and thus the information is more valid . Unlike other methods that might use limited specimens in the study, participant observation ensures that the right information has been collected from the sample group . Every information is given as observed and thus there is less occurrence of bias because the observer does not get influenced by external factors while making the observations . By portraying the true picture of what is outside there, it is easy to make conclusions on what has been studied . The research can observe what people do and not what they do . It is a contrast to many research methods which are normally concerned with reporting because of the lack of primary data like the one that is obtained from the participant observation method . 

Another aspect that makes this method much valid is the fact that the observations take place in natural settings ( Kostis et al . , 2019) . This is what differentiates the method with formal interviews or the observations that are made in the laboratories . In this method, the Hawthorne's effect is much reduced . The feeling of the respondents' actions in context allows the researcher to make the right observations unlike when the research is done in an artificial environment . The results can be believable owing to the fact that the researcher spends sometime with the group he or she is studying . During this time, it is possible that there are bonds that might develop and these are key in providing information that is right without any bias . In most cases, the researcher will be allowed to dig deeper into the topic of study and thus gaining a deeper understanding of issues without much struggle (Shah, 2017) . This can lead to the discovery of valid information that can give the true picture of what the community is like . Authentic data is easily obtainable in the case where the researcher has ensured that he has a closeness with the main group that he or she is studying . More personal data can be obtained through this strategy and this can work to the advantage of the research as a whole . 

Participant Observation allows for Flexibility 

Many methods of collecting data mean that the observer will need to have preset questions or agenda before starting to collect data (Pass, 2020) . The common case is in the use of questionnaires . In most cases, researchers will have questions that are ready which the subjects will be asked during a study . The same does not apply to the participant observation . There are no pre-set questions or any considerations of what is important before the research begins just like any other method of research . Participant Observation allows for researchers to be open-minded about what they will be observed in the field and this is important in helping come up with the right conclusions . The things that are important in the research study might keep changing as the study goes on in most cases . this is important in avoiding questions that might not be as much important to the subject . Sometimes the researcher might regard highly some questions but the same does not apply with what the subject will see as being important . Flexibility is an important aspect of research because it allows the researcher to be open to new ideas and gather more information than the one that would be gathered in the case where flexibility was not allowed for . 

The method is important from the perspective that the researcher will be gathering data with an open mind in the research . Open-mindedness means that the research will receive diverse ideas from the audience that may include some issues that he or she was not aware of before (Roulet et al . , 2017) . Even if any new situations might crop up along the way during research, it is possible that the researcher can follow up on them without the fear that he or she is deviating from the main objective of the study . It is common for other methods to strictly adhere to the predetermined questions and this has its disadvantages . There is no new information that can be gathered because of the fear that this will be against what was agreed to form the start of the study . In any research, there are new ideas that may crop up and the best way to ensure a research study is comprehensive is by allowing for the new ideas to be integrated to the existing ideas . The information might prove to be of great importance to the researcher in gaining more insight into the topic of study from a perspective that was not expected from the start . Participant observation gives the researcher the power to be flexible and gain as much information and new data as possible . 

Reaching to all Types of Audiences 

There are different kinds of research methods that are restrictive on the kind of audience that they can attend . When a research study is using questionnaires to gather information, it means that the audience has to have the ability to read and write for them to answer the various questions in most cases . There are groups of people in society that might prove to be hard to reach when using the other methods of study ( Sánchez-Jankowski & Abramson, 2019) . Participant observation makes it easy for all people to be included in a study . The language barrier has been a common phenomenon in research as it prevents gaining the right information if the researcher and the subject are not in agreement in the kind of language that is being used in the study . Most research recommends that there are interpreters that will help in translating the languages to make the process easier . This is not the same case with participant observation that uses observations as the main method of getting information . It is possible to make various observations as needed without having to be forced to let the local people that are under study to understand what is contained in the questionnaires . By observation, the researcher can get all the information that he or she requires . 

There are groups of people in the world that are suspicious of people from the outside . These groups are hard to reach and thus the right form of methods has to be employed in gaining information from them . Some groups are secretive while others are not welcoming to ideas of getting to know about them . Groups such as gangs prove to be hard to get information from especially when using methods such as the questionnaires . The best way to gain information from such groups has been participant observation . Questioning will prove to be very ineffective in this case and thus the best step to take in this case is ensuring that observations are made from within the group . Accessing the groups will ensure that the participant has had the opportunity to get all the information that he or she requires in the process . The method allows the researcher to gain rapport as well as the trust of the members of these groups that are hard to gain access to . More information can be then obtained upon the groups trusting the researcher and thus this makes this method much more effective compared to the other methods that are widely used to gather information . 

