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Four forms of Participant observation


Participant observation in social science research has two main purposes: on the one hand engaging in activities, on the other hand observing activities, people of the situation. Both, Gold (1958) and Norris suggest four different roles of participant observation, namely spy, voyeur, fan and member. The aim of this paper is to analyse each role, in order to critically evaluate each role of participant observation reactivity and ethical aspects.

The first section of this paper briefly introduces participant observation, synthesizes the relevant data and describes the way how these four roles are used in social science research. Each role has different dimensions, either covert or overt or passive or active. The second section critically evaluates two dimensions, namely covert and overt participant observation. In particular, the evaluation focuses on the role the observers take and the reaction of people observed. Peoples' reactivity might be different unless they know the researcher's identity. The subsequent sections focuses on ethical dimensions related to each role according to four main leading principles, informed consent, privacy, harm to participants and deceit and trust.

Additionally, the extent to what all forms of participant observation involve covert research is examined. There is critical evaluation from overt choice look at whether there is some covert research involved in.

Finally, the paper concludes that key points analysed in the essay, summarize main features and characteristics of each role, and underline the key points related to reactivity and ethical issues. Besides this, also analyse that whether all research is secret, emphasize on critically evaluate when the researcher interested in to do a subject, they need to adhere to the principles of ethics, and balance the advantages and disadvantages of each role.

Participant observation in social science research

Literatures suggest a number of definitions of participant observation. However, in this paper participant observation is defined as a form of sociological research methodology in which the researcher takes on a role in the social situation under observation. “The social researcher immerses himself (herself) in the social setting under study, getting to know key actors in that location in a role which is either covert or overt, although in practice, the researcher will often move between these two roles” (Macionis & Plummer, 2005, online).

According to different situations, the observer decides which role might be most suitable for his (her) research objectives. The researcher may perform overt or covert role either actively or passively (Van Maanen, 1978, cited by Bryman&Bell, 2003). In the following sections, analyses each role, paying particular attention to reactivity and ethical aspects.

Covert participant observation

Firstly, in the case of covert observation, the researcher spends an extended period of time in a particular research setting, concealing the fact that he (she) is a researcher. As such, it is assumed that people under observation, show different emotional behaviour in comparison to a natural, unobserved setting. Therefore, the degree of naturalism and validity is reduced unless observation is employed covertly.

Practically, there are two significant dimensions of this role. One is to eliminate reactivity by subjects to the researchers' personal qualities and research techniques. The second is to eschew the idiosyncratic imposition of the researchers' own frame of reference upon the data (Bryman &Bell, 2003).

As mentioned above, the researcher can take active or passive roles in covert research, ‘Complete Participant' or ‘Complete Observer'. This might have significant positive effects on the research on the one hand. On the other hand ethical issues arise, which are being discussed in the following sections.

Complete Participant in Covert choice

Focusing on the first role in covert participant observation, ‘complete participant' can be defined as total active engagement in the researcher. He (she) becomes a member of the group in which he (she) is performing the research. The reason for researcher conceals their real identity is due to the fact that the people might not cooperate with researcher when they know the research subject (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill, 2009).

For example, if the researcher investigates the extent of lunchtime drinking in a particular work setting, he (she) would probably be keen to discover which particular employees drink at lunchtimes, what they drink, how much they drink and so on. In this case, the employees know that their managers would usually discourage lunchtime drinking, if the observer explain research objectives to the groups, additionally, people might see the research activity as prying (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill, 2009).

The role of complete participant has several advantages and disadvantages. On the main advantage is that social phenomena are being studied in their natural contexts. From this perspective, it is argued, reduced subjects' reactivity to the researcher.

Conversely, the researcher may “go native” when he (she) is completely engaged in routine day work. Consequently, the researcher might not discover his (her) previously set research objective. For instance, it is possible that managers let the researcher to do other job which might not relevant to research objective, and the researcher cannot tell manager that his (her) identity, he (she) only can follow the orders if he (she) wants to continue participant in organisation. Another disadvantage related this role is, when researcher concealing research subject, if he (she) find out some useful information, they could not write it down quickly, until he (she) is alone himself (herself), so they might missing some important data.

