Participant observation: A guide for educators and social practitioners

First try at participant observation by Jonaton Zinger. Sourced fro Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Participant observation: A guide for educators and social practitioners. In this piece we examine the nature of participant observation, the various social roles that researchers can take; and some classic problems of participant observation – especially around questions of access and ethics.

Contents: introduction · what is participant observation? ·  participant observation – the question of roles · access and field relations · participant observation – questions of ethics · conclusion ·  further reading and references · how to cite this article.See, also: research for practice.

All social research, say Hammersley and Atkinson, takes the form of participant observation:

[I]t involves participating in the social world, in whatever role, and reflecting on the products of that participation. Irrespective of the method employed, it is not fundamentally different from other forms of practical everyday activity, though of course it is closer in character to some that to others. As participants in the social world we are still able, at least in anticipation or retrospect, to observe our activities ‘from outside’ as objects in the world (1983: 16-17; 2004)

In what Martyn Hammersley and Paul Atkinson say we can see the close relationship between what is approached here as a research methodology – and our activities as informal educators. We, too, engage in participant observation. We involve ourselves in everyday (and not so everyday) situations, we look at, and listen to, what is happening the encounter. We try to make sense of what is going on, so that we may act. However, participant observation isn’t something restricted to researchers and informal educators – we all do it to some degree.

Fairly frequently I used to go to a local cafe to have a curry. As a regular certain privileges were accorded me. I was offered a paper, ‘specials’ were recommended, and other regulars became less guarded in their topics of conversation e.g. around various deals etc. that they have going on. Now I can talk about these things because I have engaged with the situation as a participant observer. I suppose the significant question here is the extent to which we conscious of, and have a care for, such matters. As researchers and educators it is through the way we participate and observe that our work is done. In short, what we are concerned with here is our basic orientation to the world as practitioners.

What is participant observation?

As Mac an Ghaill (1994) has argued, the participant observer collects data by participating in the daily life of those he or she is studying. ‘The approach is close to everyday interaction, involving conversations to discover participants’ interpretations of situations they are involved in’ (Becker 1958, p. 652). The aim of participant observation is to produce a ‘thick description’ of social interaction within natural settings. At the same time informants are encouraged to use their own language and everyday concepts to describe what is going on in their lives. Hopefully, in the process a more adequate picture emerges of the research setting as a social system described from a number of participants’ perspectives (Geertz, 1973; Burgess, 1984). In other words, we are seeking to find meaning in the encounters and situations.

McCall and Simmons (1969: 1) describe the variety of methods involved in the participant observer role. They maintain that:

….participant observation is not a single method but rather a characteristic style of research which makes use of a number of methods and techniques – observation, informant interviewing, document analysis, respondent interviewing and participation with self-analysis.

Hargreaves (1967: 193) describes the advantages of participant observation as a research method for those carrying out studies in institutions in which they work.

The method of participant observation leads the investigator to accept a role within the social situation he studies: he participates as a member of the group while observing it. In theory, this direct participation in the group life permits an easy entrance into the social situation by reducing the resistance of the group members; decreases the extent to which the investigator disturbs the ‘natural’ situation, and permits the investigator to experience and observe the group’s norms, values, conflicts and pressures, which (over a long period) cannot be hidden from someone playing an in-group role.

Again, as Mairtin Mac an Ghaill points out it is important to recognize that in participant observation, we are the main research instrument of our studies. An immediate task is to make unfamiliar the research arena, with which we may be very familiar. ‘Most events in our own society and especially settings with which we are familiar seem “natural” and “obvious”. We have already learned the culture and we find few things problematic.’ (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983: 128; 2004).

Many ethnographers will use interviews to supplement the material gained by participating in the usual round of social encounters and experiences, William Foote Whyte did relatively little formal interviewing. ‘I sought to show this interested acceptance of the people and the community in my everyday participation’ (ibid: 302). He went on, ‘As I sat and listened, I learned answers to questions that I would not even have the sense to ask if I had been getting my information solely on an interview basis’ (ibid: 303).

Participant observation – the question of roles

There are various ways of describing or characterising the roles that researchers take in situations. Here I want to look at one such model suggested by Junkers (1960) and Gold (1958) (reported in Hammersley and Atkinson 1983: 93). They distinguish between the:

  • complete participant;
  • participant as observer
  • observer as participant; and the
  • complete observer.

In the first role, as a complete participant, our activities as researchers and educators may be wholly concealed (or we may seek to conceal them). Like the detached workers in Mary Morse’s book The Unattached we may pretend that we are something quite different. As researchers we may join a group – a church or political party – and pose as ‘ordinary members’ – but have the purpose of doing research. Alternatively, we may already be part of a situation – for example, me in the cafe, and then take up the life of the cafe as a research topic. In some cases it may be necessary to take up this role as we would not otherwise gain access to a situation. However, the strategy can end up being very limiting. The depth and nature of the material we gather can be very restricted.

