Four forms of participant observation | Free management essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.


The participant observer comes to a social situation with two purposes: one is to engage in activities appropriate to the situation, and another is to observe the activities, people, and physical aspects of the situation. In the process of carrying out these actions, the observer might use appropriate way to engaged in research. Gold (1958) divided four roles of participant observation. Also related to Norris' article, this paper examines to analysis two main types of participant observation, and emphasized from reactivity and ethics aspects to evaluate each roles of participant observation.

Firstly, briefly introduce the study of participant observation, defined and described how it works, covert or overt, passive or active? Then, concentrated on analysis two types: Covert and Overt participant observation, generally analysis these two types, and there are detailed information to critical analysis each role.

Most specially, depend upon which role of participant observer act, critical analysis people's reaction to observer, and the people who participant in the research, their reactivity is different unless they know the researcher's identity. In addition, another section will look at the ethics arose for each role, this perspective will explore from four main leading principles to analysis: informed consent, privacy, harm to participants, and deceit & trust.

Thirdly, sometimes these two roles will different to distinctions, so there is an evaluation and explain, detailed information developed in the second question: evaluate all forms of PO involve some aspect of covert research

Finally, there is a conclusion to summarize all key points which analysis in the main body, and given clearly evidence.

There are many definition of participant observation, here, just briefly summarize and give one definition of participant observation: Participant observation refers to a form of sociological research methodology in which the researcher takes on a role in the social situation under observation.

The social researcher immerses 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.

According to different situations, the observer will decide what actions performed. Apart from over or a covert role will adopted by researcher, a further issue that is raised about any situation in which the participates during these two forms, they should be or can be an active take part in or passive engaged in the project (Van Maanen,1978, cited by Bryman&Bell,2003).

As consequence, there are four roles come out in different cases, which supported by Gill and Johnson (2002). In terms of clearly understand features and characteristics of each role, here, catalogued each roles in two types, according to whether the researcher concealing or revealing their identity.

After introduce four roles, it is necessary to analysis each role when researcher applied in the research. In the following sections, it is going to from reactivity and ethics these two crucial aspects to analysis four roles, based on their features, there are some similarity between them, as well as some difference.

First of all, in the case of covert observation, which is the researcher spending an extended period of time in a particular research setting; concealing the fact that he (she) is a researcher. It is necessary to explore the reason of why observer concealing their identity, as such, it is undoubted that when people aware that they are under observation, their emotional behaviour might quite differently, so the degree of naturalism or ecological validity is reduced unless observation is employed covertly.

Indeed, there are two significant dimensions of this role which performed by researcher, first to eliminate reactivity by subjects to the researchers' personal qualities and research techniques; and, second to eschew the idiosyncratic imposition of the researcher's own frame of reference upon the data (p146, high demand book).

Remarkable that the researcher activities are active or passive, there are two roles played in Covert choice, which are 'complete participant' & 'Complete observer'. This has the significant positive effects for the research, but also arise ethic issues. The detailed information will developed in following section.

Here, focus on the first role in covert participant observation, 'complete participant' means that the researcher totally actively engaged in the organisation, become a member of the group in which they are performing research, the reason of participant observer concealing the identity, because the people might unlikely to cooperated with you when they know your identity (P293, Sauders). For example, if you are interested to know the extent of lunchtime drinking in a particular work setting, you would probably be keen to discover which particular employees drink at lunchtimes, what they drink, how much they drink, and how they explain their drinking. 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 your research activity as prying.

With consideration of some advantages and disadvantages, often the most vaunted advantage claimed for participant observation over other research procedures is its greater ecological validity because it entails studying social phenomena in their natural contexts. From this perspective, it is argued, reduced subjects' reactivity to the researcher and his or her data collection procedures.

Nevertheless, the researcher may "go native" when he (she) completely engaged in routine day work, and also sometimes maybe not directly find out its objective. For instance, maybe the managers let the researcher to do other job, the researcher could not tell manager that his (her) identity, and he (she) just follow the orders. Another disadvantage related this role is, when researcher concealing research subject, when he (she) really found some useful information, they could not wrote it down at the moment, until he (she) is alone, so that they mind missing some important data.

