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participant observationa method of social research in which the researcher becomes a participant in a naturally occurring social activity. Supporters of the method contrast it favourably with other research methods such as EXPERIMENTAL METHODS or FIXED-CHOICE QUESTIONNAIRES, which are seen as introducing artificiality into social observation and investigation.
In participant observation, data are collected informally in the course of a researcher's interactions in normal social life. However, the accurate recording of data and systematically focused intensive INTERVIEWS of key informants are normally an essential feature of the approach, and these are often also supplemented by documentary evidence.
While some participant observers have been content to write up their findings in the form of descriptive ETHNOGRAPHIES, claims to greater generalization may also be advanced (see ANALYTICAL INDUCTION). Participant observation is seen to good effect in the work of Erving GOFFMAN (1961a) on asylums or Howard BECKER (1953) on marijuana usage.
The generalizability of research findings need not be a problem for participant observation, but problems do arise in:
- the labour-intensive character, and the expense of the method given that lengthy periods of observation are usually required;
- the difficulty of minimizing and controlling the social researcher's influence on the social processes observed;
- ethical as well as methodological dilemmas in entering and leaving the field, including the decision to make the research overt or covert.
All three problems are equally applicable to non-participant observation, where the researcher refrains from active involvement in the behaviour under study. The HAWTHORNE EFFECT is a good example of the way in which subjects may alter behaviour when they are aware of being observed. Whatever the problems of participant observation, it remains an invaluable method of sociological research, which is perhaps best seen as complementary to other approaches rather than as an outright alternative to them (see RESEARCH METHODS). Participant observation is an especially useful method where the social action being researched is deviant or covert. Participant observation can be described as a ‘discovery-based approach’ as well as a means of testing propositions.