The participant will, by definition, be implicated in existing social practices and expectations in a far more rigid manner than the known researcher. The research activity will therefore be hedged round by these pre-existing social routines and realities. It will prove hard for the field-worker to arrange his or her actions in order to optimize data collection possibilities. (Hammersley and Atkinson 1983: 94)

On the other extreme we have the ‘complete observer’. This person has no contact with those she or he is observing. A classic example of this sort of approach is covert observation of behaviour – perhaps in the street or public place. Many of the same problems apply here are with the complete participant. In both cases we are not able to engage with people as researchers. There is not opportunity to explore with people in any depth – what meanings they are placing on the situation.

As might be expected most research and practice falls between these to poles. Again, as Atkinson and Hammersley point out, whether there is any significant distinction between the participant as observer and observer as participant is a moot point. However, consideration of the model does bring out some important considerations.

The first concerns secrecy and deception – and whether these are ever acceptable in research. I will return to this question a little later. A second set of questions surrounds the taking on of existing roles. In secret research we have little option but to take up one of the roles that is acceptable in the situation or exclude ourselves from interaction. Where we are out as researchers or educators we do have some choice about the matter. We have to weigh up the pros and cons. Would taking on a familiar or known role in the situation provide us with the opportunity to gain useful material – or could it act to limit the usefulness of material. For example, some researchers in schools have chosen to take on the role of ‘teacher’. In so doing they can gain access to encounters (especially in the staffroom) but they may correspondingly cut themselves off from access to particular elements of student interaction.

A third set of questions arises around questions of experience and distance. As a ‘complete participant’ we may get some better sense of how ‘insiders’ experience situations – but at the same time there is the danger that we simply become part of the situation, that get too close. By joining in we may not be able to see the wood for the trees. As practitioners we have learnt to stand back from situations, to try to keep some distance between ourselves and those we work with. That distance is necessary so that we have ‘space’ to think about the situation. Yet, at the same time, if that distance is experienced as being too great we can prejudice our ability to act. Hammersley and Atkinson put it well with respect to research:

There must always remain some part held back, some social and intellectual ‘distance’. For it is in the ‘space’ created by this distance that the analytical work of the ethnographer gets done. Without that distance, without such analytical space, the ethnography can be little more than the autobiographical account of a personal conversation. (1983: 103)

Access and field relations and participant observation

I now want to turn to the work of William Foote Whyte, and in particular Street Corner Society, his seminal study of an Italian neighbourhood in an eastern city in the USA (which he calls ‘Cornerville’). The book is subtitled ‘the social structure of an Italian slum’. The first section of the book concentrates on the experiences of two contrasting groups: Doc and his corner-boy gang, and Chick and his college-boy club. From this he seeks to explore the different careers of individual members. These two case studies are then taken to be representative of a large part of local society – they are all “little guys” Cornerville (Whyte 1955: xix). He then turns to the activities of the “big shots” – the politicians and racketeers. ‘If we can get to know these people intimately and understand the relations between little guy and little guy, big shot and little guy, and big shot and big shot’ says Whyte (1955: xx), ‘then we know how Cornerville society is organized. On the basis of that knowledge it becomes possible to explain people’s loyalties and the significance of political and racket activities’.

The resulting book is full of wonderful descriptions of situations and encounters, analyses of group structures and process; the social role of the settlement house and social workers; and discussions of loyalty and social mobility. Subsequent chapters bring out the relationship of the gangs and social clubs with racketeering; and politics and the social structure, The book is a classic in its own right. From these small-scale studies Whyte is able to make connections and generalize. Through his writing, crucially, he is able communicate something of the feeling of the place and the relationships. However, probably what has cemented the book in the canon of sociological texts is his extensive discussion of the methodology. It tells the story of his 3½ years in Cornerville and how his research became fundamentally reshaped by the experience.

Whyte began his study with very little background in community studies of this kind or of participant observation. However, what he did have was the sort of curiosity that drove him to explore different ways of conducting research with his peers; and a preparedness to join in with local ways of life – much like anthropologists in more distant places. He began by trying to work his way into the local community by hanging round hotels and bars etc. This was met with great success. He then got to know social workers in local settlement houses – and while they had a great deal of knowledge – gained to some extent from the ‘outside’ – Whyte was still not getting the sort of picture he wanted. One of the workers suggested he talked to ‘Doc’.

