Anthropologists and sociologists claim participant observation to be a method that distinguishes their fieldwork from other types of social science. Whereas quantitative methods involve cold hard numbers (which seems boring, to be honest), qualitative methods are more based on feelings, observations and language. Yet participant observation is still a rigorous method! A participant observer tries to immerse themselves in new experiences whilst suspending all judgement and being open to new experiences. This is a difficult feat for anyone, it takes a lot of patience and self-critique.
The general order to participant observation is that a researcher will connect with a group or community, then integrate into this group in order to watch and learn about social structures, patterns and behaviours. Participant observation is usually overt, the participants know that the anthropologist is observing them with the intention of writing about them, and have given informed consent. In the past, anthropologists have been more covert, but this raises a whole host of ethical issues around such deception and extraction of knowledge. The researcher is responsible for minimising any potential risks that might be inflicted upon the participants from the research, the Australian Anthropological Association has a code of conduct for more information on this matter.
Participant observation can change depending on the field, but the standard depiction of it, is of a researcher joining in on the everyday or routine tasks of their participants. It also might involve some conversations with participants, scribbling observations in notebooks and waiting around. During this time, the researcher often monitors their internal thoughts and prejudices. This might include considering how their own identity and experience effect their feelings and interactions with participants, which they sometimes record in a journal of self-reflection. The researcher must also be mindful that participants behaviour may change, since the participant know they are being researched. For example, they might subconsciously try to mirror what they believe the research is about. The researcher will often check with the participants to see if they feel as though they are being represented accurately.
You don’t have to do participant observation in a faraway place, you can do it in your own community. There are different types of participant observation, ranging from complete involvement, where the researcher is already a member of the group, to passive involvement. For some more information about how complete participant observation is used by activists, see this post.
At the end, the researcher will remove themselves from the situation and often compile their observations in the form of an ethnography. Through this deep sense of engagement with a group of people, participant observation can unveil things that might be below the surface level, that are subconscious, taboo or rarely talked about amongst a group of people (Guest et al., 2013). This means that participant observers are able to shed light on different experiences of being human, which not only generates knowledge about the world but also fosters empathy and openness.
Australian Anthropological Society. 2019, Code of Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.aas.asn.au/the-aas/aas-code-of-ethics/
DeWalt, K. M. DeWalt, B. R. 2011, Participant observation: a guide for fieldworkers. Rowman & Littlefield. pp 2-11
Guest, G., Namey, E., & Mitchell, M. 2013, “Participant Observation” Collecting qualitative data 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications. pp. 75-112.