The Method is Ethical 

The method is respondent led and thus it means that it has ethical considerations in it . Consent is an important point in any research as it is a requirement that the permission of the participant has to be obtained before they are included in the research . Informed consent in most cases means that the participants are fully informed of the information that they are providing and the various ways that the data will be used (Roulet et al . , 2016) . This is important in ensuring that they are not forced to provide information that they are not most comfortable with . Voluntary participation is important in allowing the participants to make a rational decision on the kind of responses that they will be providing along the way . in participant observation, the researcher has to be allowed into the group of people for him or her to collect information from the group . One can't get the right kind of information from people without being among them . The ethical codes of various groups are varied and thus to gain information from these groups, the researcher has to ensure that he or she observes the various ethical codes . This makes the method much effective in observing ethical concerns of various groups compared to other methods . 

Reflecting on the general ethical principles while doing research is an important aspect (Parker, 2017) . This is achieved by using the right methodologies when explaining the potential interactions that will take place and the efforts that will ensure that everything has been observed as needed . The inclusion of everyone in the sample size is also ethical as it avoids any issues that might be as a result of partiality that may arise in the process . The consideration of potential harms is an important way of being considerate of the research group and taking care of their needs at all times . Ethical standards must be observed at all times in research and this includes ensuring that there are privacy and confidentiality of the information that has been collected . It is the duty of the researcher to come up with ways in which he or she will safeguard the information that has been obtained from the participants . Participant observation ensures that the information is obtained in the most confidential way at all times . It is the only way of taking care of the assurances and the trust of the people that participated in the research study at all times . 

It is Affordable and Eliminates Mediation 

This is an inexpensive method given that it involves the observation of a group or culture . The other methods of research mean that there are large groups of staff that are employed to collect data and huge amounts of money are used in the process . This means that it will need greater amounts of money and other resources to hire people, collect data, and still analyze the same data . Unlike these methods, the participant observation method only employs less staff and in most cases, it is only one person that is involved in the collection of information on the field . This is commonly done to ensure that there is a reduced impact on the situation that the researcher is working on as this can compromise the kind of results that will be obtained . It means that the researcher can fund his or her project without the need for intensive funding . When using the other methods, the researcher might seek external funding because of the need for many areas and most of them need huge amounts of money to be completed . Participant observation in most cases does not need a lot of resources as the researcher will only be concerned with observing what is going on and this is the same information that will be presented as the findings . 

Another thing that makes the nonparticipant observation methods expensive is the idea of the mediation . There are various forms of mediation that might be present in the case where survey, as well as other methods, are applied . This has a greater risk of allowing misinterpretation to take place and this can turn out to be quite expensive to the researcher . Some findings might not reflect the real situation on the group of study and this means that the researcher might be prompted to do another research study to get accurate results . Participant observation means that there is no exaggeration and the accurate data that is provided at the first point is the one that is used to the end . Hiring a mediator is also an expensive affair that can only be afforded by organizations and not those people who are researching on their own such as students . The participant observation allows for the researcher to be the mediator by himself and this is effective in saving money and also ensuring that the information obtained is the right one only . The findings can then be communicated accurately and objectively without having to spend huge amounts of money to do this . 

Counter Arguments 

Some people are opposed to the method citing that there are serious ethical concerns that are associated with this method . The main contention is that there are cases where deception has been used to gain information from participants . The opponents continue to note that this means that there are no ethical considerations and that this is wrong (Rahman, 2017) . Another issue is on the participation in what might be considered to be morally wrong in a society as a way of gaining information . The issue has been that the method might not gain the required information in most cases if no dubious method is used . What this group of people does not understand is that the information that is obtained in research is important in handling issues in society . For instance, if an individual infiltrates a criminal gang and obtains information about them, the information can be used to gain an understanding of how best to get rid of the crime in the long run . As long as the information that has been obtained is used for the greater good of the people, then there should be no concern about how unethical the process has been . The information that can be obtained using participant observation is much valid and can be applied easily in solving problems facing the world . 

Others have noted that the method is time-consuming . The demanding nature of the method means that the observer will get the advantage of getting all the information that he or she requires . Information that is obtained over a longer period of time is much valid compared to information that can be obtained in just a single day (Williams, 2018) . To get the right details about the study group, the researcher must ensure that they have followed every aspect and that all the details have been noted keenly . This needs time and thus the time that can be consumed in the research is much justified . The longer the period that is applied in research also means that it will help in getting rid of bias that might exist . Taking a shorter time to make observations might prompt for bias to be evident because the researchers will have not gained access to the right size of the population . Other methods also such as the use of survey questionnaires might need time too to get the right number of people to offer their views on issues . This means that participant observation aligns well with time requirements for any effective research study . 