‘Doc’ first became a key informant, then a friend and, in all essences, a co-worker. What Doc was able to do was to both provide Whyte with data about people and the neighbourhood, and to sponsor Whyte into various groups that he would have had considerable difficulties in entering. Other gatekeepers sponsored his search for a place to live and so on. In this way he gained access to key networks. However, he also had to engage in a ‘crash course’ in participant observation – and to learn ways of working that are very familiar to us.

As I began hanging about Cornerville, I found that I needed an explanation for myself and for my study. As long as I was with Doc and vouched for by him, no one asked me who I was or what I was doing. When I circulated in other groups or even among the Nortons without him, it was obvious that they were curious about me.

I began with a rather elaborate explanation… I gave the explanation on only two occasions, and each time, when I had finished, there was an awkward silence. No one, myself included, knew what to say.

I soon found that people were developing their own explanation about me: I was writing a book about Cornerville. This might seem entirely too vague an explanation, and yet it sufficed. I found that my acceptance in the district depended on the personal relationships I developed far more than any explanations I might give. (Whyte 1955: 300)

‘Getting in’, ‘staying in’ and ‘getting out’ are key moments in a participant observation study. ‘Getting in’ is what Whyte here is referring to. ‘Staying in’ refers to the quality of the relationships that we develop with the research participants. As Mac an Ghaill (1996) writes:

For me these included being one of the youngest members of staff, living in the local black community and being able to cope with and contribute to the students’ sense of humour. The most unexpected aspect of the fieldwork was that the students identified with my Irish nationality. This had major implications for my research that none of the text books on social science methodology had prepared me for. For example, on a number of occasions outside of school, when the students’ friends objected to my presence among them, it was pointed out that I was ‘Irish not white’ and this seemed to satisfy their objections.

‘Getting out’ involves us in leaving the research site, or abandoning our role as researcher, hopefully with the participants feeling positive about their involvement in the study.

Participant observation – questions of ethics

Lincoln Williams (1988, p.136) warns us of the possible paternalism entailed in participant observation, and ‘the arrogance of the researcher invading another group’s world to get information in order to relay it to the outside world’. Williams is referring here to the question of power relations within the research arena. Wolpe (1988, p.160) notes in her study of schooling and sexuality that ‘the type of information boys would give a female researcher is likely to differ from that given to a male researcher’. In his study of white girls, Meyenn (1979, quoted in Wolpe) found that private areas of their lives were not discussed with him. More importantly, as feminist and black writers argue, in the past researchers have reified the research process with truth claims based on appeals to scientific objectivity and technical expertise, which serve to make invisible the complex internal sets of power relations in operation (Griffin, 1986; and Bhavnani, 1991). Mac an Ghaill comments that is his own work:

I hoped that by adopting a theoretical position that located racism and sexism as the major barriers to the schooling of black youth, I became more sensitive to the question of how social location in a stratified society, including differential power relations, influences one’s perspective, and that this in turn helped to shape my qualitative studies. Nevertheless, a problem that remained throughout the research was the feeling of ‘ripping off’ the students. This raises the issue of what participants are getting out of taking part in our research.

Becker (1967) has addressed another key aspect of the power relations operating within the research arena. He asked ‘whose side are we on?’. He answered by suggesting that the researcher must choose between the subordinates’ and the superiors’ perspectives. In the polarised environment of schools Mac an Ghaill ‘s main problem was not on whose side he was, but rather whose side he appeared to be on. He found that while observing and participating with both teachers and students created tensions of identifying with groups who were hostile to each other, nevertheless, it was productive for an understanding of what was really going on in the classroom. Equally productive was the conflict of the teacher-researcher role.

A further important ethical issue concerns the question of working covertly. Whatever its advantages, as Schatzman and Strauss (1973, p. 62) argue, participant observation with a hidden identity does raise ethical problems that are not easily resolved. It may be argued that if in adopting this research tactic we gain new insights; that the end justifies the means. However, the ethical problem of recording individuals without their knowledge remains. The moral dilemma is not necessarily overcome by making known one’s presence as a researcher to those who are the subjects of the study. As Hargreaves (1967) points out, a certain amount of deception is inevitable in participant observation; it was when the teachers appeared to treat him as a friend rather than a researcher that the most significant things were said.

In conclusion

Participant observation takes time and commitment. It offers the chance to generate new understandings and to build theories. Yet with it comes various problems – of ethics, of power, of interpretation. It may be, as we have already noted, that it is part and parcel of social life – but this doesn’t make it any easier.

