Participant Observation

If you want to understand why people behave the way they do, ‘participant observation’ may be your method of choice. This method has its roots in anthropology but has in recent decades been embraced by other disciplines, including socio-legal studies.

Participant observation entails the extended involvement in the social life of the people you study. You participate in a social setting whilst observing and writing about this. This method offers the opportunity to observe dynamics taking place that participants might not be able, or willing, to share through interviews.

This longitudinal method is open-ended and unstructured. Research takes the form of ‘hanging out’ and having everyday conversations. The boundaries between the researcher’s personal life and professional life are thus blurred. Some researchers have been ‘participants’ before they are ‘observers’ and some researchers immerse in the social setting that they are observing as ‘insiders’. Data often come in the form of field notes.

Participant observation is complicated, and mired in ethical dilemmas. For example, who can consent to being observed on behalf of the sub-culture studied? How can you publish observations that you learned outside formally-agreed upon research? Reflexivity and transparency are key.


  • Bryman, A. (2016). Social research methods. Chapter 14: Ethnography and Participant Observation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    This chapter discusses the convergence of ethnography and participant observation and explores various issues, including: access to the field, covert or overt role as observer, sampling strategies and the role of visual materials.

  • Guest, G., Namey, E. and Mitchell, M. (2013). Chapter 3: Participant Observation. Collecting Qualitative Data: A Field Manual for Applied Research. London: SAGE Publications.

    This is a chapter on participant observation in a practical, step-by-step guide to collecting and managing qualitative data. It was designed as an instructional field manual, and includes examples and cases, and checklists and tips for how to use this technique.

  • Kawulich, B. (2005) Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6 (2).

    This is a useful resource about all the facets of participant-observation: its history, strengths and weaknesses, the ethical dilemmas, practical tips, and teaching methods.

  • Spradley, J. P. (2016). Participant observation. Waveland Press.

    This book expands on the technique of participant observation to research ethnography and culture. Spradley shows how to analyze collected data and to write an ethnography. The appendices include research questions and writing tasks.

  • Bourdieu, P. (2003). Participant Objectivation. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9(2), 281-294.

  • Ianni, F. (1972). A Family Business; Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    Based on participant-observation methods, this anthropologist wrote on the role and activities of an Italian-American crime family, providing insight into its business and social organization and power structure.