Often described as immersion in a culture, participant-observation is the principal methodological component of ethnographic fieldwork. The researcher watches people and their activities in the social situation under study, gradually increasing participation in the culture as a check on observations. In turn, continuing observation allows for greater and more accurate participation. As the process proceeds, the ethnographer is able to write field notes as a cultural participant as well as an observer, fostering richness and complexity in the qualitative and quantitative data collected and analyzed. Participant-observation may occur in projects that range in time from weeks to years with the average as one to two years. Any physical setting can serve as the location for participant-observation. Cultural anthropologists have studied patients in U.S. hospital rooms, multi-ethnic neighborhoods in the Middle East, and Inuit subsistence practices.
As a strategy, participant-observation is particularly useful if the research topics are usually hidden from outsiders such as family life or religious activities, if the interest is in behavior that is observable within daily life, if the group is limited by size and/or location as in a specific case study, and if emphasis is on understanding meaning from the emic or insiders’ point of view. Participant-observation is not appropriate for studies with large populations or when precise causal relationships between limited variables are sought. Thus, the approach typically is not deductive in design or based on hypothesis testing models.
Participant-observation helps researchers refine skills in the native language, facilitating appropriate interviewing, which is the other primary ethnographic fieldwork method. Since participant-observation enables ethnographers to understand interview, survey, and observational data, it enhances research validity. It also allows the fieldworker gradually to become part of the cultural scene, thereby minimizing people’s attempts to modify behavior from their ordinary routine. Although participant-observation moves a researcher from a position outside a culture to that of an insider, it does not eliminate all cultural barriers. The amount of insider knowledge that can be gained through participant-observation varies from project to project depending on the extent of active complete participation that is possible. During ethnographic fieldwork, the participant-observer also will experience changing emotional states from initial excitement to culture shock and from contentment to despair and back again as the work proceeds. These emotions too are noted in the field diary as part of the data record.
The development of participant-observation in anthropology is usually attributed to the late 19th and early 20th century change from “armchair” research to “fieldwork” and direct data collection by researchers. Bronislaw Malinowski’s fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands is recognized as emblematic of this new form of data collection, given his attempt to describe in detail the everyday life of people, rather than reconstructing past culture or fitting them into a preexisting evolutionary framework. The key change was a new paradigm in which empiricism was crucial. There is also a tradition in sociology, dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, which uses the method of participant-observation. Recently, educational researchers, and others in the humanities and social sciences, also have utilized participant-observation.
- Bernard, H. R. (1988). Research methods in cultural anthropology. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Denzin, N., & Lincoln, L. (Eds.). (1994). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Spradley, J. (1980). Participant observation. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.