Participant observation is a research method which has its roots in anthropology which is a social science which studies the origins and social relationships of human beings and culture.

Participant observation is a research method which involves “getting to know” the people or culture of those who are being observed and studied as the researcher immerses themselves in culture they’re observing. The person who is carrying out the research enters the culture of those they’re studying and experiences events and experiences in the way in which the respondents experiences them. It could be described as “putting yourself in their shoes”. It is a research method which does not maintain personal and social distance between the researcher and people who are being studying. Some methods like surveys stress the important of not becoming “personally involved”. The aim of participant observations is to understand the subject’s world from their point of view, it is sometimes referred to as a form of “subjective” sociology.


There are a range of methods by which researchers can study their subjects all of which are included in the overall heading of “participant observation”, these include: interviews, direct observation, participation, collective discussions, analyses of personal documents, self-analysis and analysis of life histories. It tends to gain qualitative research but often also includes quantitative dimensions. It takes a long period of time between several months and several years. Sociologists who themselves have certain aspects of the community they are studying tend to take part in these research methods. This is because their partial or full membership in the community they are studying allows a different kind of access than to a researcher who was considered a full “outsider”.


Participant Observation can be conducted either openly or secretly in the culture which the researcher is observing.


The general strengths of participant observation are the fact that is it very flexible as a research method and it provides a high quality level and depth of information which it provides. It also offers a greater understanding of the societies it studies and encourages opportunity for empathy.


The general limitations of participant observation are the fact that there is a high level of participation required which can cost a lot and take up a lot of time. Also the researcher must have a high level of skill in order to be capable of carrying out the research.


There are two types of participant observation; Overt and Covert.


Overt: Involves the researcher being open with the group who they are studying, the society is aware that they are being researched, because the one researching them has informed them. They will know details of the study for example the purpose of the study and how long it will last. The group is thought to be giving their position.  This type has advantages in that the group is co-operative with the researcher, but disadvantages in that those being studied may suffer from the Hawthorne affect    (where people act differently when they know they’re being watched). This could have a negative impact on the results gained from the research. The opposite is covert:


Covert: This version involves the researcher analysing the group without them knowing that they are being researched. It is carried out “secretly”. This method has advantages in that the research is probably more accurate but a disadvantage would be that they have to balance both roles of participant and researcher.


An example of covert participant observation is that of “Stigma” (1968). This was done by Erving Goffman. During the study Goffman worked in an asylum for the mentally ill. He was posing as an Assistant Athletic Director.


It was covert because the members of the hospital were not aware that he was a sociologist undergoing research, although a few staff were aware of his research.


By performing this study he was able to uncover the life of those within a mental institution.


An example of overt participant observation is William F. Whyte’s study, “Street Corner Society” (1943). He lived in a slum district of Boston in the late 1930’s that was inhabited by mostly first generation and second generation immigrants from Italy.


The neighbourhood had high levels of crime and was considered to be dangerous: Whyte was protected by his friendship with a local “Doc”.


Whyte was observing how the local gangs were formed and organized. He saw two groups form within them “corner boys” and “college boys”.


Despite adopting the overt participant observation role, Whyte came to view himself as “one of the gang” during the three-and-half years he spent living in the neighbourhood and researching the society. Participant observation is not known as one of the most reliable types of research methods. This is because they are virtually impossible to repeat and the data they produce is only the opinion of one observer, another may interpret it completely differently. Aside from this with overt participant observation the changes of behaviour cannot be accounted for.


Although participant observation isn’t known for its reliability, the data gained is usually very valid and therefore often impressive. Because of the fact that people are observed in their natural environment which allows the researched a depth of insight into behaviour that they can usually not gage from simply using surveys. Also the researcher can use their own experiences within the group which provides “first hand insights” into why people behave as they do.


During participant observation there are no prejudges issues or events, to the level of validity is high.


Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex