Participant Observation Research Paper

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Participant observation has been part of the arsenal of methodological techniques employed by social scientists since around 1900, notably within the discipline of sociology. Participant observation involves the active engagement of the researcher with the members the community that he or she wishes to study, typically as an equal member of the group.



This methodology falls under the general rubric of field research. It is important to recognize that there exist alternative styles of ‘field research’: a range of possibilities that this chapter will not cover. However, in contrast to the manner in which observational research has traditionally been conducted in anthropology, in sociology much ethnography is based on the assumption that the researcher is at least nominally a participant in the group being studied. Yet, the line that separates participant observation and other forms of ethnographic observation is uncertain and hazy, and for some scholars the two terms have been used as synonyms.

Since the mid-1970s there has been a notable increase in the frequency and the legitimacy of the variety of field methodologies within the social sciences. These qualitative, interpretive strategies, once considered ‘unscientific,’ have demonstrated their utility in a number of disciplines. That this occurred during a period in which social scientific funding was being decreased is surely no coincidence. Although at the beginning of the twenty-first century qualitative field methods do not have the same standing as quantitative methods (especially in psychology and economics), their growth is astonishing.

1. Advantages

Several distinct advantages justify participant observation; among these are the benefits of rich data, validity, Verstehen, and economy.

1.1 Richness

This methodology, in contrast to most methods that do not involve personal witnessing, provides for rich and detailed data. To investigate action, direct observation is essential. When this is coupled with the questioning of actors about their choices, tied to some measure of active involvement, the value of participant observation is evident. The form of data collection permits an intense depiction that produces a fullness of understanding.

1.2 Validity

A second benefit is analytical validity. Because the observations are of behavior in situ, the researcher can rely upon the claim that the findings are close to the ‘proper’ depiction of the scene. If the conclusions drawn from participant observation research are not always reliable, in that other investigators might reach different conclusions, they do reflect the belief that some aspect of the world as it ‘truly’ is, is being described.

1.3 Interpretive Understanding

Participant observation supports the demand of Max Weber to produce research that is characterized by Verstehen or a personal understanding. In this way participant observation with its emphasis on both participation and observation adds to research knowledge. By directly involving the researcher in the activity, one can understand on an immediate level the dynamics and motivations of behavior. The observer becomes other than an outsider. While research projects differ significantly on this dimension, involvement has advantages for a verstehende analysis that other approaches can not match.

1.4 Economy

Participant observation research is typically inexpensive. While this research strategy is surely laborintensive, it is not capital-intensive. In many cases the researcher is the only member of the project, and can set the terms of his or her own involvement. Increasingly, however, team-research projects exist as well, and in these cases wages and benefits for hired observers may involve considerable costs. Yet, in the standard participant observation project the key resources consist of a technology for inscribing observations. Perhaps for reasons of cost, connected to the time and energy involved, participant observation has proven to be a technique most typically engaged in by scholars at the early stages of their academic careers.

2. Disadvantages

Just as there are significant advantages to this methodology, disadvantages are evident. Problems relate to proof, generalizability, bias, and time commitments.

2.1 Proof

Participant observation relies upon a single case study: the examination of one place. This raises questions about the nature of proof, or, put another way, about reliability. Will two researchers examining the same or similar social scenes reach the same conclusions? Often because of different perspectives upon entering the field and different experiences within the field, findings are sharply distinct. While the observations and interpretations of those observations may be compelling, one can reasonably wonder whether any set of conclusions is definitive.

2.2 Generalizability

Even if we accept the legitimacy of analyzing one scene, on what grounds can we generalize beyond that setting? How far can our conclusions be pushed? Participant observation research has a problem in this regard because of the absence of scientific control that characterizes experimental research and produces confidence in the claim that important variables of social life have been adequately captured. As a result, the extent to which generalizability is legitimate is problematic in participant observation. Participant observers need to present a theoretical model that helps readers to judge the legitimacy of their broader claims in light of the audience’s own experiences.

2.3 Bias

A strength of participant observation methodology is that the researcher’s insight and perspective is taken into account, but this strength has a downside. One cannot adequately distinguish between perspective and bias. The background that the researcher brings to a scene can be distinctively different from other researchers, and, for that matter, from the perspectives of the participants in the setting. To the extent that the researcher’s perspectives differ significantly from the perspectives of the participants—possible because of the generally progressive values and upper middle class status of academics—the understanding of a particular scene may be systematically biased.

