ARTICLE 82: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection Methods: Observation Part 2 of 2 Parts: Participant Observation versus Non-participant Observation

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Does participant observation mean that a player is also made the referee?

Should you, as a researcher, intervene in the problem that you are studying?

Is it ethically justifiable to observe and collect information about people without them knowing what you are doing?

Can you do research on yourself?

I discuss possible answers to these questions in this article.

Participant observation versus non-participant observation. Participant observation is also direct observation. It is a mode of field-based research whereby researchers locate themselves in the real-world field setting being studied, participating and observing in the setting while also collecting data and taking notes about the field setting, its participants, and its events.

As a participant observer you will participate in the event or action about which data is being collected. An example of this would be if you participate in an advocacy campaign while taking photos or perhaps just notes, on the behaviour of members of a crowd marching on a government office building.

Making observations as part of qualitative research will probably not involve either a formal observational instrument or a large sample of observations made under highly comparable conditions. Instead, your observations will likely be part of a participant-observer role or will be made more by chance during your interviews or other field activities. Most importantly, in most qualitative research, you are unlikely to be making multiple and repetitive observations at a single, fixed location or at pre-specified time intervals.

In acting as a participant-observer, you are likely to locate yourself in some field setting that is fluid in time and space. Such fluidity will require you to make explicit decisions about your observational choices. For instance, the fluidity means that you cannot be at all places at the same time. You also cannot watch everything that is going on, especially if the event that you are observing is complex or takes place at different places at the same time. You will, therefore, need to decide where to position yourself. It might also be necessary to use the assistance of other people.

You should plan your observation procedure well to ensure that you collect the data that you need to satisfy your research question. Record keeping is important and should reflect what you observed and when. You will need to write down who participated in the process that you observed, what you saw, how it is relevant to your research topic and the conclusions that you can make from your observations.

Objectivity, representativeness, authenticity and accuracy can be improved by repeating observations at different times or different, though similar locations.

It would be unrealistic to list all possible observations that can be done for research purposes. Some examples include observing the characteristics of individual people (mannerisms, clothes, behaviour, etc.); interactions between and among people; processes; physical surroundings, etc.

A host of different paradigmatic approaches can be used with participant observation, including, behaviourism, constructivism, ethnomethodology, functionalism, phenomenology, pragmatism, radicalism, romanticism, scientism, and symbolic interactionism.

Participant observation is an interactive technique of “participating” to some degree in naturally occurring situations over an extended time and writing extensive field notes to describe what occurs. You should not collect data to answer a specific hypothesis; rather the explanations are inductively derived from the field notes. Since the context of the observations is important, you should be careful to document your role in the situation and what effect that may have on the findings.

Most field workers remain a respectful distance from the informants – cultivating empathy but not sympathy, rapport but not friendship. Collaborative and participatory research introduces the notion of active participation by you and sharing the research role with the participants. In each variation of participant observation, the research role is established at the beginning of the study and then monitored while records are kept.

To intervene or not is an important question when doing participant observation. Your intervention in an event or action, for example asking members of your target group questions while they are doing something, might change their behaviour. Perhaps this is what you want – you need to observe how people react to certain stimuli, which you will produce or arrange. However, mostly your observations will be much more natural and valid if you don’t intervene with the target group and what they do.

As a non-participant observer, you will observe “from the outside”. In this instance you will not participate in the event. If we use the example of an advocacy campaign – you might take video footage from the top of a building of a marching crowd becoming involved in a violent riot and clashes with the police. You should recognise this as an etic approach.

Overt observation versus covert observation. Overt observation would be if you observe an event, phenomenon openly and, if necessary, with the permission of those who have an interest in the event or phenomenon. You might, for example, need the permission of the police to take footage of a march in support of an advocacy campaign.

Covert observation would be if you collect images without those who are being observed, or those who should give permission, knowing that the data is being collected. This often happens when the events or actions will be different, probably artificial, if people know that they are being observed, especially if evidence, such as photos or video footage, is being collected.

Obstacles in the way of observation. Observation can be a valuable tool with which to collect and analyse data, but it is by no means perfect.

