Participant observation is a specific type of data collection typically used in ethnography or qualitative research. Several disciplines use this methodology as scholar-practitioners work to gain a close or intimate familiarity with a specific group of individuals in a targeted demographic.
Any community can become part of a participant observation method of data collection. Occupational, religious, and geographical demographics are common points of interest when evaluating communication studies, social psychology, or cultural anthropology.
The first use of this method dates to the early 19th century when Joseph Marie stated that the “best way to get to know Indians (Native Americans) is to become like one of them, and it is by learning their language that we will become their fellow citizens.” Frank Cushing, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Margaret Meed were all extensive users of this collection option.
Several advantages and disadvantages of participant observation are worth noting when approaching a qualitative research project.
List of the Advantages of Participant Observation
1. It provides results that lend validity to a proposed theory.
The participant observation approach collects an abundant amount of qualitative data that is useful in a variety of postulations. It allows researchers to receive a clear picture of how people are living and interacting with each other. Because each person involved in this work gets to see these social encounters personally, the first-hand information becomes useful to prove the validity of proposed theories.
It also provides the advantage of disproving specific ideas because of the direct observations that create data.
2. Participant observation provides high levels of flexibility for researchers.
Participant observation provides more flexibility with regard to qualitative research than other methods that use this approach. It allows researchers to maintain an open mind, giving them opportunities to follow up on different ideas, theories, and directions if something interesting occurs during their work.
This approach allows researchers to learn answers to questions that they may not know to ask when they first start their participant observation work. Participant observation is not bound by the same rules as the quantitative methods if something does not fit an expectation.
3. More insights become available because of participant observation.
Researchers using the participant observation method gain an opportunity to develop empathy through their personal experiences with the targeted demographic. Each person gets to act as a member of that small group so that it is possible to glean more insight into specific points of view, social values, and the meaning of other actions. It provides factual data instead of forcing people to make assumptions about the behaviors or decisions that people make.
4. It provides practical advantages to data collection that other methods cannot use.
When a specific demographic has trust issues with researchers or the people live in isolation, then accessing these groups can be challenging. The individuals are naturally more suspicious of anything or anyone that is different. Participant observation allows data collectors to gain more trust and rapport so that we can get more information about particular groups.
Participant observation is useful for studying groups like gangs, issues like juvenile delinquency, and cult-based religious indoctrination.
5. Participant observation can capture changing attitudes.
This option for qualitative research does not always need to focus on the big picture. Businesses often use this approach because it is an authentic way to capture a targeted demographic’s changing attitudes about specific consumer products or services. Organizations can also use it to examine shifting perspectives in their workplace. By taking a proactive approach to ideas or circumstances that could be problematic if left unchecked, researchers can ensure the survival of a project, idea, or commercial venture.
6. It opens the door for researcher speculation.
Participant observation allows researchers to capture data through speculative means regarding the areas they choose to investigate within a population group. Shifting decisions about how to gather this information are also part of the experience. That means someone can choose to act on their instincts to determine where useful info is possible instead of relying on structures designed by someone who falls outside of the targeted demographic.
7. Researchers have more ways to produce real results.
The targeting processes of qualitative research are on full display when using participant observation as the primary data collection method. This advantage allows an entire organization or demographic to account for all processes, parts, and participants so that sampling groups can go through a comparison process. It helps to speed up the work of collecting information to prove or disprove an idea while keeping the overall costs of the project down compared to other methods of information gathering.
8. The information gathered by participant observation as a predictive quality.
Although it is challenging to generalize the information gathered by participant observation, the data that researchers collect does have a protective quality to it. That means a similar population group will have an experience that is somewhat the same if an equal set of variables impacts them. It gives us a way to see how people could react in future situations when they have a specific set of experiences or values that drive their decision-making processes.
9. Participant observation can be an open-ended process.
Quantitative research works within a specific structure where there is a defined beginning and end to the data collection process. Qualitative research, such as participant observation, use more of an open-ended approach. Although a defined starting point is necessary for almost any information-gathering effort, this method can continue pressing forward until funding stops coming in for the work. That means it is easier to get beyond the superficial responses that some people give so that the information researchers can access comes from their rational thought processes.
10. It provides insight into an individual or group attitude.
Even though people can be unpredictable, humans are creatures of habit. Each person tends to react the same way whenever a similar set of circumstances happen to them. This process occurs because most people prefer to live life in a routine. That means qualitative research through participant observation can turn these activities into usable data for studies in marketing, psychology, anthropology, and other fields.
List of the Disadvantages of Participant Observation
1. Participant observation has a high risk of bias entering the data.
Researchers must get directly involved with the particular demographic they want to study so that the data they collect is authentic. This approach comes with a severe risk of getting involved in the social dynamics of those individuals, which means the collected information has a higher risk of bias than you can find in other forms of qualitative research. If someone begins to sympathize with the perspectives or attitudes of the studies group, then the information is no longer reliable.
