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Participant Observation: Definition, Types, Uses, Examples

Kate William

30 June 2022

7 min read

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

Goyle (Harry, actually) said this one. Remember?

Oh, come on, don’t tell us you’re not a Harry Potter fan!

Well, if that’s the unfortunate case, this scene was from the second Harry Potter installment, ‘The Chamber of Secrets’, where Harry and Ron turn into Goyle and Crabbe (thanks to Hermione’s polyjuice potion) to see Draco and find if he’s the heir of Salazar Slytherin. They eventually got their answer!

Superb, right? But why on earth are we discussing Harry Potter and this scene? Well, because it closely resembles the participant observation method. And as you read along, you’ll find the definition, types, uses, and examples of this methodology, allowing you to start with it. Time to begin, then. Read with your cuppa on your comfy sofa?

Here’s what we’ll cover in this blog:

  1. What is participant observation?
  2. 6 Types of participant observation?
  3. Where is participant observation used?
  4. 5 participant observation examples

What is participant observation?

As the name clearly suggests, participant observation is a research method where the researcher or survey conductor studies a target market or participant group in multiple ways, like observation, interviews, or actively living in their group. They do that to observe behaviors and certain patterns for organizations to build and market better.

That’s the shortest and a to-the-point participant observation definition. And that’s how short you wanted it to be, right? See, we’re already on the same page!

The 6 types of participant observation

There are multiple ways for a researcher or survey organizer to take part in research, you know. Actually, there are 6 such types, making participant observation a super-effective qualitative research method. And skipping on it is a big no-no. It’s just too important for that. So, here we go talking about them one by one:

Passive participant observation

As the name suggests, in the passive participant observation type, the researchers or those responsible for conducting market research surveys observe and record subject behaviors in a separate environment. They have no interactions with the subjects while not revealing their work to anyone.

In most cases, they observe the subjects in public places, like restaurants, cafes, malls, or even through their social media activity. Stuff taken directly out of a detective’s book, won’t you agree?

On a more serious note, this participant observation type brings rich data without being intrusive or disturbing the survey takers. Therefore, it’s mostly used for carrying out behavior-related observation and research.

Active participant observation

The opposite of passive participant observation is this. In this type, the survey organizer and researchers converse with all the target groups to find information about their activities, habits, interests, and even goals. The researcher isn’t open about his work and just stays active.

Some researchers limit their participation to interviewing the subjects, while others immerse themselves in experiencing the life of their target group. You can see this happening in research going on for a longer period. The researchers truly get to know the people they’re researching on well.

Covert and active

With this type, the researchers don’t reveal their identity to participants. They do, however, get access to a target group, experiencing all practices as experienced by everyone in the group.

That wasn’t the case for other types, as the researchers never got a group to observe directly. They had to investigate everyone mostly one at a time. Here, having a group makes the job easier, as nobody would changes behavior, and the researcher actively observes them while staying covert. Impressive, right?

Covert and passive

In this participant observation type, the researcher interacts with the participants, but only inactively. The researcher can have interactions but doesn’t have access to a target group.

However, since all observations are passive, researchers and survey takers never experience all subject activities for themselves.

Open and active

In the open and active observation type, survey organizers can take part and experience all activities of their subjects, but subjects can change behaviors as they know they’re being studied. The researcher is open about that towards everyone. So, the open and active type of participant observation sometimes yields fantastic results and sometimes backfires, too. But… as they say, no risk means no reward!

Open and passive

Here, the target group taking part in a survey or market research knows about the researcher. The researcher, however, doesn’t interview or investigate anyone. He’s just a silent observer, observing the practices followed by all participants. So, no participant feels his presence.

Here’s a catch. Even when the researcher is not actively interacting, the subjects might still alter their behavior because they know a person is observing them. And this can change the outcomes.

Where is participant observation used?

The use of participant observation as a qualitative research method lies in multiple sectors and industries. The main reason for that popularity, as understood, is the quality of data collected. Researchers get to know their target market in-depth, allowing for better conclusions.

There are 4 main areas where participation observation is primarily used. Let’s talk about them:

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.

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.

Here’s a FREE market research template created just for you…

Sign up for FREE to create a similar market research survey for participant observation…

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.

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.

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 carried around the minority communities and the poor. But this qualitative research 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 stays covert but keeps interacting with all participants. 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 they’re the ones to be followed. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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 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!

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 can help you with it, too. All you have to do is click here and start conversing. We’re already waiting to hear from you. Come soon.

 

Kate William

Content Marketer at SurveySparrow

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