2.4 Time

Just as participant observation research is relatively inexpensive, it is also highly labor intensive. This form of research requires that the researcher be present in the observed social scene. One cannot simply fly in and out, but must spend sufficient time so that the full range of activities in which participants engage are noted. Much participant observation depends upon chance—what happens to occur at the moment of observation—and, as a result, a significant investment of time is needed. While there is no definitive rule for the proper length of time necessary for observation, most projects require months, if not years, to complete. This, coupled with a modest requirement for capital equipment support means that, as noted, this methodology is particularly appropriate for younger scholars. This reality can mean that participant observation studies often do not have the depth of theoretical understanding that more likely characterizes the work of senior scholars.

3. The Growth And Development Of Participant Observation

Although participant observation methodology has deep roots in ethnographic traditions (including in traveler’s tales and missionary tales), participant observation has its origins in the discipline of sociology at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly with scholars affiliated with the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. Notable in this early stage was the participant observation studies of Annie Marion MacLean, a student at Chicago and later professor at Adelphi University. MacLean worked and observed in department stores, sweatshops, and coalfields, in order to gain an appreciation of conditions in these scenes. By the 1920s participant observation was well established in Chicago, as evidenced in studies by Frances Donovan on the lives of waitresses and Frederic Thrasher’s observations of gang life. Although members of the ‘Chicago school’ of sociology employed numerous methodological techniques, the group was probably best known for their observational research and life stories. By mid-century participant observation had expanded well beyond the bounds of Chicago. Works such as William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society (1943), August Hollingshead’s Elmtown’s Youth (1949), Arthur Vidich and Joseph Bensman’s Small Town in Mass Society (1958), and Herbert Gans’s The Urban Villagers (1962), collectively demonstrated that through involvement in a community, the researcher could gain a perspective that was both empirically and theoretically powerful. The fact that many of these research projects covered life in city environments led some to describe this approach as ‘urban ethnography’. Another stream of ‘participant observation’ research was grounded in the study of deviant groups and activities. Researchers in such domains have the dilemma of determining the degree to which participation should bolster their observation. Exemplifying such research are studies of the mentally ill, gang members, and drug dealers, notably the classic works by Erving Goffman Asylums (1961), and Elliott Liebow, Tally’s Corner (1967). These two themes —urban life and social deviance—have been integral to participant observation, and despite reduced interest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, scholars, such as Elijah Anderson, Mitchell Duneier, David Snow, and Carol Stack have returned to these themes, creating a ‘new urban ethnography’ that focuses on issues of urban poverty and racial injustice.

Not all researchers focus on ‘problem domains.’ Beginning with the inspiration of the Hawthorne studies, and later the research of Donald Roy and Melville Dalton, increasing attention has been paid to observations of work places. The participant observation of organizational life has developed rapidly, creating an active investigation of organizational domains, both in traditional social science departments and within schools of management. Factories, airlines, restaurants, and high tech engineering firms have all been the focus of research. Yet, all social worlds in which individuals with a common interest meet can be analyzed through participant observation, whether clubs, sports teams, or bars.

4. Comparison With Other Field Methods

It is easy to assert that participant observation is synonymous with qualitative research, and, in reality, the lines are blurred. However, participant observation can be contrasted with several other techniques with which it shares some commonalties. Some scholars engage in ‘ethnographic immersion.’ In such investigations, the researcher becomes a full member of the group, and, in effect, studies his or her own group. This has the advantage that the researcher comes by his or her ‘member’s knowledge’ naturally, but simultaneously the immersion may diminish the ability to examine the group life from the critical perspective that being marginal sometimes brings. Most participant observation maintains a distinction between the researcher and the full member of the group studied. Typically members are told that they are being observed—an outsider, who, for purposes of the study, may participate actively in the life of the group, even though she or he is not a full member.

A second technique, related to ethnographic immersion, has been labeled ‘auto-ethnography,’ akin to the methodology of introspectionism of the early years of the twentieth century. In these studies, the researcher mines his or her life experiences, hoping to demonstrate the embodied characteristics of social forces. One such example is Carolyn Ellis’s emotional and analytical account of her own reaction to the lengthy dying of her significant other. This writing, while occasionally powerful, insightful, and moving, can be faulted for its reliance on subjective experience. Auto-ethnography might be seen as an extreme instance of total immersion, with nothing outside the researcher’s experience; given this, such arguments become difficult for others to evaluate. The author proposes a singular account of her emotions that because it is her account leaves no room for alternative interpretations.