In the view of reactivity issue, as mentioned this role reduced others' reactivity to researcher, also consider the role of 'Spy' in Norris' work, even the researcher engaged in the program very actively, as the observer is wholly concealed, other colleagues might just as he as 'friend' and 'colleagues', who can find out he is a researcher? As a result, the people in organisation will do what they do normally.

In addition, these activities arouse some ethic issues. Generally, covert observation transgress the principle of informed consent, which is when the observer want to do research, other participants should be given as much information as might be needed to make an informed decision about whether or not they wish to participant in a research (P542, business methods). Secondly, the researcher in a position, where he is 'spying' on people who have probably become his colleagues as well as friends. They shared information with you and trust you, the information may include work information or their own privacy, but as a researcher just wants to achieve research objective, might ignore others. However, if people know the true purpose, they would not share it. Thirdly, as mentioned in Norris' work, the practice of participant observation is inevitably deceitful, especially when the observer concealing their identity, and often they will use some special techniques to close people, it is harm to participants as well. From these aspects to relate to ethic problems, the researcher should not adopt this role (P294, Saunders, 2009).

For the observer, if their identity is to be revealed, as a general rule stated by the MRS code, 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 must ensure that the information will not be used for any non-research purpose and that the recipient of the information has agreed to conform to the requirements of the Code. (Business research method: P539). One more thing about complete participant is the researcher have more probably go native.

By contrast, emphasised on the second role in covert participant observation, when the researcher as 'complete observer', it is generally true that with increasingly more observation than participation. 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, what meanings they are placing on the situation . The differs with the 'complete participant', which is the researcher participant to the project passively, they just want to participant in that circumstance, they do not want to participant as a real one. Analysis this reason might because sometimes researcher may feel they have no choice but to get involved, because a failure to participate actively might indicate to members of the social setting a lack of commitment and lead to a loss of credibility (P327, business research methods).

Taking this case as an example, the researcher want 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 experienced and other similar questions. As a result, the researcher will stay in a cover corner, located near the checkout in an unobtrusive way (example came from Sauders, 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', in so doing they can gain access to shoppers, but they may correspondingly cut themselves off from access to particular elements of cashier interaction.

Additionally, to compare with complete participant, the researcher may get some better sense of how 'insiders' experience situations, but at the same time there is the danger 'go native' since the observer as the role of 'complete participant', due to get too close with others. As such, practitioners should have learnt to stand back from situations; it means that 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. Yet, simultaneously, if that distance is experienced as being too great researchers can prejudice their ability to act However, the main drawback of this role are the observer must be in the research setting when the phenomena under study are taking place; and research result might limited to obvert action or surface indicators. Lastly, maybe 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, the observer face the great danger of misunderstanding the observed (37, issues on participant observation).

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. This is one of the strengths of this method is its responsiveness.

Noted that this behaviour arise ethic problems as well. Firstly, the researcher might infringe privacy, as the role of 'Voyeur' analysised in Norris' case, the researcher concealing identity and might overhear private conversations. Secondly, even the observers not take part in the activities, but to some extent at least have some impact for other people in a public area. Thirdly, 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.

So far, summarize the general features of covert participant observation, the common feature of two roles is lower reactivity for observers, and also there is some debate over ethics in covert participant observation. From negative aspect to see, 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 or compensated for afterwards. If subjects know they are being studied, at least they have agreed to expose themselves to possible harm. Erikson's position is that : it is unethical for a sociologist to deliberately misrepresent his identity for the purpose of entering a private domain to which he is not otherwise eligible; and it is unethical for a sociologist to deliberately misrepresent the character of the research upon which he is engaged' (social research ethics ,P9):.

Also, 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 snoopers or voyeurs if they are found out. Sometimes, it is possible that the researcher having to become involved in criminal or dangerous activities.

However, the contrary view the importance of covert research, which is a necessary, useful and revealing method. To some extent, it may be argued that the benefits of research outweigh the damage which may be done by invading people's privacy. (P320, business research method). (Social research ethics, Martin Bulmer, P10): 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.

Besides that, sometimes the researcher prefers 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, as mentioned before, in Norris' work, Fan (Observer-as-participant) as the main research role in his research. Typically, these interviews are conducted with individuals who are known to participate in a designated activity.

