Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Aspects

3.2.1 Extent of participation (observer role) Non-participant observation Complete participant observer Partial participant Associate member

3.2.2 Degree of openness
3.2.3 Explanation of purpose
3.2.4 Degree of obtrusiveness
3.2.5 Active or passive
3.2.6 Length and frequency of observation
3.2.7 Focus of observation
3.2.8 Summary of aspects

3.3 Methodological approaches
3.4 Access
3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

Activity 3.2.1

3.2 Aspects

3.2.1 Extent of participation (observer role)
As a researcher undertaking observation research, you have to decide whether you participate in the activities you are observing or whether you observe without participating. If you participate, do you become a complete participant observer, a partial participant or do you associate with your research subjects without being a direct participant? In the literature, the degree of participation is referred to as the participation observation role, or field role.

Top Non-participant observation
Non-participant observation involves the researcher observing social behaviour first hand without, in any way, joining in. The researcher may be watching what people do, how they interact, how they cope with organisational situations and so on. For example, Dowswell et al. (2000) observed how stroke patients in a hospital were cared for.

Usually, the non-participant observer is visible to the subject group (although they may not know that the researcher is observing them). This type of non-participant observation might, for example, involve walking around a hospital in a white coat watching what goes on, although not pretending to be a doctor (Sudnow, 1967); hanging around football stadia watching the activities of England supporters (Williams et al., 1984). In these instances the researcher is undertaking the observation in an open manner (as opposed to hiding) and is non-obtrusive (Section 3.2.4), because the researcher blends into the background and is passive/neutral (Section 3.2.5) because the researcher’s presence does not significantly affect the situation or the behaviour of the people being observed (the research subjects). Stapleton et al. (2002) used four midwifery researchers to undertake non-participant observation of 886 antenatal consultations in women's homes and in antenatal and ultrasound clinics in 13 maternity units in Wales (see Section for more detail). There is a lack of reflexivity as to whether the presence of the non-participant observers had any effect on the research subjects.

The open non-participant observer might, though, have an affect on the research subjects even by not joining in, for example if an adult sits in a classroom and observes the activity of the children (Lacey, 1966). By being there, the open observer can be obtrusive.

Sometimes the non-participant observer may be hidden from the subjects, watching through one-way mirrors (Greenwood, 1965) or using video or recording devices to ‘spy’ on a group. For example, Strodtbeck, James and Hawkins (1957) hid microphones in jury rooms in the United States. Non-participant observation of this kind is a major tool in experimental studies in the social sciences (see Section 9).

However, non-participant observation can be overt (section 3.2.2). Roger Homan (1981) undertook ‘overt non-participant observation and interviewing in 66 pentecostal institutions in England and Wales, Canada and the United States’.

Activity 3.2.1
Initial non-participant observation study
1. Undertake a non-participant observation study of a group of people meeting in a public place such as a shopping centre, public house, youth club or any other similar place where people meet on a casual basis. Watch them for about an hour, if possible. Should you feel uncomfortable doing the observation bring it to an immediate conclusion.
2. Note the events that take place and the ways the members of the group interact. Is the group a tight-knit group or is it a casual coming together of a number of subgroups? Are there any group leaders and in what respects do they lead? Is there any group organisation, if so, what is it? Does the group interact with any other group or person and, if so, in what way? How important is interaction with other groups or persons in the activities of the group and in the formation and organisation of the group?
3. Report your findings back to a small group of people who have also undertaken this exercise and discuss difficulties you had in recording data, deciding what events were significant, and what they meant.

Preparation: 30 minutes. Observation: 60 minutes. Refining/typing-up notes: 60 minutes. Analysing notes and addressing questions: 60 minutes. Reporting back and comparing experiences: 60 minutes of class time.

Top Complete Participant Observer
The researcher may be a complete participant, living in, and fully occupied in the activities of the observed group or community. For example, in his classic three-year participant observation study of a predominantly Italian slum area of Whyte (1943) moved into the area, became a lodger in an Italian home, learnt Italian and became a member of one of the street gangs. This reflects the classic approach of anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski (1922)who advocated direct observation fieldwork as the basis for the study of different cultures.

Most complete observers perhaps do not go to quite such lengths. Sallie Westwood (1984) took a job in a factory to do her study of the lives of women factory workers and also became involved in the social life of the women, including spending time with some of the women in their homes. Similarly, Miklos Harastzi (1977), a poet in Hungary, went to work in the Red Star Tractor Factory following his various arrests for political activity and wrote an account of his experiences as a worker in a socialist state. Heidi Gottfried and Laurie Graham (1993) worked in a car factory for six months and Jason Ditton (1977) became a bread delivery roundsman for four months, whilst studying the ‘fiddling’ of customers that was a taken-for-granted part of the roundsmen’s job.