A third, related approach is to collect data by means of in-depth interviews. Most participant observation involves questioning of informants. However, some research relies on this questioning to the exclusion of direct observation. This method has the advantage of permitting the researcher to gain multiple perspectives of the same scene and permits the investigation of domains to which it might be impossible to gain direct access. However, in-depth interviews limit the researcher to the presentations of interested parties. The rhetoric in interviews may be systematically different from the private thoughts of the informant and may also differ from their behavior. Observations provide a check on what one is told for reasons of impression management. As always, triangulation of data provides advantages, curbing the weakness of any one methodology.

Fourth, some researchers de-emphasize participation, and are, in practice, pure observers. Some observers make precise statistical measurements of public behaviors, but this approach is distinct from participant observation. More relevant are those scholars who examine public behavior, particularly behavior within cities. This distinguished tradition of scholarship includes such researchers as William H. Whyte, Erving Goffman, Lyn Lofland, and, more recently, Carol Brooks Gardner. A close reading of street activity, perhaps parallel to certain forms of animal ethology, permits the recognition of patterns of human activity.

Of course, within participant observation, researchers select various roles or strategies. The key dimension on which roles can be differentiated is the extent to which members are involved within group life. Adler and Adler (1987) divide participant observation methods according to the extent of participation: peripheral membership, active membership, and complete membership. In general, the peripheral member observes as an outsider to the group and its culture, the active member is directly engaged in the life of the group, while making it clear to the group that she or he does not fully belong and is conducting research. In the model of the Adlers, the complete observer essentially engages in ethnographic immersion, sometimes informing the group of the research goals.

5. Strategies Of Participant Observation

Unlike many techniques of quantitative research and statistical analysis, there are no firm and fast rules that determine how participant observation research should be conducted. Such a reality has proven frustrating to generations of students. Traditionally a novice learned the skills of participant observation through what amounted to an apprenticeship relation with a senior researcher. However, because of the increasing numbers of field researchers, many social science departments, notably in sociology and anthropology, have instituted field methods courses in which some rudimentary ‘rules’ and strategies of the method are taught.

5.1 Access

Often the first issue that must be confronted in a research project is the question of access. How does one convince a group that they should open their space to an outsider who may criticize the group? This is surely applicable to groups that are widely perceived as deviant (criminal gangs or politically marginal movements), but it also recognizes that any group, striving to maintain boundaries that differentiate it from others, may engage in some activities that members wish to keep hidden from outsiders and which could be viewed negatively. Participant observers must, within the limits of their ethical standards, convince the group that they can be trusted. Through this process they set ‘the rules of engagement.’ Such rules, explicit or implicit, differ for each project. Further, this access involves an ongoing temporal process. One is rarely accepted all at once, but often the group maintains a cautious vigilance until they become satisfied that the researcher can be trusted. The participant observer must be sensitive to this personal equation.

5.2 Socialization

Access is only a first step. Once the researcher gains entrance to a setting he or she must determine what behavior means. In effect, the participant observer must become socialized to the environment with its norms, cultural traditions, and jargon. The ease of this process varies as a consequence of how well acquainted the researcher is with the setting prior to the observation, but unless the researcher begins as a full member, a process of acculturation must typically be mastered. At times, the group may become frustrated by the lack of competence of the observer, but more often this process of learning is valuable in methodological terms, permitting the researcher to ask questions that would be denied to others as being too obvious.

5.3 Developing Relationships

Participant observation is a methodology that depends upon the establishment of relationships. It relies upon sociability. One essential skill is the ability to recruit informants from the field. The most important of these are termed ‘key informants,’ such as Doc in William Foote Whyte’s (1943) classic Street Corner Society. These individuals serve both a guides for the participant observer and as a means of vouching for the researcher’s legitimacy within the setting, providing an insider’s stamp of approval. The researcher who lacks the ability to make connections will have difficulty collecting credible research data.

5.4 Field Notes

The researcher does not only need to observe activity, but must subsequently inscribe that material in ‘field notes,’ documents that serve as the evidentiary basis of the published report. Considerable discussion has addressed what constitutes appropriate field notes and how these notes should be presented (Van Maanen 1988). These notes provide the ‘facts’ that are observed, including actions, statements, and the feelings of the observer. Participant observers are enjoined to write as much of what transpires as possible, particularly in the early stages of the research, when one is determining what issues are most salient. This emphasizes that participant observation is often an inductive methodology, with the field data revealing the important issues, rather than testing pre-established hypotheses.

