participant observation

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participant observation

a 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:

  1. the labour-intensive character, and the expense of the method given that lengthy periods of observation are usually required;
  2. the difficulty of minimizing and controlling the social researcher's influence on the social processes observed;
  3. 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.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
References in periodicals archive ?
She draws on participant observation and historical sources, as well as interviews with former and current deaf students, to describe the early European, American, and Australian colonial histories of deaf education; deaf education in New South Wales, including oralism as an educational method during the 1940s to the 1960s; the integration of children with disabilities within general education and the introduction of Total Communication in the 1970s; developments in deaf education during the 1980s, particularly mainstreaming; accessible and inclusive education in the 1990s, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, and the introduction of bilingualism; diversity and the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities during the 2000s; and the year 2000 and beyond.
She undertook her research over a seven-year period during which she participated in NGOs, conducted extensive research on development literature, engaged in participant observation, and accessed records of the two NGOs she studied.
Interviews and participant observation with key community members, including city planners and infrastructure operators, were conducted to develop theoretical frameworks for increasing community capacity.
Through compelling interviews, participant observation, and field notes from a marginalized Black enclave located in a predominately white suburb, the author examines a fraught police-citizen interface, where Black people are segregated and yet forced to negotiate overlapping spaces with their more affluent White counterparts.
What was common for over half of the participant observation days was the difference between the drivers' actual activities and the activities entered into the tachographs.
The first part features these submissions: The Interview as a Form of Talking-Partnership: Dialectical, Focussed (sic), Ambiguous, Special; Ethnography is not Participant Observation: Reflections on the Interview as Participatory Qualitative Research; Finding and Mining the Talk: Negotiating Knowledge and Knowledge Transfer in the Field; The Autobiographical Narrative Interview: A Potential Arena of Emotional Remembering, Performance and Reflection; Eliciting the Tacit: Interviewing to Understand Bodily Experience; and Difficult Moments in the Ethnographic Interview: Vulnerability, Silence and Rapport.
The research is based on multi-sited participant observation by the members of the research team in three Dayak societies (Bentian, Luangan, and Ngaju), and will be carried out in cooperation with colleagues who form part of their international research network.
1970, 2-3; Mel Green, "Participant Observation Workshop: Toronto Criminology Conference," project no, 7-14, 13 Apr.
Through their data based on long-term fieldwork, contemporary participant observation, interviews and surveys, they provide examples of the roles of instant noodles and explain how they serve as a cheap and intriguing food option for the urban poor, who eat them for snacks and meals and while entertaining guests, and also use the included flavoring packets in other dishes.
Descriptions are based on primary data gained from interviews, participant observation, and analysis of medical journals and newspapers alike, with a new introduction reviewing some recent developments in the field.
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ERIC Descriptors: Comedy; Literacy; Basic Writing; Role; Interviews; Participant Observation; Correlation; Extracurricular Activities; Poetry; Athletics; Journalism; Exercise Physiology; Essays; College Students; Writing Skills; Skill Development