With its origins in ethnography, participant observation is defined by Marshall and Rossman (Designing qualitative research, Newbury Park: Sage, 1989, p. 79) as “the systematic description of events, behaviors, and artifacts in the social setting chosen for study”.
Kawulich (2005) defines participant observation as “the process enabling researchers to learn about the activities of the people under study in the natural setting through observing and participating in those activities.”
It includes observation, natural conversations, interviews, checklists, questionnaires, and unobtrusive methods including walkabouts (focusing on specific locations or behaviours). It requires you to be a careful observer and a good listener. You also have to be open to the unexpected (DeWalt, 2015).
Participant observation allows researchers to check definitions of terms that participants use in interviews, observe events that informants may be unable or unwilling to share when doing so would be impolitic, impolite, or insensitive. They provide an opportunity to observe situations that informants have described in interviews, thereby making them aware of distortions or inaccuracies in the description provided by those informants (Marshall & Rossman, 1995).
According to Bernard H Russell (1994), the advantages, all of which increase the validity of your findings, include:
- It makes it possible to collect different types of data. Being on-site over a period of time familiarises the researcher/ evaluator to the community, thereby facilitating involvement in sensitive activities to which he/she generally would not be invited.
- Reduces the incidence of ‘reactivity’ or people acting in a certain way when they are aware of being observed.
- It helps the researcher/ evaluator to develop questions that make sense in the native language or are culturally relevant.
- It gives the researcher/ evaluator a better understanding of what is happening in the culture and lends credence to one’s interpretations of the observation. Participant observation also enables the researcher/ evaluator to collect both quantitative and qualitative data through surveys and interviews.
- It is sometimes the only way to collect the right data for one’s study.
- A simple version of participant observation can just be a walkabout.
- Different researchers/ evaluators gain a different understanding of what they observe and some act more as full participants while others are complete observers.
- Different researchers/ evaluators take note of what interests them personally, thereby building in bias. Researchers should practise reflexivity at the beginning of the research to help him/her understand the biases he/she has that may interfere with the ‘correct’ interpretation of what is observed.
- Male and female researchers have access to different information, as they have access to different people, settings, and bodies of knowledge (DeWalt and DeWalt (2002).
- Researchers may need some training in order to undertake observation and record data ‘correctly’.
- Sometimes your research may bias the data, especially if participants behave differently when they know they’re being observed. The researcher/ evaluator may be excluded from the community.
According to Kawulich (2005):
Some of the ways the researcher might be excluded include the community members’ use of a language that is unfamiliar to the researcher, their changing from one language to another that is not understood by the researcher, their changing the subject when the researcher arrives, their refusal to answer certain questions, their moving away from the researcher to talk out of earshot, or their failure to invite the researcher to social events.
How to Conduct Participant Observation
There is no magic recipe. However, the following steps are worth taking (Kawulich, 2005):
- To help secure permission from the community, you may need to bring letters of introduction or other evidence of your credentials/ affiliation.
- Be aware of ethical issues arising especially where children or vulnerable individuals are being observed, where some villagers have refused to give consent to be observed (any findings relating to them must be abandoned) or where locals may be engaged in illegal activities. See the codes of conduct established by American Anthropological Association and American Sociological Association.
- You will need to have enough funds and time.
- You will need to take the time to meet with the community leaders (e.g. school principal, tribal leaders or councils).
- Researchers may need to rely on a respected key informant, preferably someone neutral and non-controversial, to secure initial access.
- You need to win trust over time by ‘hanging out’ (Bernard, 1994) for some period (e.g., playing chess in the local square).
- Familiarise yourself with and map out social networks in your village to better understand interactions.
- If possible, learn the local language or at least some key expressions.
- Be unobtrusive in dress and actions (Taylor and Bogdan,1984).
- Keep your observations short and factual (recording what you see rather than what you infer).
- Be aware of your own biases, perhaps keeping reflexivity journals. Think about how your experiences, ethnicity, race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, and other factors might influence their research, in this case, what the researcher decides to record and observe (Ambert et al., 1995).
- Look for keywords in conversations or opening/ closing remarks in a conversation, as these are more easily recalled. Taking notes in an obtrusive manner would get in the way of your efforts to blend in.
- Shift your focus from the individual to the wider community context and then back again.
- Keep your observation record up-to-date.
- Remember that participant observations can form a valuable part of an ethnographic approach.
For more detail on participant observation, see:
- Bernard H Russell (1994). Research methods in anthropology: qualitative and quantitative approaches (second edition). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
- DeWalt, Kathleen M. & DeWalt, Billie R. (1998). Participant observation. In H. Russell Bernard (Ed.), Handbook of methods in cultural anthropology (pp.259-300). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.
- DeWalt, Kathleen M. & DeWalt, Billie R. (2002). Participant observation: a guide for fieldworkers. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
- Kawulich, B. B. (2005), ‘Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol.6, no.2, Art. 43
- Marshall, Catherine & Rossman, Gretchen B. (1989). Designing qualitative research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Marshall, Catherine & Rossman, Gretchen B. (1995). Designing qualitative research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Note: Barbara Kawulich also provides valuable exercises (sound without sight, think of a room) which help you recall what you have seen in the course of participant observation.