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Participant Observation as a Research Method: A flexible and rigorous strategy for understanding our world

Quick Hits: 5 Things to Know About Participant Observation

1. Participant observation is a method used to understand why and how people do what they do from the perspective of those people under study.

2. Participant observation requires that the researcher take detailed fieldnotes and continually analyze those notes throughout the process.

3. Participant observation is a flexible method - many of the research questions and research strategies can develop and change over the course of the project.

4. Participant observation depends on a committment to showing up at your fieldsite frequently and consistently as a way to best understand the everyday practices of those under study.

5. Participant observation offers a great opportunity to include those you are studying in a participatory research process.

How do I conduct participant observation?

Much of what we do in our everyday life and in our work involves some level of participation and observation. We participate in activities and conversations at the same time as we observe the activities and conversations of others. Given how central participation and observation are to our daily practices, it makes sense that a big part of research should include this as well. Participant observation is a key method for all different types of researchers, including academics or people who work in the private or public sectors. Participant observation is one of the best ways for a researcher to investigate how and why people do the things that they do in their daily life or in their work. It is a method that requires the researcher to spend time participating with and observing a specific individual, group or organization; it is also often combined with other research methods like interviewing and document analysis. The main goal of participant observation is to understand what people are doing from the perspective of the people under study themselves. 

Let's start with an example of a participant observation study that a Metamorphosis Project research team member conducted. He was interested in the practices of organizations who work on issues of urban agriculture and healthy food access in South LA.

Research Questions: 

Why and how does this organization focus on food issues as a way to further social justice?

How do they go about doing this work?

He approached an organization with whom he had done some volunteer work in the past and asked if they would be open to a participant observation project. He explained his research interests and said that he would like to come and help out with the organization for a few hours a week over the course of several months. He spent time in their urban farm, in their office, organizing events and doing other tasks with staff members. Throughout the process of this participation, he was taking fieldnotes about his participation and his observations. At the same time, he was also collecting various documents that were provided by the organization, and conducted several interviews with staff and board members. He would analyze all of this data by developing key themes and codes that spoke to his research questions. After several months of research and analysis, he wrote up his study in a style called ethnography, and went on to share some of his thoughts with the organization with whom he worked.

Now it's your turn!  You should start by asking the same questions that every research project should start with:

During and after your data collection, you will analyze and then report the results:

  • We have so much data, and it is in several different formats!  Now what?
    It is time for participant observation qualitative data analysis.
  • How do we get people to pay attention to our research?
    Get our tips about interview
    data reporting.


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