Methods of Research – Non-Participant Observation

Studies which involve observing people can be divided into two main categories, namely participant observation and non-participant observation.

Non-Participant Observation

In non-participant observation studies, the researcher is not part of the group being studied. The researcher decides in advance precisely what kind of behavior is relevant to the study and can be realistically and ethically observed. The observation can be carried out in a few different ways. For example, it could be continuous over a set period of time (e.g. one hour) or regularly for shorter periods of time (for 60 seconds every so often) or on a random basis. Observation does not only include noting what happened or was said but also the fact that a specific behavior did not occur at the time of observation.

Non-participant observation is often used in tangent with other data collection methods, and can offer a more “nuanced and dynamic” appreciation of situations that cannot be as easily captured through other methods. (Liu & Maitlis 2010)

Advice for USING this option

  • Researcher lives in or regularly visits the site/suburb/organisation
  • The researcher adopts a more separate and distant role than that of the Participant Observer
  • Non-participant observation can be overt or covert
  • It is important that the researcher build trust and develop empathy with participants, whilst simultaneously making sure to avoid over-empathizing with participants
  • The collection of detailed field notes is key to successful non-participant observation
  • Audio and visual recorders or cameras can be used to aid with capturing raw data
  • If you intend to make individual and identified reference to a person’s behavior, you must inform the participant and that person must freely choose to participate. Public expressions of behavior and unidentified observations do not have the same requirements.

Advantages of Non-Participant Observation:

However, non-participant observation also has some advantages.

Following are the merits of participant observation:

(a) Objectivity and neutrality:

If an observer participates in the event actively and emotionally he may try to justify the evil things of the group as just things. In this frame of mind he cannot analyze the phenomena with neutrality. But in non-participant observation, the objectivity or neutrality can be maintained. The observer in this type of observation gives a detached and unbiased view about the group.

(b) Command respect and co-operation:

In case of non-participant observation the researcher plays an impartial role. Therefore every member of the group gives him a special status and co-operate with his study.

(c) More willingness of the respondent:

Often people do not feel shy to disclose their secrets, weaknesses or informal things to a stranger. But they always become reluctant to disclose these things to a known person.

(d) Careful analysis:

In participant observation because of the much familiarity with the events, sometimes the observer does not realize the significance of same events and neglects them. But in non- participant observation the researcher does not even miss a minute thing. He carefully judges the merits and demerits of each and every phenomenon under study.

(e) Freedom from groupism:

In non-participant observation the researcher always maintains his impartial status. His aloofness from petty conflicts helps him to carry his research work more smoothly.

Disadvantages of Non-Participant Observation:

The following are the disadvantages of non-participant observation:

(a) Subjectivity:

In non-participant observation the observer does not have clarity about certain events on activities. He cannot clear his doubts by asking various questions to the group members. Therefore he has to simply understand and interpret what he sees. This lack of understanding may make some of his findings biased and coloured by his personal prediction, belief and pre-conception.

(b) Inadequate observation:

The observer can observe only those events which take place in front of him. But that is not enough and only a part of the phenomena as a vast range of information required for the research. He can know many things about the group when he participates in the group and interacts with the group members.

(c) Unnatural and formal information:

The members of a group become suspicious of a person who observes them objectively. In front of an outsider or stranger they feel conscious and provide only some formal information’s in an unnatural way. It creates bias and what the observer collects is not actual or normal thing but only formal information’s.

(d) Inconvenience to the respondents:

The members of a particular group always feel uncomfortable when they know that their behaviour is critically analyzed by an outsider. Therefore in some cases the tribals do not allow an outsider to watch their socio-cultural activities. It is always better for a researcher to become a member of the group in order to learn much about it.

Limitations to this option include:

  • The observer effect: the presence of the researcher may influence the participants’ actions. This may reduce over a longer period of observation, but remains a potential issue.
  • The objectivity of the observer: The researcher can take steps to ensure systematic and rigorous approaches to sampling, field notes, and data collection to increase transparency.
  • Selectivity: The observation can never capture everything. This can be addressed by observing as many different circumstances as is possible, over as long a period of time as is possible.
  • Ethical concerns: Should the researcher’s voice be viewed with greater authority than that of the participants? This can be addressed by drawing on participant accounts, as well as that of the researcher.


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