Participant and Non-Participant Observation Essay

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As a method of inquiry, observation is an alternative or complement to the use of interview, documentary, or questionnaire data. It is usually conceived as taking place in “natural” rather than experimental situations; though, of course, in a broader sense experiments necessarily rely upon observation too. In brief, observation involves a researcher watching and listening to actions and events within some “natural” context over some period of time, and making a record of what has been witnessed. This may be done through writing open-ended fieldnotes, documenting the frequency and/or duration of various types of events on a schedule, and/or using audio- or video-recording.

The distinction between participant and non-participant observation draws attention to the fact that the role of an observer can vary greatly. In gross terms, he or she may take on a role in the setting being observed, or may play no explicit participant role. The primary concern motivating this distinction is reactivity; in other words, the extent to which and ways in which the behavior of the people being studied is likely to be shaped both by the fact of being researched in a given way (procedural reactivity) and by the particular characteristics of the researcher (personal reactivity). There are conflicting arguments about whether, in overt observation, taking on a participant role in the field is likely to increase or reduce reactivity. In many circumstances, it may decrease procedural reactivity but could increase personal reactivity. If observation is covert, procedural reactivity will be zero; but there may still be personal reactivity if a covert participant role is adopted.

Reactivity is widely regarded as a potential source of error: it may render inferences from observational data about what happens on other occasions and in other contexts false. Much depends upon the particular role taken on by an observer, and this can have other consequences too. Some participant roles will allow note-taking at the time events are happening, and perhaps even the use of recording devices, while others will not. Similarly, taking on different roles in the field will open up different sources of information, and perhaps close down others; for example, there will usually be restrictions on who will tell what to whom. Participation in a role in the setting can also provide first-hand experience that may enhance the researcher’s understanding of how people feel and why they behave in the ways that they do; although it also involves the danger of ”going native,” of taking over biases from participants.

While useful, the distinction between participant and non-participant observation is complex, and can be misleading. This is partly because it involves several dimensions. These include whether or not the people researched are aware of being studied (or who among them is and is not aware), how central to the setting any role that a researcher adopts is, whether or not the researcher asks participants questions in the course of observation, and how long is spent observing in any particular location. Also occasionally implied in the distinction, and an important issue in itself, is whether or not the observational process is structured: whether it involves the assignment of events to pre-identified categories, rather than being open-ended and developmental in character.

There are, of course, ethical issues relevant to covert observational research, about which there has been considerable debate over the years, and there are also issues to do with personal safety. But important ethical problems are involved in overt research too, notably around what constitutes informed consent. Indeed, while covert research is often rejected because it entails deceit, potential invasion of privacy, etc., these issues are by no means absent where observation is open.

The significance of both the methodological and the ethical issues in any particular study will vary depending upon both what role the researcher adopts and the nature of the people and places being investigated, as well as on the form that observation takes.


  1. Foster, P. (1996) Observing Schools: A Methodological Guide. Paul Chapman, London.
  2. McCall, G. J. (1978) Observing the Law: Applications of Field Methods to the Study of the Criminal Justice System. Free Press, New York.
  3. McCall, G. J. & Simmons, J. L. (eds.) (1969) Issues in Participant Observation. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.

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