Participant Observation

Participant Observation

Outline and discuss advantages and disadvantages
of participant observation

Participant observation is a qualitative research method, which originated in the field work of social anthropologists. In traditional ethnographic research, participant observation always took place in community settings over prolonged periods of time (Spradley 1980). The distinctiveness of the method is that the ethnographer approached participants in their own environments, and over time gained a close insight into relationships and behaviours of a group of individuals under study, through either observing alone or a combination of observing and an intensive participation in the community’s daily activities (Family Health International 2007).

Participant observation of today, as a research method, is very similar to ethnography but usually takes place over a shorter time in the field. Methodologically speaking, the method has a number of inherent characteristics. First of all, it is a primary method of data collection. Secondly, participant observation is a naturalistic method that implies that the social reality has to be studied in its ‘natural state’ and in the natural settings (Flick 2002). Thirdly, participant observation is associated with the interactionist perspective because the researcher is actually involved in the activities of the studied group (Sociology Central 2003). Finally, participant observation is also known as a form of subjective sociology. This means that the researcher aims to understand the social reality from the subject’s point of view while placing him/herself in the subject’s shoes (Kane 1984).

In practice, the participant observer comes to the research field with two goals: first, to get involved in activities related to the researched situation and, second, to observe the people and the physical aspects of the situation. The logistics of the method consists of joining the group, collecting and recording the data (field notes), and finally,...

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