Further reading and references

Atkinson, P., Coffey, A., and Delamont, S. (2003) Key Themes in Qualitative Research: Continuities and Changes, AltaMira Press. 272 pages. An exploration of qualitative methodology and research by three writers who have made a significant contribution to the literature. Interestingly, the book is structured around classic texts. As the blurb says, ‘the authors examine key premises in these texts, such as intimacy, advocacy and validity and how they may be supported, redesigned or made problematic in today’s field’.,

Coffey, A. (1999) The Ethnographic Self: Fieldwork and the Representation of Identity, Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage. Readable exploration of the ethnographic presence in the research field and the implications of this in and beyond fieldwork

Denzin, N. K. (1997) Interpretative Ethnography. Ethnographic practices for the 21st century, Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage. 288 pages. Examines the prospects, problems and forms of ethnographic interpretative writing. Argues for postmodern ethnography and new forms of experimental texts. Sections on reading the crisis; experimental texts; whose truth?

de Walt, K, M. and de Walt, B. R. (2002) Participant Observation, AltaMira Press. Basic Guide.

Ellen, R. F. (ed.) (1984) Ethnographic Research. A guide to general conduct, New York: Academic Press. Guide to fieldwork methods with useful material around ethics, entry to field etc.

Hammersley, M. (1992) What’s Wrong With Ethnography? Methodological explorations, London; Routledge. 230 + x pages. Some love him, some hate him. Explores ethnography’s ‘ambivalent status – it is accepted as a form of social research, but at same time there has been a considerable diversification of approach. For example, to what extent can ethnographic accounts represent social reality; and to can ethnography really contribute to practice?

Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (1983; 2004) Ethnography. Principles in practice, London: Routledge. 274 + x pages. Standard UK text that examines the nature of ethnography; research design; field relations; insider accounts; documents; recording and analysing data; the process of analysis; and writing ethnographies.

Jorgenson, D. (1989, 2002) Participant Observation. A methodology for human sciences, Newbury Park: Sage. Another of the short, readable, Sage guides that provides an overview of the subject.

Lofland, J. and Lofland, L. (1984) Analyzing Social Settings. A guide to qualitative observation and analysis 2e, Belmont Ca.: Wadsworth. 193 pages. Reworking of popular text that first appeared in 1971. Plenty of discussion of the nitty gritty of research plus good treatment of methodological questions.

McCall, G. J. and Simmons, J. L. (eds.) (1969) Issues in Participant Observation, Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley. 359 pages. Classic collection with sections on the nature of participant observation; field relations; data collection and recording; data quality; generating hypotheses; evaluating hypotheses; publication; and on comparing methods.

Marcus, G. E. and Fischer, M. M. J. (1986) Anthropology as Cultural Critique. An experimental moment in the human sciences, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 205 + xiii pages. Explores the then current state of anthropology and the state of ethnography.

Whyte, W. F. (1984) Learning from the Field. A guide from experience. London: Sage. 295 pages. Uses case studies and examples to explore the nature of field work with particular emphasis on participant observation and the semi-structured interview. Chapters on participant observation; planning; field relations; observation; interviewing; recording and evaluating interview data; team research; using history; types of social research; ethics; focusing the study and analysing data; developing conceptual schemes.

Woods, P. (1996) Researching the Art of Teaching. Ethnography for educational use, London: Routledge. 198 + viii pages. Reviews the position of ethnography in educational research. Chapters on the art and science of teaching; the promise of symbolic interactionalism; seeing into the life of things; living and researching a school inspection; collaborating in historical ethnography; the ethnographer’s self; and the politics of dissemination.


Becker, H, (1966, 1997) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, New York: Free Press.

Becker, H. et al (1961) Boys in white; student culture in medical school, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bhavnani, K-K. (1991) Talking politics : a psychological framing for views from youth in Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burgess, R. G. (1984) In the Field. An introduction to field research, London: George Allen & Unwin.

Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, London: Hutchinson.

Geertz, C. (1983) Local Knowledge. Further essays in interpretive anthropology, New York: Basic Books.

Griffin, C. (1985) Typical girls? : young women from school to the full-time job market, London: Routledge.

Hargreaves, D. H. (1967) Social Relations in a secondary school, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Mac an Ghaill, M. (1996) Understanding masculinities : social relations and cultural arenas, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Morse, M. (1965; 1966) The unattached : a report of the three-year project carried out by the National Association of Youth Clubs, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Schatzman, L. and Strauss, A. L. (1973) Field research: strategies for a natural sociology, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Williams, L. (1988) Partial surrender : race and resistance in the youth service, London: Falmer.

Wolpe, A. M. (1988) Within school walls : the role of discipline, sexuality and the curriculum, London: Routledge.

Whyte, W. F. (1955) Street corner society : the social structure of an Italian slum, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Acknowledgement: The picture ‘First try at participant observation’ is by Jonaton Zinger. Sourced fro Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  licence.

How to cite this article: Smith, Mark K. (1997) ‘Participant observation. A guide for educators and social practitioners’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1997

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