Increasingly, in the view of reactivity, as mentioned this role reduce others' reactivity to researcher, also consider the role of ‘Spy' in Norris' work, even the researcher engage in the program very actively, the observer is wholly concealed, other colleagues might just as he as ‘friend' and ‘colleagues', the people in organisation will do what they do normally.

In addition, these activities arise some ethical issues. Firstly, covert observation transgress the principle of informed consent, when the observer wants to do research, other participants should be given as much information, make an informed decision about whether or not they wish to participant in a research (Bryman & Bell, 2003). Secondly, the people who observed, they share information with researcher and trust he (she), the information may include work information or their own privacy, but as a researcher just wants to achieve research objective, might ignore others, so that the researcher probably ‘spying' on his (her) colleagues. However, if people know the true purpose, they would not share it.

Thirdly, data described in Norris' work, the practice of participant observation is inevitably deceitful, especially when the observer concealing their identities, and often they use some special techniques to close people, it is harm to participants as well. From these aspects to relate to ethical problems, the researcher should not adopt this role (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill, 2009).

Complete Observer in Covert choice

By contrast, emphases on the second role in covert participant observation, when the researcher as ‘complete observer', increasingly more observation than participation in this role. There are some similarities between two roles, in both cases the observer not able to engage with people as researchers. There is not opportunity to explore with people in any depth (Smith, 1997, online). The differences with the ‘complete participant', which is the researcher participant to the project passively, they just participant in that circumstance, they do not want to participant as a real one. Analysis the reason of this activity because sometimes researcher may feel they have no choice but to get involved, a failure to participate actively might indicate to members of the social setting a lack of commitment and lead to a loss of credibility (Bryman & Bell, 2003:3, P327).

For example, the researcher prefer to studying consumer behaviour in supermarket, the best way is the observer observe consumers at the checkout, this location the observer can find out which checkouts do the consumers choose, and what level of impatience is displayed when delays are occurred and other similar questions. As a result, the researcher will stay in a cover corner, located near the checkout in an unobtrusive way (Sauders, Lewis & Thornhill, 2009).

The example indicates its function is to investigate how often things happen rather than why they happen. If the researcher applied predominant research role of ‘complete participant', probably they can gain access to shoppers, but they may correspondingly cut themselves off from access to particular elements of cashier interaction.

Furthermore, the researcher may get better sense of how 'insiders' experience situations, but there is the danger ‘go native' since the observer as the role of ‘complete participant'. As such, observer need try to keep some distance with those he (she) works with; this is one advantage of complete observer. That distance is necessary so that the researcher have 'space' to think about the situation. Simultaneously, if that distance is experienced as being too great researchers can prejudice their ability to act (Smith, 1997, online). However, the main drawback of this role is the observer must be in the research setting when the phenomena under study are taking place; and research result might limit to obvert action. Lastly, probably the data are not accurately; because the observer might stay in an unobtrusive way, and the research usually takes place in public or street, some problems with hearing, and the observer face the great danger of misunderstanding the observed (Mccall & Simmons, 1969).

Consideration of reactivity of this role, as same as the role of ‘complete participant' that lower reactivity to researcher, because everyone do not know the observer's identity. Besides, noted that this behaviour arise ethical problems as well. Firstly, the researcher might infringe privacy, as the role of ‘Voyeur' described in Norris' case, the researcher conceal identity and might overhear private conversations. Secondly, even the observers not take part in the activities, but to some extent the activities have some impact for other people in a public area. Secondly, related to the truth of event, the research might let observer get into dilemma of self-confidence, because there is no interaction between researchers and participants.

