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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Participant observation

core definition

Participant observation is a method of social research that attempts to observe at first hand social action in its everyday or naturalistic setting thereby providing insights into actors' meanings and perspectives by bringing the sociologist closer to the social world than other methods.

explanatory context


Participant observation is a method of collecting empirical data widely used in sociological research. It involved the researcher being in direct contact with the subject group.

Participant observation is a style of research closely associated with ethnography. It involves a researcher joining a group of people and participating in the everyday activities of the subjects. As a member, the researcher observes social interaction and talks informally with group members.

Participant observation is usually taken to refer to more than just observing while participating. The use of interviews (usually semi-structured or unstructured depth interviews), chats, analysis of documents such as organisational memoranda or personal documents, and non-participant observation are all activities that may be combined with the participatory observation.

Participation may take different forms involving different field roles.


The researcher maybe a complete participant, living in, and fully occupied in the activities of the observed group.


Alternatively, the researcher may be a partial participant. This is of two types; first participating in some of the activities of the subject group but not all; or participating in full in the group but only on a part-time basis.


A third 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.


Participant observation may be secret (covert) or open (overt). Overt participant observation may not be completely open. For example, the real activities of the researcher may only be known to a sub-set of the subject group (usually including group leaders) or the true purpose may only be half known. For example, Whyte used participant observation in Street Corner Society but only some of the group knew he was 'writing a book about street corner life'. There is considerable debate about the merits of each approach.


Participant observation might also be obtrusive or unobtrusive. Most commentators regard the latter as preferable as it is less likely to 'contaminate' the setting.


Through direct involvement in the social processes of the subject group the researcher investigates both the taken-for-granted assumptions about, and of, the subject group. Participant observation, in its direct experiencing of the subject's meanings is particularly appealing to those who adopt a phenomenological perspective.

Participant observation relies heavily on the researcher's observational and interpretive skills.

Writing up a participant observation account involves the researcher in identifying major themes and substantiating them with observations, verbatim quotes, extracts from documents, and so on. See Ethnography: reporting ethnography.



Validity and reliability of participant observation

Presentation of data collected and extracts of verbatim interactions may convince the reader that the researcher interpreted the actions correctly. This does not mean that interpretation is the same as the actor's. Thus, as for all research methods, then problem of validity remains.

Some positivists argue that participant observation lacks reliability, because as a method because its procedures are not explicit. There is no way of replicating a study to check the reliability of its findings; so it is not possible to generalize from these findings.

Participant observation as an exploratory method

Some people think that participant observation's value is in that it provides useful insights that then can be tested by larger samples with 'rigorous' methods (abstracted empiricism). This notion sees participant observation as an exploratory tool. Not all ethnographers would agree with this.

Howard Becker and Blanche Geer on participant observation as a sociological method

Becker and Geer are commonly regarded as advicates of and defenders of the validity of participant observation as a method at a time when American socisology was concerned with multivariate analysis and grand theorising. Howwver, the 'defence' mounted by Becker and Geer separately and together, amounts to a legitimation of participant observation in specialist situations (within the dominant middle-range theorising approach to sociology) and in no way proposed an alternative epistemolgical basis, such as interpretive sociology.


Click here for more details on Becker and Geer's views on participant observation.

analytical review

Garson (undated) wrote:

Ostensibly, participant observation is a straightforward technique: by immersing him- or herself in the subject being studied, the researcher is presumed to gain understanding, perhaps more deeply than could be obtained, for example, by questionnaire items. Arguments in favor of this method include reliance on first-hand information, high face validity of data, and reliance on relatively simple and inexpensive methods. The downside of participant observation as a data-gathering technique is increased threat to the objectivity of the researcher, unsystematic gathering of data, reliance on subjective measurement, and possible observer effects (observation may distort the observed behavior).

Kluckhohn (1940) stated that participant observation:

is the conscious and systematic sharing, in so far as circumstances permit, in the life activities, and on occasions in the interests and affects of a group of persons.

Power (2002) noted:

As the term suggests, participant observation means that the researcher directly observes the behaviour and activities of the group under study. This commonly entails gaining the trust and confidence of research subjects and is invariably a time consuming activity. However, the rich contextual data that result are invaluable, both in confirming and validating self reports and also in describing the venues and situations in which social action takes place.

associated issues

Participant observation roles

Taking into account extent of involvement, secrecy and obtrusiveness, there are the following nine possible participant observation roles:


1. Complete open unobtrusive participant observation

2. Partial open unobtrusive participant observation

3. Associated open obtrusive participant observation

4. Complete open obtrusive participant observation

5. Partial open obtrusive participant observation

6. Associated open unobtrusive participant observation

7. Complete secret participant observation

8. Partial secret participant observation

9. Associated secret participant observation


Complete participant observation involves the researcher becoming a full-time member of the research group (modes 1, 4 & 7).

Some commentators give a slightly different meaning to complete participant observation. They argue that, whether or not this involves full-time membership of a group, such a mode of participation must be covert, i.e. it refers to all secret modes (7, 8 & 9).


Others argue it must be both full-time and complete and thus it is restricted to secret complete observation (mode 7).


Partial participant observation occurs when the researcher is part of the group for the duration of specific activities (e.g. participant observation of football supporters on match days).


Associated participant observation takes place when a researcher is associated with a group but cannot physically be an integral member of it (e.g. research into juvenile activities through the role of a youth club leader).


Another frequently used term is participant-as-observer, which covers some or all of the open modes (1 to 6).


The terms observer-as-participant and complete observer refer to non-participant observation roles. The former refers to observation that takes place in in-depth interviews and therefore tends to be restricted to one or two meetings. The latter refers to standard non-participant observation. In both cases these may be secret or open, obtrusive or non-obtrusive roles.


See Researching the Real World Section 3.2

related areas

See also

critical ethnography


Researching the Real World Section 3.2

Critical Social Research Section 1.4


Garson, D., undated, 'Participant Observation', available at, accessed 15 June 2013.

Kluckhohn, F., 1940, 'The participant-observer technique in small communities', American Journal of Sociology, 46(2), pp. 331–43.

Power, R., 2002, 'The application of qualitative research methods to the study of sexually transmitted infections', Sexually Transmitted Infections, 78, pp. 87–89.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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