Non-Participant Observation

Non-Participant Observation is where researchers take a ‘fly on the wall approach’ and observes individuals and groups without getting involved in the life of the group. You probably would have come across this type of method in the form of the OFSTED lesson observation.

Non-Participant Observation can either be structured or unstructured – the former is where you have an ‘observation schedule’ and look for certain things happening, the latter is where you just observe and note down anything that stands out.

NPO can also be overt (like the OFSTED inspection) or covert, in which case it would either involve some infiltrating a classroom, or a workplace and observing without people being informed, but this would be quite difficult to do in practice, or more realistically it might involve the use of hidden cameras to film covertly.

Some General Advantages of Structured Non Participant Observation

  • It is easier for the researcher to blend into the background compared to participant observation, which should mean people act more naturally.
  • It should have better reliability than with participant observation because the research is less involved.
  • If observations are structured, it is relatively easy to make comparisons.
  • They are generally cheaper and quicker to do that with participatory methods, because the researcher does not have to get to know the respondents.

Some General Disadvantages of Structured Non Participant Observation

  • They lack validity because you are less able to ask why people are acting in the way that they do compared to participant observation
  • Ethically they can be dis empowering for respondents (OFSTED inspections)

‘Unstructured’ Non Participant Observation

To be honest it’s probably not possible to do observation with no structure at all, at least if you’re going to write up your results at some point, because writing will give some kind of structure to what you’ve observed.

So this is is really ‘less structured and more informal’ obvservtion.


  • If done carefully and thoughtfully it can reveal hidden norms of behaviour


  • You may be ‘overwhelmed’ with data
  • Is it actually possible to do ‘unstructured’ observations?

Signposting and Related Posts

This method is taught as part of the research methods course, a compulsory aspect of A-level sociology.

Non-Participant observation is often taught with Participant Observation.

Field experiments are closely related to Non Participant Observation.

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