Evaluation of Cover participant observation

So far, summarize the general features of covert participant observation, the common feature of two roles is lower reactivity for observers, and also there are some debates over ethics in covert participant observation. Negatively, the method had at least some potential to do harm, the sociologist has responsibilities to the subjects, but covert research can injure other people in ways that cannot be anticipated in advance. Erikson pointed that: “it is unethical for a sociologist to deliberately misrepresent his identity for the purpose of entering a private domain to which he (she) is not otherwise eligible” (Bulmer, 1982:1, P9).

Moreover, many writers take the view that, in addition to being potentially damaging to research participants, it can also harm the practice of research, because of fears about social researchers being identified by the public as voyeurs if they are found out (Bulmer, 1982). Sometimes, it is possible that the researcher become involved in criminal or dangerous activities.

However, the contrary view the importance of covert research, which is a necessary, useful and revealing method. It may be argued that the benefits of research outweigh the damage which may be done by invading people's privacy (Bryman & Bell, 2003). The social researcher is entitled and indeed compelled to adopt covert methods. Social actors employ lies, fraud, deceit, deception and blackmail in dealings with each other, therefore the social scientist is justified in using them where necessary in order to achieve the higher objective of scientific truth (Bulmer, 1982:1, P10).

Overt Participant observation


Remarkable here, sometimes the researchers prefer to reveal their identities. Overt participant observation means that the researcher revealing their real identity in the situation. There are two roles included in this type.

Evaluate the first role in overt participant observation, in Norris' case, the aim of his research was elucidates the practice of policing from the perspective of the street-level officer. ‘Fan' (also called “observer-as-participant”, which means the researcher revealing their real identity during research, and they engaged passively), which was predominant research role in this research, because this role decided the observer can do much more observation than participant, the researcher revealing his identity, in order to move freely and easily get close with participants, can better taking notes, detailed description of how offers handled ‘live' incidents.

The advantage of this role which is in order to decrease the distance between themselves and those who are studied, the observer need to make the research role invisible in the field, and to emphasize similarity at the expense of difference. Therefore, one aim to understand a culture, the language must be learned. However, it is not simply the formal language that must be understand in a complex organisation engages. It is also called the ‘argot' -the special uses of words and slang that are important to penetrate that culture. Such an understanding is arrived at through the observation of language use (Bryman & Bell, 2003).

For instance, in Norris' work, when the researcher dress in the in-house CID style, in which officers who did not know off the observer, often took the researcher for another CID officer, but this deception would move from the accoutrements of projected image to areas nears to self, especially language. When the observer became familiar with the police argot, he (she) use police take to indicate a sense of shared perspective. This activity also arise ethical issues, in terms of deceit and trust. The author said that the practice of participant observation is, inevitably, internationally deceitful.

The role of observer-as-participant adopted since if the observer were attending to observe without taking part in the activities in the same way as the 'real' candidates, such as a 'spectator'. They would know the research purpose; this would present the advantage of researcher being able to focus on researcher role. The disadvantage would be the emotional involvement: really knowing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the experience. Additionally, the nature of this role is less satisfactory as the brevity of the relationship results in problems of bias arising out of the researcher's brief contacts (Burgess, 1984:4, P82).

Furthermore, according to reactive aspect to analyse this role; people's knowledge of the fact that they are being observed may make them behave less naturally. However, participant observers, typically find that people become accustomed to their presence and begin to behave more naturally the longer they are around (Bryman & Bell, 2003:3, P363).

Moreover, related to ethical issues, the observer might be over self-confidence, the observer get close to other people, the time is shorter, they are working together, but communicate just on the surface, sometimes the researcher will misconceive materials which support by informants. Secondly, even the researcher reveal research subject, it does not mean everyone familiar with the researcher' identity. This role against the principle of informed consent, additionally, the issue of invasion of privacy need consideration. The researcher might to insinuate himself (herself) into a particular setting on false pretences in order to gather material for research violates the rights of the individual to be let alone, to control his (her) personal space, and information about himself (herself). For instance, in Norris' work, the public often believe that the observer is a police officer, and then the respondents do some activities which are the most private. Depend upon lack of informed consent and invasion of privacy, as such, the observer might deceive others in purpose of get others' truth.


