Participant Observation in Social Research

Participant Observation is where the researcher joins in with the group being studied and observes their behaviour. This post covers the theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of using overt and covert participant observation in social research.


Participant observation can be either over or covert:

Overt is where the group being studied know they are being observed

Covert is where the group being studied does not know they are being observed, or where the research goes ‘undercover’

A related term associated with Participant Observation is Ethnography

An ethnographic study is one that takes an in depth look at the way of life of a group of people. Ethnographic studies use Participant Observation as their main method, but combine this with interviews and secondary data – looking at documents produced by the group.

Ethnography is favoured by Social Anthropologists – who are like sociologists but focus on small groups in mainly traditional societies in the developing world.

A good illustration of popular anthropology in the media is Tribe with Bruce Parry, although academic anthropological studies are much more thorough – with some anthropologists spending many years living with and recording the way of life of certain tribes.

The Strengths of Participant Observation

Theoretical Advantages

The most significant strength of both types of participant observation is the high degree of validity the method achieves. In contrast to questionnaires participant observation allows the researcher to see what people do rather than what people say they do. Participant observation allows the researcher to gain empathy through personal experiences. This closeness to people’s reality means that participant observation can give uniquely personal, authentic data.

participant observation anthropologyWhen completing questionnaires researchers begin with pre set questions. Even before starting to collect the data, therefore, the researchers have decided what’s important. The problem with this is what if the questions the researcher thinks are important are not the same as the ones the subject thinks are important. By contrast, participant observation is much more flexible. It allows the researcher to enter the situation with an open mind and as new situations are encountered they can be followed up. Again, this achieves a high degree of validity.

Practical Advantages

There are few practical advantages with this method, but participant observation might be the only methods for gaining access to certain groups. For example, a researcher using questionnaires to research street gangs is likely to be seen as an authority figure and unlikely to be accepted.

Ethical Advantages

Interpretivists prefer this method because it is respondent led – it allows respondents to speak for themselves and thus avoids a master-client relationship which you get with more quantitative methods.

The Limitations of Participant Observation

Theoretical Disadvantages

One theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of reliability. It would be almost impossible for another researcher to repeat given that a participant observation study relies on the personal skills and characteristics of the lone researcher.

Another theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of representativeness. Sociologists who use quantitative research methods study large, carefully selected, representative samples that provide a sound basis for making generalisations, In contrast, the groups used in participant observation studies are usually unrepresentative, because they are accessed through snowball sampling and thus haphazardly selected.

Critics also question how valid participant observation really is. They argue the method lacks objectivity. It can be very difficult for the researcher to avoid subjectivity and forming biased views of the group being studied. Also researchers decide what is significant and worth recording and what’s not, therefore, it depends on the values of the researcher. In extreme cases, researchers might ‘go native’, where they become sympathatic with the respondents and omit any negative analysis of their way of life.

A further threat to validity is the Hawthorne Effect, where people act differently because they know they are being observed, although participant observers would counter this by saying that people can’t keep up an act over long time periods: they will eventually relax and be themselves.

Also, the methods lack a concept of social structures such as class, gender or ethnicity. By focussing on the participants own interpretation of events, the researcher tends to ignore the wider social structures, which means giving only a partial explanation.

Practical Disadvantages

Firstly, this method tends to be time consuming and expensive in relation to the relatively small amount of respondents. It can take time to gain trust and build rapport, and so for this reason, it may take several days, weeks or even months, before the respondents really start to relax in the presence of the researcher.

Participant Observation also requires observational and interpersonal skills that not everyone possesses – you have to be able to get on with people and understand when to take a back seat and when to probe for information.

Gaining access can also be a problem – many people will not want to be researched this way, and where covert research is concerned, researchers are limited by their own characteristics. Not everyone can pass as a Hells Angel if covert observation is being used!

Ethical Disadvantages

Ethical problems are mainly limited to Covert Participant Observation, in which respondents are deceived and thus cannot give informed consent to participate in the research.

Legality can also be an issue in covert research where researchers working with deviant groups may have to do illegal acts to maintain their cover.

Some advantages of Overt compared to Covert Observation

Students often think that Covert Observation is superior to Over Observation, however there are five reasons why Overt might be a better choice of research method:

1. You can ask awkward, probing questions

2. You can combine it with other methods

3. You can take on the role of the ‘professional stranger’ – respondents might tell you things because they know you are not ‘one of them’

4. It is less stressful and risky for the researcher

5. It is easier to do follow up studies.

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One Response to Participant Observation in Social Research

  1. Pingback: Methods in Context Essay Template | ReviseSociology

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