Methods of Research – Participant Observation

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

Participant Observation

In participant observation studies, the researcher becomes (or is already) part of the group to be observed. This involves fitting in, gaining the trust of members of the group and at the same time remaining sufficiently detached as to be able to carry out the observation. The observations made might be based on what people do, the explanations they give for what they do, the roles they have, relationships amongst them and features of the situation in which they find themselves. The researcher should be open about what s/he is doing, give the participants in the study the chance see the results and comment on them, and take their comments seriously.

Objectives: A participant observer is placed in a community with the aim of collecting more detailed information about a community’s habits, opinions and issues and with a view to developing planning and policies that better incorporate the community’s needs and wishes.

Outcomes: Information about a community collected by a participant observer can ensure that planning and decision making incorporates community needs and opinions, and will therefore be more acceptable and more useful to the community.”

Advice for USING this option

  • Researcher lives in or regularly visits the site/suburb/organisation.
  • Observations are made by the researcher regarding opinions or reactions to particular issues.
  • Researchers should state their intentions openly, and integrate themselves into the community.
  • The conclusions drawn by the researcher depend largely on the researcher’s abilities, and should be seen within this context.
  • Generally, participant observation should be combined with actual participation techniques to be of any value.

Advantages of Participant Observation:

The following are the merits of participant observation:

(a) Observation of natural behaviour:

The natural behaviour of the respondent can be studied by participant observation. When a group knows that they are going to be observed by a stranger, they feel conscious, uncomfortable and therefore neutrality in their behaviour and activity is lost. But in case of the participant observation, the respondents do not know that they are being observed. So their behaviour is not constrained by the conscious feeling of being observed by a stranger.

(b) Closeness with the group:

In participant observation, the observer has a very good rapport with the respondents. He has a very close primary relationship with the group members. Because of this he can participate in all activities from a close angle and thus can better interpret the situation than a non-participant observer.

(c) Studying the real character:

Often in order to study the actual behaviour, the group research requires close participation and contact with the group members. Through participant observation the observer can make an intensive and inclusive study of the group and can gain into the real character of such group.

(d) Better Understanding:

In participant observation the observer can better understood the feeling of the respondents than an outsider. For example, a person who is actually living in a slum area can realise the feeling and hardship of the slum dwellers in a better way than an outsider.

(e) Participation provides opportunity to learn more about an event:

The chief advantage of participant observation is that in it the observer gets an opportunity to interact with the group regarding various activities of them. He can thus learn the significance of these activities that are actually not open for observation. For example, if an observer participates in a religious ceremony of a tribe, viz. “Chaitra Parba” of Gadaba tribe, he can not only observe different aspects of the ceremony but also clear his doubt by asking various questions to the group members or learn more about that ceremony by discussing with the group in this regard. It is generally easier for the respondent to describe about the event on right occasion than before or after it.

Disadvantages of Participant Observation:

In-spite of above advantages of participant observation it has also many disadvantages.

The following are the disadvantages of the participant observation:

(a) Lack of objectivity:

By becoming members of a group and participating very closely in it, the observer may lose his objectivity. His emotional and sentimental association with the group kills his impartiality and unbiased analysis. He may develop some soft corner for that group member and because of this; he may often justify their evil activities as just activity.

(b) Often close association brings biased interpretation:

Because of his close association and emotional participation with the group members the researcher creates a special position for himself in that group. He may be influenced or pleased by this and begins to support them blindly. Due to this he observes the things from his own personal point of view rather than scientific point of view.

(c) Misses important issues due to familiarity:

Due to much familiarity many crucial events appear to the participant observer as of little or no significance. Therefore, he misses many of the important issues. But a stranger pays much attention even to a small thing, as this appears new to him.

(d) Limited range of experience:

In participant observation the observer is confines himself to a particular group. So his experience becomes very deep, but the range of his experience becomes very limited.

(e) Involvement in groupism:

The active participation and proximity of the observer with the group may involve him in quarrels and group factionalism. He cannot avoid taking side of one faction. But if he does so, he loses his status as an impartial observer whom everybody is ready to co-operate. So it destroys the very purpose of the research and the researcher finds it very difficult to get proper information from the group.

(f) Limits of participant observation:

There are certain situations in which the participant observation is not possible. For example, it is not possible to observe criminals or prisoners.


Department of Sustainability and Environment (2005). Book 3: The Engagement Toolkit.Effective Engagement: building relationships with community and other stakeholders, The Community Engagement Network Resource and Regional Services Division Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment. Retrieved from

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