Understanding Participant Observation Research

An Introduction to an Important Qualitative Research Method

Women stand and hold the hand rails on a public bus. Participant observation often involves studying how people interact in public spaces like these.
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The participant observation method, also known as ethnographic research, is when a sociologist actually becomes a part of the group they are studying in order to collect data and understand a social phenomenon or problem. During participant observation, the researcher works to play two separate roles at the same time: subjective participant and objective observer. Sometimes, though not always, the group is aware that the sociologist is studying them.

The goal of participant observation is to gain a deep understanding and familiarity with a certain group of individuals, their values, beliefs, and way of life. Often the group in focus is a subculture of a greater society, like a religious, occupational, or particular community group. To conduct participant observation, the researcher often lives within the group, becomes a part of it, and lives as a group member for an extended period of time, allowing them access to the intimate details and goings on of the group and their community.

This research method was pioneered by anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas but was adopted as a primary research method by many sociologists affiliated with the Chicago School of Sociology in the early twentieth century. Today, participant observation, or ethnography, is a primary research method practiced by qualitative sociologists around the world.

Subjective Versus Objective Participation

Participant observation requires the researcher to be a subjective participant in the sense that they use knowledge gained through personal involvement with the research subjects to interact with and gain further access to the group. This component supplies a dimension of information that is lacking in survey data. Participant observation research also requires the researcher to aim to be an objective observer and record everything that he or she has seen, not letting feelings and emotions influence their observations and findings.

Yet, most researchers recognize that true objectivity is an ideal, not an actuality, given that how we see the world and people in it is always shaped by our previous experiences and our positionality in the social structure relative to others. As such, a good participant observer will also maintain a critical self-reflexivity that allows her to recognize the way she herself might influence the field of research and the data she collects.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The strengths of participant observation include the depth of knowledge that it allows the researcher to obtain and the perspective of knowledge of social problems and phenomena generated from the level of the everyday lives of those experiencing them. Many consider this an egalitarian research method because it centers the experiences, perspectives, and knowledge of those studied. This type of research has been the source of some of the most striking and valuable studies in sociology.

Some drawbacks or weaknesses of this method are that it is very time-consuming, with researchers spending months or years living in the place of study. Because of this, participant observation can yield a vast amount of data that might be overwhelming to comb through and analyze. And, researchers must be careful to remain somewhat detached as observers, especially as time passes and they become an accepted part of the group, adopting its habits, ways of life, and perspectives. Questions about objectivity and ethics were raised about sociologist Alice Goffman's research methods because some interpreted passages from her book  On the Run as an admission of involvement in a murder conspiracy.

Students wishing to conduct participant observation research should consult these excellent books on the subject: Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson et al., and Analyzing Social Settings, by Lofland and Lofland.