Participant Observations: Choosing Your Observation Methods

View Worksheet

Participant observations are a primary research method that allows you to observe research participants in several ways. You can check for nonverbal communication, participant interactions, methods of communication and time spent on various activities, for example.

The major benefit of observations is that they allow you verify information you may have obtained through surveys or interviews or in secondary data sources by observing events as they happen. This can help you identify inaccuracies or distortions in other forms of data or provide new insight into your research questions.

If you decide to do a participant observation as a data collection method, you need to approach it in the right way by deciding the following before you start:

  • What level of involvement do you intend to have?
  • How are you going to conduct the participant observations?
  • What do you intend to focus on during the observation?

Deciding your level of involvement in participant observations

Before you conduct a participant observation, you must decide on the level of your involvement with participants. The way in which you observe can affect what it is that you are observing, so make sure that your observation allows you to collect the type of information you seek to answer research questions.

You can simply observe, taking notes about what you see, or you can interact with participants. Depending on the level of your interaction, you can even become a participant of your own participant observation. However, keep in mind that there are benefits and drawbacks of each method. Remaining a simple observer might make some things about what you are observing harder to understand, and interaction may cause participants to act differently than if you were only an observer.

How to conduct participant observations

Prior to starting a participant observation, ensure you have the permission of any person or group you intend to observe. If the group you intend to observe meets on a regular occasion, consider doing more than one observation; this acclimates participants to your presence and likely gives you more accurate research data.

The accuracy and value of participant observations depend on your ability to separate what you observe from your reactions or feelings. In other words, you want to record facts, not presumptions. Making two entries in a notebook as you observe can help keep facts and what you interpret separate. Write down what you observe in one entry, and create a second entry where you can record your thoughts, reactions or feelings about the same event or situation.

What to focus on in participant observations

What you focus on observing depends on the type of participant observation you are conducting. There are several ways to conduct this primary research:

  • Descriptive participant observation: You observe everything while assuming you have no knowledge of the environment or situation.
  • Focused participant observation: You observe participants based on insights from interviews with the same participants you are observing.
  • Selective participant observation: You observe different activities to distinguish the differences between each.

However you conduct participant observations, always take plenty of notes. Paying attention to the details is a sign of a good observer. Include as many details as possible in your notes, and consider backing up your notes with a video recording. Both the focus of your observation and the way in which you interact affect the data outcomes, so always review your intended methods with your research goals to make sure they are in alignment. Most importantly, keep your participant observations in line with research ethical considerations.