Practice Question:  “Participant observation is the most effective tool for collecting facts.” Comment. (20 marks) (UPSC 2016 Socio)

Approach: Introduction; Definition, Advantages of participant observation, How it has an edge over other methods?, Limitations; Conclusion.



Observation, particularly participant observation, has been used in a variety of disciplines as a tool for collecting data about people, processes, and cultures in qualitative research.The participant observation method, also known as ethnographic research, is when a sociologist actually becomes a part of the group they are studying in order to collect data and understand a social phenomenon or problem. During participant observation, the researcher works to play two separate roles at the same time: subjective participant and objective observer. Sometimes, though not always, the group is aware that the sociologist is studying them.



The goal of participant observation is to gain a deep understanding and familiarity with a certain group of individuals, their values, beliefs, and way of life. Often the group in focus is a subculture of a greater society, like a religious, occupational, or particular community group. To conduct participant observation, the researcher often lives within the group, becomes a part of it, and lives as a group member for an extended period of time, allowing them access to the intimate details and goings-on of the group and their community.

• to identify and guide relationships with informants;
• to help the researcher get the feel for how things are organized and prioritized, how people interrelate, and what are the cultural parameters;
• to show the researcher what the cultural members deem to be important in manners, leadership, politics, social interaction, and taboos;
• to help the researcher become known to the cultural members, thereby easing facilitation of the research process; 
• to provide the researcher with a source of questions to be addressed with participants.



An important distinction in Participation/ Ethnography is between covert and over observation.

  • Overt Observation – this is where the group being studied know they are being observed.
  • Covert Observation – this where the group being studied does not know they are being observed, or where the research goes ‘undercover’.



Participant observation requires the researcher to be a subjective participant in the sense that they use knowledge gained through personal involvement with the research subjects to interact with and gain further access to the group. This component supplies a dimension of information that is lacking in survey data. Participant observation research also requires the researcher to aim to be an objective observer and record everything that he or she has seen, not letting feelings and emotions influence their observations and findings.



*In contrast to most other methods, participant observation allows the researcher to see what people do rather than what people say they do.

*Participant Observation takes place in natural settings – this should mean respondents act more naturally than in a laboratory, or during a more formal interview. 

*The length of time ethnographers spend with a community means that close bonds that can be established, thus enabling the researcher to dig deeper than with other methods.

*Verstehen/empathetic understanding– participant observation allows the researcher to fully join the group and to see things through the eyes (and actions) of the people in group.

*Interpretivists prefer this method because it is respondent led – it allows respondents to speak for themselves and thus avoids a master-client relationship which you get with more quantitative methods.



*Participant observation is conducted by a biased human who serves as the instrument for data collection; the researcher must understand how his/her gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and theoretical approach may affect observation, analysis and interpretation. 

* The researcher must determine to what extent he/she will participate in the lives of the participants and whether to intervene in a situation. Another potential limitation they mention is that of researcher bias. They note that, unless ethnographers use other methods than just participant observation, there is likelihood that they will fail to report the negative aspects of
the cultural members. 

*One theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of reliability. It would be almost impossible for another researcher to repeat given that a participant observation study relies on the personal skills and characteristics of the lone researcher.

*A further threat to validity is the Hawthorne Effect, where people act differently because they know they are being observed, although participant observers would counter this by saying that people can’t keep up an act over long time periods: they will eventually relax and be themselves.

*Legality can also be an issue in covert research where researchers working with deviant groups may have to do illegal acts to maintain their cover.



Participant observation involves the researcher’s involvement in a variety of activities over an extended period of time that enable him/her to observe the cultural members in their daily lives and to participate in their activities to facilitate a better understanding of those behaviours and activities. The process of conducting this type of field work involves gaining entry into the community, selecting gatekeepers and key informants, participating in as many different activities as are allowable by the community members, clarifying one’s findings
through member checks, formal interviews, and informal conversations, and keeping organized, structured field notes to facilitate the development of a narrative that explains various cultural aspects to the reader. Participant observation is used as a mainstay in field work in a variety of disciplines, and, as such, has proven to be a beneficial tool for producing studies that provide accurate representation of a culture.







Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Contact Us
close slider