The participant observation method allows the researcher to be part of the group that he or she is studying . Thus is effective in allowing them to collect the data that they want . In most cases, the method takes time to make observations and thus it might take longer compared to other methods of research . Despite the existence of many methods that are used in the collection of information, it is important to note that participant observation presents the best way to collect data from the subjects . The proponents note that the data that is obtained by the use of this method is valid compared to the other methods . This is because the researcher has the chance of getting firsthand information from the subjects . The method has been supported as it can be used to obtain information from groups that are hard to reach when other methods of study are used . The method is also ethical because of the consent, privacy, and confidentiality aspects that are involved . Compared to other methods, it can also be noted that it is much affordable because of the less amount of resources that are required in the process . Those opposing the method note that it is time-consuming and that sometimes it can violate ethical standards . The few disadvantages presented do not surpass the many benefits that come with the use of this method in the collection of information . There are cases where the study group is aware that the researcher is studying them and thus more information can be obtained and there are situations where the subjects are not aware that the sociologist is making observations about them and this is important in getting deep insights on issues . 


Kostis, W . J . , Dobrzynski, J . M . , & Kostis, J . B . (2019) . Advantages and Disadvantages of Clinical Trials . In Management of Hypertension  (pp . 215-238) . Springer, Cham . 

Laurier, E . (2016) . 11 Participant and Non-participant Observation .    Key methods in geography , 169 . 

Parker, L . D . (2017) . Participant observation at the coalface . In  The Routledge Companion to Qualitative Accounting Research Methods  (pp . 363-377) . Routledge . 

Pass, S . (2020) . Benefits of Boredom: An ‘Interlopers’ Experience of Conducting Participant Observation on the Production Line .    European Management Review

Rahman, M . S . (2017) . The Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches and Methods in Language" Testing and Assessment" Research: A Literature Review .    Journal of Education and Learning 6 (1), 102-112 . 

Rice, S . , Winter, S . R . , Doherty, S . , & Milner, M . (2017) . Advantages and disadvantages of using internet-based survey methods in aviation-related research .    Journal of Aviation Technology and Engineering 7 (1), 5 . 

Roulet, T . J . , Gill, M . J . , Stenger, S . , & Gill, D . J . (2017) . Reconsidering the value of covert research: The role of ambiguous consent in participant observation .    Organizational Research Methods 20 (3), 487-517 . 

Roulet, T . J . , Gill, M . J . , & Stenger, S . (2016) . Cloak-and-dagger organization research: benefits, costs & ethics of covert participant observation . In  Academy of Management Proceedings  (Vol . 2016, No . 1, p . 12336) . Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management . 

Sánchez-Jankowski, M . , & Abramson, C . M . (2019) . Foundations of the Behavioralist Approach to Comparative Participant Observation .    Beyond the Case: The Logics and Practices of Comparative Ethnography , 31 . 

Sedano, T . , Ralph, P . , & Péraire, C . (2017, May) . Lessons learned from an extended participant observation grounded theory study . In  2017 IEEE/ACM 5th International Workshop on Conducting Empirical Studies in Industry (CESI)  (pp . 9-15) . IEEE . 

Shah, A . (2017) . Ethnography? Participant observation, a potentially revolutionary praxis .    HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1), 45-59 . 

Williams, B . F . (2018) . Skinfolk, not kinfolk: Comparative reflections on the identity of participant-observation in two field situations . In  Feminist dilemmas in fieldwork  (pp . 72-95) . Routledge . 

Cite this page

Select style:


StudyBounty. (2023, September 16). Participant Observation: Definition, Methods & Examples.


Related essays

We post free essay examples for college on a regular basis. Stay in the know!

17 Sep 2023

Group Facilitation: Engagement and Authority

PART1 This was a part of the first group therapy session of a group of individuals. The group had both men and women of different backgrounds and personalities. The observation parameters that govern this sort...

Words: 883

Pages: 3

Views: 122

17 Sep 2023

Micro Client System

Discussion 1 In my career as a social worker, I have worked with client systems of all sizes. In their career and daily work, social workers interact with all client systems in assisting individuals suffering...

Words: 789

Pages: 3

Views: 176

17 Sep 2023

Food Policy and Habits

The survival of human being depends on the food. Globally, food is known to be more than a source of nutrients and energy for human well-being. The food we eat, how we eat, who we eat with, when we eat, and what we...

Words: 382

Pages: 1

Views: 147

17 Sep 2023

Culture, Ethnocentrism, and Cultural Relativism

Since the middle Stone Age, human beings are considered as social creatures, from those days people have identified and associated with each other as a community to live and survive. Common behavior and habits unite...

Words: 1321

Pages: 5

Views: 72

17 Sep 2023

Client Population and Problem Addressed by the Program

A considerable number of Americans are not consuming the right amount of vegetables and fruits. As of 2013, about 13% of the entire USA population was consuming the required daily intake of fruits (one and a half to...

Words: 1367

Pages: 4

Views: 155

17 Sep 2023

Community Observation: How to Get Started

The meeting attended was a legislative meeting of the Board of Directors of the School District of Cheltenham Township. The meeting was held on Tuesday, February 19, 2019, at 7:16p.m in the Administration Building,...

Words: 1513

Pages: 5

Views: 115


Running out of time?

Entrust your assignment to proficient writers and receive TOP-quality paper before the deadline is over.