One of the most important considerations to keep in mind when doing observations is ethics. Especially covert observation and intervening with the activities of your target group can be contentious. Collecting evidence without the consent of the target group might violate the requirement of informed consent, invade the privacy and private space of participants, and insult people by treating them as research objects.

However, the validity, authenticity and accuracy of research sometimes depend on conducting covert observation. Covert observation might, for example, be necessary for groups who would otherwise not agree to being observed even though the research is in their interest. Another example is where people will not act naturally, thereby damaging the validity of the research, if they know that they are being observed. A third scenario justifying covert observation is where the knowledge of being observed might move people to act in an unsafe manner, for example a peaceful march turning violent to provoke the police or people doing dangerous deeds because they know that video cameras are on them.

People who act illegally and under the protection of “darkness” such as burglars, child abusers, murderers, etc. can and should usually not be asked for their permission to be observed, although this might lead to rather serious arguments about denying people their constitutional rights. The ethical dilemmas are numerous. At issue is the dilemma that arises between protecting the rights of an individual versus protecting the rights of the community at large.  

A second obstacle in the way of objective and accurate observation is intervention. Should you intervene if you observe a child being abused, a person being murdered or raped, a crime being committed when your intervention will deny you a once in a lifetime opportunity to obtain valuable data for your research?

These are issues that cannot be solved by means of a code of conduct. Legislation, religion and your personal value system might serve as a guideline to help you decide. However, you will probably need to consider a host of variables to decide what you should do when confronted with ethical considerations.

A third obstacle in the way of collecting valid and reliable information through observation is the issue of bias. All human beings are subjective and largely, if not entirely, guided by their own perceptions. The following are examples of factors that can lead you to the wrong interpretations and conclusions:

  1. Our focus decides what we see and how we interpret what we see. We can easily be distracted.
  2. People do not behave the same when they know that they are being watched as when they think they are alone or can hide in a crowd or in the dark.
  3. Your state of mind, state of health and whether you are tired or not influence how you observe and think.
  4. Body language can lead us astray.
  5. Our personal preferences and value system largely determine what we see and how we interpret what we see.
  6. The longer we take to record our observations, the more likely it is that we will have forgotten details, facts and the order of events.
  7. We are subjectively influenced by our memory – what we observed previously. We tend to believe that events will repeat themselves and people will always act and respond the same under the same or similar circumstances. 
  8. We are influenced by what we expect or wish to happen.

Self-observation versus observation of others. It is possible to conduct research on the self. An example of self-observation is where a person recorded video footage and wrote down his feelings and reactions while taking drugs. Mostly, however, you would observe the target for your research.


Participant observation is also direct observation and fieldwork.

It is an interactive technique.

Therefore, you will mostly follow and emic approach.

An etic approach is also possible.

You need to decide what your role towards the target group for your research will be before you start collecting data.

To intervene with the target group or not is an important decision to make when planning observation.

Participant observation can often be semi-structured or even unstructured in qualitative research.

Even so, it is advisable to plan your observation procedure well.

You can use the assistance of other people when using participant observation to collect data.

You need to keep record of what you observed and when.

Corroboration of data can be achieved by repeating observations at different times but at similar locations.

Participant observation fits in well with the interpretivist paradigms, although it can sometimes also be used in conjunction with technicist and critical paradigms.

Overt observation would be if you observe an event or phenomenon openly.

Covert observation would be if you collect images or other data without the knowledge or permission of the target for your research.

Covert observation is sometimes necessary but needs to be done with circumspection.

Ethics is an important consideration when using observation to collect data.

A second important consideration is if you should intervene in an event or phenomenon that is relevant to your research.

A third important consideration is bias.

This means that you need to persistently guard against subjectivity in your data collection and interpretation.

It is possible and can be valuable to conduct research on yourself.


I hope you noticed that it is possible to act as player and referee when collecting data through observation.

There are three preconditions for this.

Firstly, you need to act ethically.

Secondly, you should not intervene in the activities of the target group for your research, unless ethical considerations make intervention necessary.

And thirdly, you need to persistently act objectively when collecting and interpreting data.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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