Participant-observation is a method comprised of two familiar parts: observation and participation. Observation of spatial phenomena has been a central method for geography from its very outset, whether it be observing the movement of glaciers or the traffic flows of cities. Participation, on the other hand, is a form of involvement, or association, in a group, practice or event.1
Aside from geography, participant observation is a widely used methodology in many disciplines, particularly cultural anthropology, ethnology, sociology, communication and leadership studies and social psychology. The goal of participant observation is to gain a deep understanding and intimate familiarity with a certain group of individuals, their values, beliefs, practices and way of life through an intensive involvement with people in their cultural environment, usually over an extended period of time.2
There are many advantages to the use of participant-observation in understanding phenomena. Patton enumerates these advantages as follows:
- Through direct observations, the inquirer is better able to understand and capture the context within which people interact. Understanding context is essential to a holistic perspective.
- First-hand experience with a setting and the people in the setting allows an inquirer to be open, discovery oriented, and inductive because, by being on-site the observer has less need to rely on prior conceptualizations of the setting, whether those prior conceptualizations are from written documents or verbal reports.
- The inquirer has the opportunity to see things that may routinely escape awareness among the people in the setting.
- The chance to learn things that people would be unwilling to talk about during the interview.
- Getting close to people in a setting through first-hand experience permits the inquirer to draw on personal knowledge during the formal interpretation state of analysis. Reflection and introspection are important part of field research. 3
- Eric Laurier, “Participant Observation”, accessed July 9, 2018, https://bit.ly/2A2s2X9
- Ashley Crossman, Understanding Participant Observation Research: An Introduction to an Important Qualitative Research Method (April 8, 2018), accessed July 10, 2018, https://bit.ly/2JCqmCS.
- Michael Quinn Patton, Qualitative research and Evaluation Methods, 3rd Ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication, 2002), 262-263.