Chapter 15: Participant observation

Darshini Ayton

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Know when to use participant observation in qualitative research.
  • Create a participant observation guide.
  • Understand how to conduct participant observations.


What is participant observation?

Participant observation is the hallmark data-collection method in ethnography (see Chapter 9).1,2 A major feature of this method is that the researcher is embedded in the context of the research to conduct fieldwork, and takes part in the daily life of the group. As an observer, the researcher studies the activities, events, rituals and interactions of the group or community, or its culture.2 According to Bernard, ‘[p]articipant observation… puts you where the action is and lets you collect data… any kind of data that you want, narratives or numbers’.3(p343)

Participant observation is an umbrella term for methods that include observations, formal and informal interviewing and the collection of documentary data such as photographs and diaries.1,2 Participant observation is an appropriate method when the research question seeks to understand group culture, behaviours, attitudes and the overall human experience of a particular context and in the reality of everyday life. It provides a holistic understanding of the phenomena under study.2 Participant observation is a helpful first phase in data collection, and can be helpful in orienting the researcher to the setting, context, participants and behaviours. Researchers often find that participant observation provides the foundations for the research questions to be asked, and that this, in turn, informs the development of more structured data collection, such as interviews.4

In ethnography, participant observation is the main form of data collection and hence it is done intensively (see Chapter 9, Table 9.1). However, participant observation can be used in other forms of qualitative research to complement other forms of data collection. This type of participant observation is less intense.

The key features of participant observation are outlined as follows.

‘Insider’ viewpoint. The researcher seeks to gain a perspective of the phenomena under study. They might be an ‘insider’, which gives an emic perspective through shared experiences and membership of the group of people under study, or an ‘outsider’, which is an etic perspective, or that of a person external to the group. Hence, the researcher needs to participate in the life of the group to observe and experience the meanings and interactions of the group, and to explore the meaning of the lifeworld of the group. Participation by the researcher may be passive or active, depending on their role in the group, which ranges from marginal (etic) to membership (emic) roles.5

Unstructured data. The researcher may not know what data they might encounter on any given day. While they may record observations across key dimensions (see Table 15.1), they need to be ready to record insights, ask questions and listen actively as events, activities and interactions occur.1 When participating in activities or events, the researcher needs to listen and note (mentally or by writing unobtrusively) what is being said, and to prompt conversation where appropriate when further information may be relevant to the research topic.

Field notes. The researcher typically may take short written notes or mental notes while conducting their observations. Once the researcher exits the field they write up their observations, including where possible verbatim quotes, key phrases, the number of people who were present, maps of the space and details of interactions. It is recommended that field notes are written up promptly before details are forgotten.6 Where appropriate, the researcher might use a device to record their observations and transcribe them at a later stage.

How to undertake participant observation

Know when the phenomenon happens. Before starting participant observation, it is important to know what and who is to be observed, and when these events, activities, processes and behaviours are likely to occur. Consider whether it is a one-off event or something that happens regularly, and when, where and how things may be occurring. Are multiple locations and times relevant? Often, it is best to start broad if unsure and then to narrow the focus over time as the researcher gains familiarity with the setting, people and phenomena.4

Gaining access to the setting. How the researcher gains access to the setting of participant observation can vary. If the researcher is known to the people in the setting, this may be easy to navigate through letters of permission and consent from leaders. However, if the researcher is an outsider to the setting, they may need to approach gatekeepers and build relationships with stakeholders before permission may be granted to enter the setting.6

Explaining the presence of the researcher. There are three main approaches in terms of explaining what the research is doing in the research setting. The first is to let everyone in the setting know about the presence and intention of the observer–researcher. This is known as ‘overt participant observation’7, which reduces the risk of running into ethical problems. However, connection, trust and rapport with people in the setting may take longer to develop because people know that the researcher is there to observe their behaviours and conversations. In some situations, disclosing to everyone that research is being conducted may not be practical.4

The second approach, known as ‘semi-covert participant observation’7 is when the researcher lets some people know about their presence as an observer–researcher. For example, gatekeepers and leaders at the setting may be told while others may not know that observations and research are being undertaken. This poses the risk of people who know about the research disclosing this information to others in the setting, which in turn can lead to mistrust of the researcher. Ethical issues in this approach are trickier to manage, particularly regarding informed consent.4

