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Participant Observation 101: Definition, Types, Uses, Examples

Kate Williams

13 February 2024

8 min read

If you’re planning to use participant observation in research, or just want to brush up on the basics, you’ve come to the right place.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this blog:

  1. Participant observation: definition
  2. 6 types of participant observation
  3. Where is participant observation used?
  4. 5 participant observation examples

What is participant observation?

“But then you must’ve some idea who’s behind it all.”

This line is from ‘Harry Potter: The Chamber of Secrets’. In short, Harry and Ron turn into Goyle and Crabbe (thanks to Hermione’s Polyjuice potion) to see Draco and find out if he’s the heir of Salazar Slytherin. Spoiler if you haven’t read the book: he wasn’t.

But why on earth are we discussing Harry Potter and this scene? Well, because it is a great fictional example of the participant observation method.

Participant observation is a research method where the researcher observes a target audience or group and their day-to-day activities.

The goal of the participant observation method is to study as wide a range of behaviors as possible in a natural, organic setting. As a result, participant observation studies play a vital role in fields that study human behavior – including sociology, psychology, cultural anthropology, and ethnography.

In business, participant observation is defined as qualitative research, and it is helpful for building and marketing better products. You can use it in combination with survey tools like SurveySparrow to collect and visualize the results of your research in real-time.

You can access 1000+ templates and survey tools that will scale up your research by signing up below. Bonus: you will also get complete access to all of our features for 14 days.

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What are the 6 types of participant observation?

#1. Passive participant observation

In the passive participant observation method, the researchers observe and record participant behavior without actively involving themselves in the situation. They don’t interact or converse with the participants, and the observation is often done without the participants’ knowledge.

Example: Observing people in public places, like parks, cafés, malls, transport hubs, and even social media. Stuff taken directly out of a detective’s book, won’t you agree?

  • Pros: It brings rich data without being intrusive or disturbing the participant’s normal routine.
  • Cons: It can potentially violate a person’s privacy because they are not able to give informed consent.

#2. Active participant observation

In the active form of participant observation, the researchers speak with the participants and immerse themselves in their lives. With this, the researcher finds information about their activities, habits, interests, and even goals. Some researchers limit their participation to interviewing the subjects, while others immerse themselves in experiencing the life of their target group.

Example: Research that goes on for a long period – like an anthropologist living in an indigenous community to study a set of their customs and culture.

  • Pros: The researcher can get access to rare nuggets of information from living as part of the target group.
  • Cons: Reactivity, or change of behavior by the participants because they know they are under observation, can affect the findings.

#3. Covert-active participant observation

Covert participant observation is when the researcher goes undercover. In other words, the researchers assume the identity of their target group. They conceal their true identity for the duration of the study, and the target group is unaware that they are being studied. In the active form of this participant observation method, the researchers experience all practices as experienced by everyone in the group.

Example: This 2009 study of football hooliganism was based on covert active research on Blackpool FC supporters during the 90s.

  • Pros: Gaining access to closed groups is easier as the researcher doesn’t need to get permission.
  • Cons: The researcher is under constant pressure to maintain their alternate identity and record data at the same time.

#4. Covert-passive participant observation

In the passive form of covert research, the investigator does not attempt to deceive or mislead participants. Traditionally, the most common example of this type of covert research has involved observation of activity in public places such as shopping malls, parks, restaurants, etc., or virtual communities and forums.

Example: A researcher observes and monitors online interactions of other members in a subreddit, but chooses not to contribute or provide a public explanation of their research.

  • Pros: This method is helpful for observation in places which people inhabit for short periods, and where social interactions are minimal.
  • Cons: Due to the time constraints, this method may offer only limited information on certain topics.

#5. Overt-active participant observation

In the overt observation type, the researcher becomes a full member of their target group…but the group knows they are doing research. The active form of overt observation lets the researcher take part in the group’s daily activities.

Example: Many ethnographic studies, like this study of an elite high school in Concord, New Hampshire, use overt-active observation.

  • Pros: This is the most ethical type of observation because participants can give their informed consent, and deception isn’t necessary.
  • Cons: The researcher can still unwittingly influence what’s happening in the group.

#6. Overt-passive participant observation

Here, the target group knows about the researcher. However, the researcher plays no part in their activities. He’s just a silent observer, observing the practices followed by all participants. So, no participant feels his presence.

Example: When a researcher joins employees for meetings but doesn’t interfere in any way.

  • Pros: This method can be combined with 1:1 interviews and surveys to get more insight on the perspectives of different people involved.
  • Cons: Even when the researcher is not actively interacting, the subjects might still alter their behavior because they know a person is observing them.

Where is participant observation used?

The use of participant observation as a qualitative research method lies in multiple sectors and industries. However, there are 4 main areas that use participation observation. Let’s talk about them:

#1. Market research

Organizations of all shapes and sizes use participant observation for conducting market research. They share a targeted market research survey with people, and the survey organizers analyze the responses to find relevant patterns. Read how you can create the perfect market research survey that gets the job done.

In fact, the organizer doesn’t directly involve himself in the audience’s shoes. They observe and record subject behaviors through their responses to the survey. Yes, you guessed it right! Passive participation observation is how things are done here.

#2. Sociological research

Almost all the discussed participant observation methods (types) are used extensively in sociological research. Here, human behaviors and cultures are studied based on their social interactions. The researchers use this observation method for participating in activities and performing critical analysis based on their communication with them.

Sociological research using participant observation can be short or even long-term research, where there’s free will to find relevant patterns over an extended period.

#3. Campaigns & events

“I don’t know which way the result is gonna swing. Oh god, I’m so nervous!”

Are you this guy before the results of a campaign are announced?

Well, come on… don’t get all tensed up. Know your audience beforehand using participant observation, and you’ll have a fair idea of which way the tide is going. Political campaigns, organizational events, college elections. You name it. This qualitative research method is the way to do it.

#4. Mental health

The Covid-19 pandemic was a big wake-up call that mental health is just as important as physical. There were lots of cases of employee dissatisfaction leading to deteriorated mental well-being. Organizations, globally, have done a fantastic job of raising mental health awareness, and participant observation played (and still plays) a significant role in that.

There were many cases of HR teams engaging with employees and participating in activities to understand their satisfaction levels. Similarly, interactions with people suffering from mental health issues helped find the root cause. Both of these participant observation methods focused on direct interactions with the target group and stepping into their shoes to find the problem areas. It worked!

5 top participant observation examples

Top published participant observation examples are the best way to recognize the importance of this research method even more. So with no further ado, time to let the cat out of the bag.

#1. The ethnography of an elite high school

Most of the ethnographic work we see is around minority communities and the poor. However, this qualitative research example mentioned above gained immense attention as it focused on finding a scientific description of students’ culture and customs from an elite high school.

The researcher, Shamus Khan, used the open and active participant observation method to get a job at the school, move into an apartment on the campus, and observe the daily routines of students. While this observation went on, the researcher took part in most activities of the target group and interviewed them on his questions relating to the research.

Once he had got the answers, he found relevant patterns that led to many revelations about the cultures followed and habits developed in an elite school. All of those findings are here in this book.

#2. Observing social activism & migrants

One of the best places for participant observation usage is to study what’s causing social activism to rise and a specific group of people to migrate.

In most cases, like in this case, too, they performed the observation discreetly, where the researcher stayed covert but kept interacting with all participants. As a result, the what, why, how, and when are answered well this way.

#3. Top athlete’s behavior

People always look upon top athletes as ideals, and role models to follow. For instance, they wish to know their routine, diet, and training. More research is always ongoing on that front, and most of them use participant observation for it.

So a researcher conducts covert observation on them to learn about their behavior and entire routine. The participating observer becomes involved with an athlete as a student interested in the sport. This way, he doesn’t have to participate in the game. Hence they can observe and ask athletes about their curiosities (questions).

The other way is when athletes know you’re the observer, and they’re willing to give answers. You can take part with them actively in a ‘day in the life of…’ manner and fire away your questions to understand what makes them a top player.

Then, there are ‘investigations’ being conducted on players to find how they are in real life, away from the sport. For this, the observer stays covert, spending time spotting differences in behavior both on and off the pitch. To achieve that, the observer should gain the athlete’s group trust to get more accurate information, and that takes time.

#4. Studying regional challenges

Lora-Wainwright studied the challenge of the severe population in rural China from 2009 until 2013 using participant observation. The main agenda of her research was to find how people there coped with it, knowing its detrimental effect on their health.

For this, she observed three villages that were coping with large-scale industrial pollution. Notably, Lora focused on finding how people responded after knowing the risk of cancer from this pollution, how they organized themselves to protest, and how they coped with it every day, as polluted water was hampering people’s health in these villages.

Moreover, her focus was also on the Chinese government’s inability to curb this pollution and its industrialization agenda. She has written a book about it, currently under revision, but this podcast summarizes all her findings. Check it out.

#5. Understanding an industry

Conducting market research is a great way to do it, and we’ve already talked about how participant observation is used there. But it’s done in a fun way, too!

For instance, Helen Sampson boarded her first cargo ship as she wanted to understand a great deal about how the shipping industry worked. She had her doubts about the journey, but the seafarers welcomed her well. They all knew she was here for research. Yet, they helped her, took part in her interviews, and gave her quality insights into the industry and the cargo ship.

It was one helluva ride for her, and this research won Thinking Allowed’s first ethnography award in 2014. You’ll find the summary of this research at the end of the show.

Wrapping Up

Any product, service, or offering becomes a resounding success when it clicks with its intended market. Otherwise, it loses its shine and ends on a low. For that to not happen, market research is critical, and even more crucial is deciding how the research will be conducted.

Here, we’ve given a strong case for participant observation. And although there are other qualitative methods, too, this one gets our support.

At SurveySparrow, we’ve helped conduct many market research surveys in multiple sectors that collected crucial data. We would love to help you with it too. Get in touch with us and let us know your requirements, and we’ll contact you ASAP.

Or, you can go ahead and try it out first. It’s free!

Kate Williams

Content Marketer at SurveySparrow

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