There are also cases of people who are already complete participants becoming observing researchers. Simon Holdaway (1983) was a policeman before he became a social researcher studying the police. The ‘Chicago School’ of the 1920s and 1930s made use of this technique when graduate students from ethnic minorities were encouraged to be observers of their own communities (Harvey, 1987), a technique Martin Bulmer (1982, p. 251) called ‘the native as stranger, in which participants observe milieux with which they have long familiarity’. Dick Hobbs (1988) has been described as an ‘insider’ in his study of the East End of London.

Hobb’s research led to him spending time in a variety of pubs drinking with his research subjects. Some writers have argued that Hobb’s ethnographic study was enriched due to his own background as he was born and lived in the East End of London. Thus, we could argue that Hobbs as the researcher was very much an insider and that this made his access, both to the petty criminals and the police, easier as he shared the same knowledge of the area as his research subjects. (MacDonald et al., 2000, p. XX)

Complete participation allows the researcher to gain a clear and detailed idea of the way the group lives or the organisation operates. However, complete participation may result in the researcher uncritically developing the point of view of the subject group. In the extreme case the researcher may become a full-time member of the group and give up being a researcher (Vidich, 1955). Mile Filby (1989) suggests that this can happen on an occasional basis. For example, he helped out in the betting shop on Grand National day and was so preoccupied with doing things right on this very busy day that he had no time to be an observer. Similarly, Ken Pryce (1979, p. 293) noted that some of his interactions were so absorbing that he found it difficult to steer questions in the direction of his research interests.

Phillip Elliott (1972, p. 174) too found that there came a stage during his research, ‘Known in the literature as “going native”, in which I began to recognize beliefs and actions so clearly that it was hard to imagine how they could be different’. Whyte (1943) became so immersed in the Boston street gang that he went ‘native’ to the extent of voting illegally in elections.

Top Partial Participant
Alternatively, the researcher may be a partial participant. The researcher participates in some of the activities of the subject group but not all, or participates on a part-time basis. Polsky (1971), for example, in his study of pool-room hustlers, spent many hours observing what they did in poolrooms but did not observe or fraternise with his subjects in any other setting. Crawford’s ethnographic study of sports supporters (Crawford, 2003; Crawford and Gosling, 2004):

involved three years of attending ice hockey games, as well as supporter club meetings, travelling with fans to away games and sometimes socialising with supporters before and after games (as well as the interviews and questionnaires). The research was primarily done in Manchester, though I did attend other games around the UK and about five games in the US (as points of comparison to my UK research). I did not have any interest or knowledge of ice hockey before attending my first game at the beginning of 1997 (actually, I had been to one game, years before but I certainly had no interest in the sport as a ‘fan’). … I certainly was not a ‘fan’ of ice hockey before doing the research, and I have not been to a game since I finished my PhD. Actually, I got to a point that I’d had enough of ice hockey and just walked out of a game half way through and never went back. (Crawford, 2005)

Doing field research on a part-time basis can be arduous as the researcher has to mix and cope with two different worlds. Dudhir Venkatesh, for example, tells of the time he was researching gangs in Chicago (Venkatesh, 2009):

Which brand of lunacy was I supposed to be learning.... In the academy, you had a set of rules based on e-mails and very impersonal sanctions. On the streets, everything was immediate. I felt schizophrenic throughout that period. I don't know if I've ever reconciled those opposing worlds, but I think I've managed to find a creative tension between them... (Reisz, 2008)

Top Associate member
Another alternative is for the researcher to be associated with the subject group. This occurs when for physical reasons the researcher cannot be a direct member of the group; for example, an adult researching juveniles. Here the researcher has to adopt a field role that enables direct participation of some sort as an associate of the subject group.

Howard Parker (1974), for example, hung around with a group of kids who, among other things, stole car radios from parked vehicles. He was a residential community-youth worker at a country holiday centre for Liverpool ‘street kids’. Although much older (22 compared to 16 for the kids) he did not look that much different. He became established as an ‘OK outsider’, that is ‘boozy, suitably dressed and ungroomed, playing football well enough to survive and badly enough to be funny, ‘knowing the score’ about theft behaviour and sexual exploits’. Once accepted locally by a few of the boys he was able to hang around with any combinations of a wider network whenever he had the time. There were intensive periods when he spent all his waking hours with the boys and other times when he spent some weekends or evenings.

Similarly, Paul Willis (1977) was not one of the ‘lads’ but was able to hang around with them both in and out of school in order to observe their life-style and the way their anti-school culture developed. Cooper et al. (2004), reported a study in which the researcher was employed as a care worker looking after the elderly in the hope that the researcher would be able to see the reality of the everyday world from the position of the actors, and be able to interpret the symbols and meanings underpinning daily social interaction (Lee and Newby, 1989).


Next 3.2.2 Degee of openness