The third approach is when the researcher does not disclose to anyone in the setting that they are undertaking observations and research; this is ‘covert participation observation’.7 This approach poses the highest risk in terms of ethical issues, as people have the reasonable expectation of privacy and confidentiality, and covert observations may compromise their dignity and wellbeing. The extent to which covert participant observation is a concern also depends on how public or private the research setting is. There may also be safety concerns for the researcher, who may be accessing risky settings and may be required to adopt a persona that goes against their natural tendencies. Hence, the risks and benefits of covert participant observations need to be well considered. The benefits of covert participant observation include that the researcher might gain access to a setting that may be off limits for research studies, and the method reduces the risk of people changing or modifying their behaviours and can therefore reveal the true nature of behaviours and the phenomenon under study. The researcher can take part in the everyday life of the setting and experience the phenomenon in the same way as people in the setting.4

How to conduct data collection

Systematically observing and recording observations are key elements of the field notes to be documented by a researcher. For the novice researcher, it can be overwhelming to figure out what to observe and how to document these observations. Spradley8 outlined 9 observational dimensions to consider when undertaking participant observation; these are outlined in Table 15.1.

Table 15.1. Nine observational dimensions and their descriptions

Dimension Description
Space The physical layout of the setting
Actor Range of people in the setting
Activity Description of the activities that take place in the setting
Object The physical things that are present in the setting
Act Single actions people do
Event Activities that people carry out
Time The schedule of events or activities that happen
Goal The purpose of activities or events
Feeling Emotions that are felt and expressed

DeWalt and DeWalt described 3 components of participant observation2, which are outlined here and are complementary to the 9 dimensions in Table 15.1.

Mapping the scene – mapping the physical and spatial layout and the social scene, including social interactions and where interactions take place in the space.2

Counting recording how many people are in the place in all the situations under observation. Categorise groups of people and record the counts; for example, how many people are facilitating an activity, how many children, how many women and how many attendees? How do the counts change throughout the observation?2

Listening to conversations attending to what is being said, by whom and when. Recording verbatim, as much as possible, the conversations that are taking place. The researcher may also casually facilitate some of these conversations, if appropriate.2

It may be helpful to use Table 15.1 to create a data collection sheet with notes being recorded next to each of the dimensions. The unpublished data collection sheet in Figure 15.1 is from a study undertaken in surgical theatres to understand decision-making on antimicrobial prescribing.9


Figure 15.1 Example of participant observation data collection sheet9

Box 15.1 is an excerpt from field notes from Ayton’s PhD research10, which demonstrates how the 9 dimensions are recorded in narrative form. While this may seem lengthy, it provides a detailed description of the space, the people in the space and their activities. When the researcher re-reads the field notes, a strong and clear picture will be remembered about the community centre.

Box 15.1 Observation excerpt – community centre10

The red and blue building of the community centre is modern; the space is open and light. When I enter the building the reception desk is in front and slightly to the left. The receptionist, Nicole, greets everyone who enters and she is always smiling. Cameron, a volunteer, is hovering at the entrance, eager to be helpful to those who enter. He has cerebral palsy; he wears a neck brace and walks with a limp. Despite it being a cold day, Cameron is wearing shorts and a T-shirt. He has a bushy beard and he is difficult to understand, communicating in grunts and energetic arm movements. He seems enthusiastic about his role as a volunteer and does not leave his post the whole day.

To the right are four large, comfortable blue chairs and a very big, comfortable, blue velvet, L-shaped couch. Cushions are scattered over the couch and chairs. There is a red circular carpet and a coffee table with the day’s newspapers on it. Next to the couch and against the wall, near the entrance to the computer room, is a bookshelf with some books including a Bible and a range of Christian books including self-help books and books about the Christian faith; none are specific to the Salvation Army. The bookcase also has a shelf of pamphlets about health services, upcoming courses and training opportunities, and a variety of health promotion materials such as booklets on depression and anxiety, and drug and alcohol assistance. On top of the bookshelf is a collection of board games. The atmosphere feels like one of a home, a comfortable place to hang out, a place that is open to everyone. The chairs all face each other so that no one would be sitting on the outer. When I walk to sit on the couch, I feel like I’m entering their circle.

On the other side of the computer training room, there is a table with Fair Trade tea and coffee. There is also a table with two large bowls of fruit. Notice boards are positioned on the main walls and these display newspaper articles about the centre, Salvation Army training college information, biographies of the officers-in-charge, a poster advertising the street soccer program coordinated by the Big Issue and a poster advertising a local drum school.


Advantages and disadvantages of participant observation

Participant observation provides a holistic perspective of the research setting and people, and the opportunity for the researcher to experience the everyday life of the group or community. Participant observation provides a foundation for further enquiry as the researcher is embedded in the research context. Hence, the researcher learns the relevant research questions to ask and the potential cultural implications of the ‘how’ of the research.4 However, there are many challenges, including navigating the ethical issues of consent and access to the research setting. The time and resources to undertake participation observation is often extensive and may not be easily covered in research budgets or timeframes.4 Table 15.2 provides two examples of participant observation in qualitative research.