Finally, apart from three roles analysis above, in active participant in the research, if the observer as a complete participant, the people will fell taken for a ride, and seriously violate ethic principles. Indeed, not matter how the researcher conceals activities and identity, to some extent will impact on other members. Therefore, researchers usually apply one role totally different from ‘complete participant', namely ‘participant-as-observer'. In this role, the researcher is completely engaged in the organisation, can totally understand and know the research. In the participant-as-observer strategy, the researcher usually makes him known and tries to objectively observe the activities of the group (Hagan, 2009, online).

Nevertheless, Gold claimed that the participant-as-observer role carries the risk of over-identification and hence of ‘going native', but offers the opportunity to get close to people. With this method, the fieldworker gains a deeper appreciation of the group and its way of life and may also gain different levels and insight by actually participating rather than only observing (Bryman & Bell, 2003). In terms of the researchers reveal their identities, the reactivity of other people are increased, for example, the people who are studied by observer, possibly they has been study the object of research project, pay attention to the research, rather than focus on the nature of society. Secondly, in the perspective of researchers may be focused on observation of those interests and views, resulting loss of objectivity required by science.

Do all forms of PO involve some aspect of covert research

In some circumstances, it is complicated to distinguish the relationship between the overt and covert research. From each role of participant observation to analysis that, covert participant observation looked research in a natural way, but it violate much more ethical issues than overt choice. Even overt research implication, also there are some covert research engaged in.

While an observer seeks access through an overt route, there may be some people with whom he (she) comes into contact who will not be aware of the observer's status as a researcher. He (she) has great freedom of movement and wide contacts in the organisation, but it is not clear know to what extent people in the firms actually know what he (she) is doing. For example, for the role of observer-as-participant, much more observation than participant, so they will get touch with some people who relate to the research, others they probably not care about. Therefore, the researcher draws attention to the importance of ‘intimates', and trust individuals who give information and aid to the research process. This activity indicate over a period of about few years that ‘they can be counted on not to jeopardize the study' and do not pry too much into the information that he (she) is getting from others. As a consequence, in terms of these intimates are concerned, it is not clear that the research role as truly covert (Bryman & Bell, 2003:3, P321).


In conclusion, as critically examine four roles in the essay; each role carries its own advantages and risks. In covert research, the observer concealing their identities and consequently, reduce reactivity of the people who observed. A number of literatures suggest that there are much more ethical issues arise in covert research than overt research, however, in the aspect of natural content to do research, the covert choice might be the ideal type, and this strategy obviates the need to negotiate access to organisations.

Additionally, focus on overt research, Roy provides an evaluation of the participant-as-observer role, the researcher with the freedom to go wherever. However, he indicates that a disadvantage of this role lies in combining data collection with an area of social conflict (Burgess, 1984:4, P82). Whereas, the observer-as-participant role share the same feature, people know they researchers' identities, and probably reactivity have a considerable change, also this role carries the risk of not understanding the social setting incorrect inferences. Overall, combine with all key points evaluated and analysis reactions and ethical problems, could not absolutely claim that covert researchers being wholly guilty and overt researchers being innocent (Bryman & Bell, 2003).

To evaluate all research is to some extent secret, as researchers do not know everything they wish to investigate at the beginning of a study, a situation which makes informed consent difficult. In some studies, researchers do not want to influence the behaviour of those researched by saying what it is they are particularly interested in.

When the researchers engage in participant observation, they need to balance merits and drawback of each role, and comply with ethical principles. For example, if their identity is to be revealed, the respondent must first have been told to whom the information would be supplied and the purposes for which it will be used, and also the researcher need ensure that the information will not be used for any non-research purpose (Bryman & Bell, 2003:4, P539).


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Robert G. Burgess, (1984), in the field: an introduction to field research, printed in Great Britain by Biddles Ltd, Guildford and King's Lynn. Published in the USA and Canada by Routledge.


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