Research Methods: Participant Observation

HideShow resource information

Types of Observation

  • Non-Participant Observation: Not participating, e.g. observing.
  • Participant Observation: Participating.
  • Overt: Identity is open and study is known to the group, e.g. school kids.
  • Covert: Identity and study is secret to the group, e.g. fake identity to join a gang.


  • Structured Participant observation.
  • Reliable, genralisability, representative.
  • Can measure behaviour patterns, find cause and effect.
  • It's Quantitative.


  • Unstructured Participant observation.
  • Valid.
  • Experience.
  • Gives insight to social actors like behaviour.
  • Qualitative.


1 of 6

Conducting research:


  • Trying to get into a group, e.g. criminal gang.
  • Making contact, depends on personal skills/ chances.
  • Getting accepted, have to win trust/ make friendship. But, researcher ethnicity and social class maybe a problem, e.g. John Griffen.
  • How the researcher should act, should he disrupt normal gang routines, create vantage points for observations. 


  • Once they're in, they need to stay, has to be attached and detached/objective.
  • Going Native, researcher may be too involved and become biased/attached to the group.
  • May stop observing and start particpating. Groups mystery becomes a norm.


  • Easier than getting/staying in.
  • Researcher may leave quickly if overt. E.g. Partick and Glasgow gang.
  • If now attached to the group, leaving maybe difficult.
  • Loyalty may prevent giving out information, e.g. may get a criminal gang arrested.
2 of 6



Researcher identity is known and groups permission is needs.


  • Ignores ethical problems like decieving. 
  • Can ask what outsiders maybe wondering, e.g. "Why steal?".
  • Can observe openly.
  • Can use interview methods.


  • Group may refuse to let them in or see everything.
  • May be shown what group only wants them to see.
  • May create a Howthorne effect.
  • Data may not be valid but artificial.
3 of 6



  • Disadvantages of Overt may result to using this.


  • Reduces Howthorne effect/ artificial behaviour.
  • More valid.
  • Keeps everything natural.


  • Reseacher had to keep up an act.
  • Covert may be blown
  • Some criminal gangs may use violence.
  • Can't ask outsider questions.
  • May have to rely on memory not notes.
  • Still chance of reducing validity.
4 of 6



  • It's immoral to decieve people, researchers need consent.
  • Many lie to leave the group.
  • Researcher may take part in illegal acts.
  • Researcher has duty to report things that are illegal.


5 of 6

Advantages of Participant Observation

  • It's valid, rich source of qualitative data and creates true image.
  • We get an insight, we understand things ourselves, good perspective/experience of peoples lives and get unique data.
  • It's flexible, survey questions have pre-Qs thought out and hypothesis' set. But Participant observations allows an open mind, new questions/situations.
  • Can get answers other methods can't.
  • Practically it's good for observing groups and can be used where questioning is useless.

Disadvantages of Participant Observation:

  • Practically, it's timely, researcher needs training, stressful if covert, not everyone can observe as a skill, personal character is key,
  • Ethically, if covert, it decieves people, immoral and illegal.
  • Representativeness is small, quantative methods aren't for Participant Observation.
  • It's not reliable, can't be accuratly repeated. Personal character matters and skills, can't be compared to other studies as it's qualitative.
  • It may be biased and not objective, many may become loyal, won't release full info, 
  • Validity isn't 100%, positivists reject it as it creates an image of what observer sees, may result in Howthorne effect.
6 of 6


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Sociological research methods resources »