5.5 Exit Strategies

Much research simply ends. Once completed, the project closes down. Exiting is not as simple in participant observation because the researcher and informants have developed social ties. Leaving the field involves the termination of a set of powerful relationships, and sometimes produces loneliness or even betrayal. As a result, the process of disengagement often involves a longer period, and some connection with the field setting continues. Researchers are often advised—both for practical and ethical reasons—to share material with their informants, either to gain additional feedback or to permit those informants to use the analysis for their own ends. The linkages that are established during the course of the observation can be a continuing source of strength, both for researchers and for informants.

6. Ethical Concerns

Although all forms of research involving human subjects raise ethical issues, the variety of ethical concerns in participant observation are particularly great because of the degree of interpersonal dynamics involved. Four ethical issues have been central to participant observation research: deception, informed consent, confidentiality, and precision of depiction. Although these do not exhaust potential ethical topics, they raise important concerns.

6.1 Deception

Most participant observers agree that it is both pragmatically and ethically necessary to announce to one’s informants that one is conducting research. In part, this is because participant observation depends on the personal relations among individuals, who, for that period of time, are status peers. To claim to be something that one is not—to pretend to be a full member of the group—without revealing one’s purpose could undermine the entire enterprise if it becomes discovered. Lies are often difficult to maintain for long periods. Further, deception suggests that one’s interests take priority over the interests of another: can we justify such trickery? While research on groups that wish to keep their activities hidden— either deviant groups or, occasionally, elite groups— encourage deceptive practices, such strategies are troublesome.

6.2 Informed Consent

Deception involves the active misleading of others, but how should we view the absence of full disclosure? Do group members have the right to know that they are being investigated? For instance, one can easily join a leisure group without announcing that one is taking notes or planning to publish. Is this proper? As noted, good reasons may exist for announcing one’s presence, permitting one’s informants to serve, in effect, as research assistants. But should researchers be required to gain the ‘informed consent’ of their informants; further, how much information is necessary for informed consent, particularly in a research methodology that depends on inductive methods, in which the researcher may truly not be aware of what issues will eventually become central? One’s topics depend on what one observes. During the past quarter century, American universities have instituted ‘ethics’ committees (Human Subjects Committees or Institutional Review Boards), designed to protect the ‘rights’ of research subjects. Frequently researchers are required to gain some measure of informed consent, but how much information is required remains a matter of debate.

6.3 Confidentiality

One element that most (although not all) researchers agree on is that informants’ names and clearly identifying information not be included in any published research report, although some who critically examine elites feel that confidentiality is not essential. In general, researchers typically believe that publishing the names or identifiers of particular informants or settings is neither necessary nor warranted. At times this decision poses a problem in that field notes may describe actions or statements that can be recognized, certainly by others within the scene. As a result, participant observers must choose how much information to alter to preserve confidentiality, even when this shades the full ‘facts’ of the case.

6.4 Precision Of Description

Although it is clearly desirable to present data that is precisely accurate—direct quotations and exact descriptions of behavior—participant observation methodology and the limits of human ability make these values unattainable goals (Fine 1993). In part, we are imperfect in inscribing reality, but in part we may recognize that the details of human activity may actually obscure our crucial analytical points. For instance, false starts, errors, and grammatical infelicities mark the speech of informants, like the speech of researchers themselves. Further, so much behavior is happening at any given moment that the researcher can easily become overloaded with trivial observations. The ethical balance that must be struck is to do justice to the events that are transpiring, while simultaneously making the account as clear as possible to permit communication with readers.

7. Summary

This brief overview has examined central features of the participant observation methodology. In doing so, it de-emphasized both the strategies of analysis (the extended case study method, grounded theory) used by practitioners and the modes of presentation (realist tales, impressionist tales). No method of data collection can exist without related techniques by which data are analyzed and presented.

Throughout the twentieth century, participant observation proved to be a powerful technique through which researchers understood a diverse set of social worlds in a way that did justice to the complexity of the activities of group members and to their own perspectives and understandings. While this methodology benefits by the triangulation with other styles of research to create adequate theoretical understanding, participant observation provides the basis by which researchers can understand the richness of the social settings that they—and others—inhabit.


  1. Adler P A, Adler P 1987 Membership Roles in Field Research. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA
  2. Fine G A 1993 Ten lies of ethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22: 267–94
  3. Gans H 1962 Urban Villagers. Free Press, Glencoe, IL
  4. Goffman E 1961 Asylums. Anchor, New York
  5. Hollingshead A 1949 Elmtown’s Youth. Wiley, New York
  6. Liebow E 1967 Tally’s Corner. Little Brown, Boston
  7. Van Maanen J 1988 Tales of the Field. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  8. Vidich A, Bensman J 1958 Small Town in Mass Society. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  9. Whyte W F 1943 Street Corner Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago


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