According to the case of Norris' work, the aim of his research was described and elucidates the practice of policing from the perspective of the street-level officer. The '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 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, (P82, in the field), 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. In turn, Schatzman and strauss have indicated that such brief encounters will mean that the participants utilise in social situations.

P325: Gold argues that the observer-as-participant role carries the risk of not understanding the social setting and people in it sufficiently and therefore of making incorrect inferences. It also entails less risk of 'going native'. However, because the observer-as-participant's contact with an informant is so brief, and perhaps superficial, he is more likely than the other two to misunderstand the informant, and to be misunderstood by him? These misunderstandings contribute to a problem of self-expression that is almost unique to this role. Self-expression becomes a problem at any time he perceives he is threatened.

Consequently, the advantage of participant observation in comparison to qualitative interviewing, 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 understood in a complex organisation engages. It is also very often 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 (business research methods, P361).

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 would use police take to indicate a sense of shared perspective. This activity will arise ethic issues, in terms of deceit and trust, in Norris' work, the author said that the practice of participant observation is, inevitably, internationally deceitful.

P363, business research method:

Reactive effects: 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. Interviewers clearly do not suffer from the same kind of problem, but it could be argued that the unnatural character of the interview encounter can also be regarded as a context within which reactive effects may emerge. Participant observation also suffers from the related problem of observers disturbing the very situation being studied, because conversations and interactions will occur in conjunction with the observer that otherwise would not happen.

Related to ethic issues, the observer might be 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 you are researcher, to some extent this role against the principle of informed consent; secondly, the issue of invasion of privacy need consideration. The researcher might to insinuate himself 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 personal space, and information about himself. For instance, in Norris' work, the public often believed that the observer was a police officer, and then the respondent did some activities which were 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 himself known and tries to objectively observe the activities of the group.

Nevertheless, According to Gold, 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 (p324). In terms of the researchers reveal their identities, the reactivity of other people will increased, for example, the people who are studied by observer, possibly they has been study the object of research project, put attention to the research, rather than focus on the nature of society. Second, in the perspective of researchers may be focused on observation of those interests and views, resulting loss of objectivity required by science.

To what extent do all forms of PO involve some aspect of covert research?

In some circumstances the overt and covert distinction may be a matter of degree. 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 or she comes into contact who will not be aware of the observer's status as a researcher. He (she) might have great freedom of movement and wide contacts in the organisation, but it is not clear know to what extent people in the firms actually knew what he (she) was doing. For example, for the role of observer-as-participant, much more observation than participant, so they will get touch with some people related to the research, others they might not care about. Therefore, the researcher draws attention to the importance of 'intimates', and trusted individuals who gave information and aid to the research process. This activity had shown over a period of about few years that 'they could be counted on not to jeopardize the study' and did not pry too much into the information that he was getting from others. As a consequence, in terms of these intimates were concerned, it is not clear that the research role as truly covert (P321, business research method).

In conclusion, through read literatures, such a statement suggests that researchers need to examine the relationship between covert and overt research. Homan responds by indicating that he believes that it is not simply a matter of covert researchers being wholly guilty and overt researchers being innocent. Many discussions on this issue tend to oversimplify the situation by posting secret research against non-secret research in order to assess the advantages and disadvantages of each, for as Roth (1962) argues, the ends of this continuum probably do not exist. 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. Secondly, in some studies, researchers do not want to influence the behaviour of those researched by saying what it is they are particularly interested in. Furthermore, even if researchers do provide precise details about an investigation, it will have different meanings for different individuals since their experiential contexts differ and their conceptions of the goals of a study will be different (cf.Roth, 1962, cited by p199,in the field).


  • Business research methods, Alan Bryman, Emma Bell,2003,published in the United States,printed in Ashford Colour Press, Gosport, Hampshire
  • In the field: an introduction to field research, Robert G.Burgess, 1984, printed in Great Britain by Biddles Ltd, Guildford and King's Lynn. Published in the USA and Canada by Routledge
  • Research methods for business students, fifth edition, Mark Saunders, Philip Lewis, Adrian Thornhill, 209, printed by Potolito Lombarda, Italy
  • George J. Mccall, J.L. Simmons, (1969), issues on Participant observation, a text and reader,printed in the United States of America, Published in Canada.