2. The representative sample being studied is relatively small.
Participant observation works well when researchers have an opportunity to directly study a small sample size. When the targeted demographic that tiny, then it is almost impossible to draw generalizations that impact the rest of society from the data of being gathered. The information applies only to a group of individuals. That means this time-consuming approach may not be beneficial unless the theory or idea under consideration can receive direct study through the particular group in question.
3. It takes a lot of time to gather factual data using participant observation.
Most participant observation studies require several years of data collection work before it can start producing results. You must have trained researchers who can establish rapport with a targeted demographic while also having the willingness to become part of that element of society for the duration of the work. It is very demanding work that can become extremely stressful when the only way to gather information is through covert methods.
This disadvantage is another reason why bias can creep into the collected data. When you spend most of your time around people, it is difficult to avoid forming relationships with them that impact you in some way.
4. Ethical questions exist for this qualitative research method.
This disadvantage of participant observation is specific to the covert methods that are sometimes used to gather data. If researchers must deceive individuals about who they are or what they do, then the information collected from direct observations may not be entirely accurate. Deceiving people to gain information about them is typically seen as being wrong, and there may be ethical choices about participating in an Immoral or illegal activity during the course of research.
5. Self-selection can cause information bias to appear in the collected data.
When researchers put out a call for participants because of the need to gather qualitative research, then self-selection can create an issue with bias. The people who readily make themselves available to projects like this tend to have a specific agenda that they want to fulfill. That means the information that gets collected through the participant observation process is not authentic, even if it appears to be.
The only way to avoid this disadvantage is to randomize the individuals in the studied demographic so that no one can unduly influence the information gathering process. That means quantitative influences can come into the participant observation work, sometimes negating the benefits that they can achieve.
6. Participant observation relies heavily on the skills of the researcher.
Researchers using the participant observation method must know where to look for data and how to ask the right questions to gather information. A failure to recognize circumstances where info might not be accurate or available (or the reverse) results in errors that could influence the outcome of this work. Failing to ask the correct questions can mean a critical insight gets missed.
7. The data collected through participant observation is somewhat subjective.
Researchers are in full control over the information that they feel is important to gather when performing participant observation work. That means the perspective of the person who collects the info can influence the results in a way that they might prefer individually. If one researcher feels like the pursuit of a data tangent is worthless while another feels like it is a critical ingredient to a successful outcome, then the information that each person gathers will have a slightly different purpose to it.
8. Participant observation gathers situation-specific data.
The human mind remembers things in ways that are unique to the individual. That means the interaction between the participant and the researchers is a critical component to the success of this work. Without clear documentation and transcription, the different perspectives will cause less data rigidity to be present in the final postulation. Most people make decisions in the heat of the moment instead of taking a well-thought, logical stance – especially in reactionary circumstances.
That means participant observation captures more of a snapshot in time than a long-term perspective when gathering data. It can produce useful results in a variety of industries, but it isn’t information that has value when considering future circumstances.
9. It can be challenging to duplicate the results of participant observation work.
The subjective nature of participant observation and qualitative research means that it may be difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate the results with future efforts. That means the findings produced from these efforts may not qualify for acceptance in some scientific and sociological circles. Although a highly structured study in a specific population group could receive independent verification, the boundaries one would need to create for such a result would turn the work more toward quantitative research instead.
10. Researchers must have familiarity with the subject matter they study.
A participant observation study has the most success when researchers have a high level of familiarity with the population group and the theory under consideration. If both of these elements are not available in the group of workers who will collect information, then the lack of understanding can leave information uncollected, even though someone with experience might identify it as useful data.
Imagine a journalist trying to conduct an interview about magnetic fields when their experience involves sports reporting. Would that person know the right questions to ask? Do they understand the subject well enough to pursue a tangent if one should appear in an answer? That’s why qualitative research is often seen as being a weaker process to follow unless one can verify the skills of the people who gather the data.
11. It does not provide a statistical representation of the gathered intervention.
Any form of qualitative research, including participant observation, collects data passed on individual perspectives, reactions, and responses. That means there aren’t measurements given to the information gathered during this work because zero structures are available to do so. You can make comparisons with this info to look at how specific situations occur in unique population groups, but there is also no way to provide a quantitative sample or statistical representation of what is presented.
Participant observation requires researchers to become subjective participants in the sense that they use the information gained from personal involvement to interact with or gain further access to the group being studied. This activity implies a dimension of information that is often lacking when conducting surveys or direct interviews.
It is a method that also requires researchers to be objective and record everything that happens around them without letting their emotions or feelings influence their findings.
When reviewing the participant observation advantages and disadvantages, it is essential to remember that authentic objectivity is an ideal situation, but it is rarely an actuality. All of us see the world we live in through different eyes because of our environment, individual choices, and personalized influences. That means the only researcher that is 100% accurate is an unbiased individual who is already familiar with the small demographic in question.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.