Participant observation: What it is, types & uses

Participant observation has been widely used in disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, communication studies, political science, social psychology, and even in market research.

To help you get a broad overview of this methodology, in this article we have compiled its most important characteristics, its importance, and some of the types of participant observation that you can put into practice for your next study.

What is participant observation?

Participant observation is a qualitative research methodology in which the researcher studies a group not only through observation, but also by participating in its activities.

In this qualitative observation methodology, the researcher immerses himself in the daily activities of the participants in order to record the behavior in as many scenarios as possible.

Thanks to the immersion in the study place, the researchers can observe the daily life of the people: their exchanges with each other, their formal and informal conversations, habits, etc.

It offers researchers the opportunity to collect honest and intimate information about people. However, this information is filtered through the perspective of researchers who, by using this method, run the risk of losing their objectivity and altering with their presence the behavior of the groups they study.

Importance of participant observation

Participant observation is a method that helps you see and understand what people are doing and compare it with what they say. In this way, you help researchers know if the people with whom you are conducting a study act differently from what they are described.

It also allows the researcher to better understand what is happening in a given group and its cultural environment, giving greater credibility to their interpretations of the observation.

In addition, it allows the researcher to collect qualitative data through various types of interviews and quantitative data through surveys and different quantitative observation techniques.

Characteristics of participant observation

Participant observation has historically been associated with a form of field research in which the researcher resides for long periods of time in a small community.

Today, this methodology is used in a wide variety of settings and for widely varying periods of time, from a single interaction to many years. But it is usually characterized by the following points:

  • The long-term nature of the interaction between the researcher and the participants as part of the fieldwork process.
  • A wide range of relationship dynamics that it studies, such as differences in status between the two parties, differences in power and educational differences, as well as degrees of formality. Differences in power can have their origin in gender, social class, health and other aspects.
  • The variety of settings, from close interpersonal interactions to observing public gatherings and actual participation in social events.
  • In many cases, research takes place in settings unfamiliar to the researcher, which will make her presentation and interaction with others especially sensitive.
  • There may be different ethical codes between the groups studied and those of the researcher’s country or institution of origin. They may also differ from the ethical principles followed by the host government, non-governmental organizations in the area, or agencies funding the research.
  • The changing nature of the researcher’s roles and relationships with the studied group over time.
  • The use of technology to document observations, including mapping, photography, and video and audio recording.

Types of participant observation

Now that you know what this method is and what its most common characteristics are, we will introduce you to the types that exist.

Types of participant observation

  • Passive participant observation

Researchers observe and record the behaviors of their subjects in their own environment without conversing or interacting with them in any way.

Many of the studies that use this form of participant observation are studies in which researchers observe people’s behavior and communications in public places, such as restaurants, coffee shops, transportation hubs, and even on the Internet through innovative methods such as netnography.

  • Active participant observation

In this way, researchers converse with their subjects and participate in the daily life of the groups they study, including their activities, customs, rituals, routines, etc.

The degree of commitment of researchers to these groups varies. Some researchers limit their interactions to interviews, while others engage in all aspects of their subjects’ lives.

Examples of this form of participant observation are studies in which researchers lived for long periods of time among different ethnic, cultural, or religious communities.

  • Covert and overt 

In covert participant observation, researchers do not make their presence known to their subjects and, if they do, they do not identify themselves as investigators, whereas in open participant observation they do.

However, even when the investigation is open, investigators often do not inform the people they meet in the course of their investigation of the specific purpose of the investigation, nor do they inform everyone they meet that they are researchers, as this could unnecessarily interrupt conversations and events being observed.

  • Covert and active 

Covert and active participant observation has several advantages. In this type of participant observation, researchers can have access to a group that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to observe, and they can experience the practices of the group as they are experienced by the members of the group.

Generally, researchers can alter group behavior by their presence, but in this form of participant observation, groups would not consciously change their behavior in response to the researcher’s presence because they are not aware of being observed.

  • Covert and passive 

In the case of covert and passive participant observation, researchers are not likely to alter the behaviors of their subjects, since the researchers do not actively engage with their subjects and because the subjects are also not aware that they are being observed.

However, since observation is passive, researchers do not have the opportunity to experience the lives of their subjects for themselves.

  • Open and active 

If observation is open and active, people can participate in and experience their subjects’ activities as their subjects would, but they run the risk of both changing the behavior of their subjects through their interactions with them, and that their subjects change their behavior by themselves knowing that they are being studied.

  • Open and passive 

As in the case of covert and passive participant observation, researchers do not run the risk that their presence alters the behavior of the groups they study through their interactions with them.

However, the guinea pig effect is a problem for this form of observation, unlike the case of covert and passive participant observation, because the participants are aware that they are being studied. Furthermore, researchers cannot experience the world as it is as subjects would.


As you can see, participant observation is a research method that provides valuable information about the social and cultural relationships of a group or community over time.

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