Participant observation

method in sociology

Participant observation is a way of getting information about a group of people. A person doing participant observation will live with a group of people in their normal environment. They do this so they can learn about that groups way of life. One of the uses of participant observation is to understand the world from the point of view of a person from that group. This is done by watching the things they do every day. The product of participant observation is normally a piece of writing about what the researcher has seen. It is called ethnography. Participant observers can live with the group for months or many years. The longer the researcher is with the group, the better the information they learn will be.

In the first half of the 20th century, anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead and Edward Evans-Prichard started using participant observation. It is now the main way research is done by cultural anthropologists.

Covert participation observationEdit

In Covert participation observation, the researcher lives with a group but does not tell the group that they are studying them. The research is done in secret. This method is good because the people will not act differently than they normally do if they do not known they are being studied. One problem with covert participation observation is that it can be unethical. The subject cannot give the researcher their consent because they do not know they are being studied.

Overt participation observationEdit

In overt participation observation, the researcher tells the group of people that they are being studied. A problem with this method is that people may change the way they act if they know they are being studied. Overt Participation Observation does not have the ethical problems of covert observation and lets the researcher watch the people lying about what they are doing.


  • Evans-Pritchard, Edward (1940) The Nuer: a Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic people.
  • Malinowski, BronisÅ‚aw (1929) The Sexual life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia: an ethnographic account of Courtship, Marriage and Family life among the natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea.
  • Mead, Margaret (1928) Coming of age in Samoa: a Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation.