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

Reporting Findings from Participant Observation

Eventually, it will be time for you to leave the field and write up your conclusions. There is no strict rule about when it is time to finish your participant observation, but generally speaking, you should conclude your research when you feel you have enough data to answer your key research questions. Of course, much of this will also depend on the time that you have available.

Writing up the results of a participant observation project is a challenging but rewarding task. After spending a great deal of time immersed in your field site, it can be difficult to begin to write up your conclusions, but if you have been conducting the analysis throughout and coding your fieldnotes, you should be able to move forward with confidence. The format of your write-up will depend on exactly what you want to get out of it – if you are writing for a more academic audience, you would tend to follow the more traditional format of an academic paper. If you are writing more for internal organizational purposes, you might take a more informal tone. And if you are writing more as a policy brief, you should try to be as clear and concise as possible.

Regardless of the format, your writing should highlight the major themes that you have arrived upon after conducting the constant comparative method. Your work should first describe the field site that you worked with, explain your methodology, and outline the research questions. From there, you should outline your major themes as the conclusions of your work. One of the best parts of writing up participant observation is that you have a great resource of fieldnotes to draw from that you can quote to explicate your major themes. Feel free to include quotes from interactions you observed or interviews you conducted as a way to give greater texture to your insights.

 

Writing up a final report is not the end of reporting your results!  Think about other types of presentations for your findings. 

Here are just a few examples:

  • You can create a brochure about your study and its findings.
  • You can you hold a community meeting where you can present your study and engage in a discussion with community members.
  • You can promote your findings using social media outlets, like Facebook or Twitter.  You could also record video of your presentations and post it on YouTube or other social media sites.
  • You can contact local news media to bring attention to your findings. 

 

There are a number of different ways you can go about organizing a final report of document, but here is a suggested outline:


Opening Section
  1. Title Page
  2. Table of Contents
  3. Abstract or Executive Summary

 An abstract is a brief summation of your project – usually no longer than one paragraph – that states the research question, the method used, and a few of the main findings.  It should be clear and extremely concise.

An Executive Summary is more in-depth than an abstract – usually two to three pages – and mirrors the contents of your larger report.  The executive summary should include a brief introduction, description of your method and a few main findings, followed by a brief discussion that highlights important things learned and directions for future research or action.  The executive summary should be easy to read and engaging.  The executive summary should be able to stand on its own, since many people will not read the entire report.  You might even want to distribute these executive summaries as a separate document to certain individuals or organizations who prefer a shorter format.


Body of the Report

   1. Introduction

  • The introduction should outline the problem and research question you were interested in, discussing its significance and any historical background that the reader should know.  If you had any hypotheses going into the research study, you would state these here.    

   2. Previous Research

  • In this section, you would report findings from any literature review you conducted during your process that were relevant to the work that you conducted.  If other researchers had conducted similar work on your research question at a previous time, this would be the place to discuss that and explain how their work helped shape your own study.

   3.  Methodology

  • Here is where you describe the main points of how you conducted your research.  Explain what kind of data you collected, who collected the data, and how participants were recruited. 

   4. Results and Analysis

  • This section is where you report the findings of your research.  Use tables and charts where appropriate.  If you conducted any statistical tests, report the results of those findings here.

   5. Discussion and Conclusions

  • This section should briefly summarize the previous parts of your report.  This is the place where you can write about your interpretations of your research results.  What were the most important findings?  What do the findings mean for your organization or for the population that you were studying?  What next steps should be taken?  Also, use this section to point out topics that are in need of further research to better understand the phenomenon.
     
References
  1. Endnotes
  2. References and Bibliography
  3. Appendix

    Where possible, the appendix should include any research instruments you used, like your interview questions.  Any other relevant documents that readers might want to refer to should also be included here.

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