Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Non-participant observation

core definition

Non-participant observation is a means of direct observation used by social researcher that does not involve the observer participating directly in the activities being observed or in the social life of the subject group.

explanatory context

Non-participant observation takes several forms. At one extreme is the use of one-way mirrors, video-recording devices. etc. in order to observe without being seen.


Another approach is to be in the vicinity of the social interactions of interest without being part of them, such as researcher of crowd behaviour at a football match who is in the crowd but is not actually taking part in the activities of the section of the crowd under observation.


A more 'involved' approach is to be in close and overt proximity without taking part, for example wearing a white coat in a hospital and going around with a doctor without being involved directly in the doctor-patient interaction.

analytical review

Dictionary of Sociology (1998) states:

Non-participant observation: A research technique whereby the researcher watches the subjects of his or her study, with their knowledge, but without taking an active part in the situation under scrutiny. This approach is sometimes criticized on the grounds that the very fact of their being observed may lead people to behave differently, thus invalidating the data obtained, as for example in the famous case of the so-called Hawthorne effect. To overcome this, researchers normally observe a number of similar situations, over a period of time. Although video-recorders can now be used in non-participant observation, this too may alter (indeed almost certainly will alter) the behaviour of the research subjects. 


Parke and Griffiths (2008) state:

It should also be noted that non-participant observation usually relies on the researcher being unknown to the studied group. One distinct advantage of non-participant observation is that the researcher can study a situation in its natural setting without altering the conditions - but only if the researcher can blend in naturally. One obvious disadvantage is that non-participant observation relies on observing behaviour and only observing behaviour. Since the researcher cannot interact in the social behavioural processes, most data collected will be qualitative, interpretive and to some extent limited. However, by using other methodological research tools suspicions, interpretations and maybe even hypotheses can be confirmed.

associated issues

Dictionary of Sociology, 'Non-participant observation',, available at, accessed 11 June 2019.

Parke, J. and Griffiths, M., 2008, 'Participant and non-participant observation in gambling', Enquire, 1(1), pp. 61–74, available at, accessed 11 June 2019.


related areas

See also



participant obeservation


Researching the Real World Section 3



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