Table 15.2. Examples of participant observation from health and social care research

Title Constructions and experiences of motherhood in the context of an early intervention for Aboriginal mothers and their children: mother and healthcare worker perspectives11 Palliative care in its own discourse: a focused ethnography of professional messaging in palliative care12
CC Licence CC BY 4.0 CC BY 4.0
First author and year Ussher, 2016 Reigada, 2020
Aim To examine healthcare workers and mothers’ perspectives on motherhood and the intervention program. To understand what message is conveyed by PC professionals, explicitly or implicitly, in their daily clinical practice.
Study design Not stated Focused ethnography
Why participant observation was conducted Participant observation facilitates a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals and their practices through an intensive involvement in their cultural environment, usually over an extended period of time. To allow for a deep understanding of a particular problem in the palliative care context, exploring its cultural aspects, values and beliefs
Access Overt participant observations Overt participant observations – all participants knew of the research and consented to the observations
Length of time undertaking participant observation 6 months of weekly mothers’ group sessions, facilitated by a trained therapist and support workers 8 months (242 hours)
Observation process The researcher conducted the observations as the first phase of the research. They attended the mothers’ groups for 6 months to become familiar with the program and the members of the group. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with mothers and the healthcare worker. Observations were from 9am to 2pm each day, with the palliative care service commencing with a team meeting. Afternoons were spent making notes and reviewing internal documents (admission sheets, protocols). Field notes were recorded initially on mobile phones and then later transcribed and imported into word-processing software. The researcher then conducted informal conversations with professionals to clarify observations. A reflexive diary was maintained throughout the data collection period.
Analysis Thematic analysis of field notes and interview transcripts Thematic analysis of field notes, internal documents and informal conversations
Main themes and how data was presented Vignettes from field notes

Constructions of motherhood

• The resilient mother: coping with early life trauma and social stress

• The good mother: transformation of self through motherhood

Perspectives on the intervention

• Mothers come to life: transformation through therapy

• 'I know I’m a good mum': The need for connections, skills and time for self
Excerpts from field notes

Message 1 – We are a team, focused on your wellbeing

• We are a multidisciplinary team

• We are experts in symptom control

Message 2– You matter: we want to meet you

• We want to know about you as a person

• We want to know about your experience with the disease

Message 3– family matters: they are also important to us

•We are here to relieve the suffering of the family

•We want to support the caregivers


Participant observation is a hallmark of ethnography but can also be used in other qualitative research designs. The aim is to understand group culture and the phenomenon under study. Careful planning is required for participant observation, to ensure ethical considerations are addressed and processes are established for gaining access to the research setting and systems for collecting participant observation data.


  1. Reeves S, Kuper A, Hodges BD. Qualitative research methodologies: ethnography. BMJ. 2008;7(337):a1020. doi:10.1136/bmj.a1020
  2. DeWalt K, DeWalt B. Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers. Altamira Press; 2010.
  3. Bernard R. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. AltaMira Press; 2006.
  4. Guest G, Namey EE, Mitchell ML. Participant observation. Collecting Qualitative Data: A Field Manual for Applied Research. SAGE Publications; 2013.
  5. Jorgensen DL. Principles, Approaches and Issues in Participant Observation. Taylor & Francis; 2020.
  6. Copland F. Observation and fieldnotes. In: Phakiti A, De Costa P, Plonsky L et al., eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Applied Linguistics Research Methodology. Palgrave Macmillan; 2018.
  7. Roulet TJ, Gill MJ, Stenger S et al.. Reconsidering the value of covert research: the role of ambiguous consent in participant observation. Org Res Methods. 2017;20(3):487-517. doi:10.1177/1094428117698745
  8. Spradley J. Participant Observation. Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1980.
  9. Peel TN, Watson E, Cairns K et al. Perioperative antimicrobial decision making: focused ethnography study in orthopedic and cardiothoracic surgeries in an Australian hospital. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. 2020;41(6):645-652. doi:10.1017/ice.2020.48
  10. Ayton, D. ‘From places of despair to spaces of hope’ – the local church and health promotion in Victoria. Monash University Doctorate of Philosophy PhD 2013.
  11. Ussher JM, Charter R, Parton C et al. Constructions and experiences of motherhood in the context of an early intervention for Aboriginal mothers and their children: mother and healthcare worker perspectives. BMC Public Health. 2016;16:620. doi:10.1186/s12889-016-3312-6
  12. Reigada C, Arantzamendi M, Centeno C. Palliative care in its own discourse: a focused ethnography of professional messaging in palliative care. BMC Palliat Care. 2020;19(1):88. doi:10.1186/s12904-020-00582-5