Participant Observation

Participant observation

Meet Dr Mwenza Blell, a biosocial medical anthropologist who has done quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods work, including ethnographic research and participant observation.

Meet Profesor Suzanne Moffatt, who primarily uses qualitative research methods, including participant observation.

Participant observation is the study of individuals, communities or groups in ‘the field’ to gain an understanding of their lived experience. As Boccagni and Schrooten (2018: 212) note, participant observation is “an embodied and extended presence in the social world of those being studied. Social life as it is being lived, rather than only as it is reported by informants (often in ephemeral, artificial or ad-hoc settings), is its fundamental concern.” Closely observing patterns, norms, attitudes and practices can enable the researcher to become immersed within the group and therefore gain a deeper understanding of the phenomena being studied. Participant observation is widely used in many disciplines such as sociology, cultural anthropology and human geography. Other research areas that use participant observation include healthcare and gerontology (Graham, 2017), creative arts practice (Lainé, 2015) and migration studies (Boccagni and Schrooten, 2018).

Participant observation and ethnography are terms often used interchangeably however hold two distinct traditions. While ethnography is a broad methodological approach, participant observation is a distinct method that can be utilised within ethnographic study. Other related research methods include direct observation, which typically requires less interaction between the ‘observer’ and the ‘observed’ and is used within fields such as psychology (Hintze, 2019) and public health (Catchpole et al, 2019).

Participant observation often requires a level of organisation and record-taking within the field. Typically, the researcher generates material ‘in the moment’ with a view to systematically organising and analysing it at a later date. This can be done by taking notes, photographs and sound, asking questions and collecting objects. The length of time one needs to spend in the field varies according to the research context and can take between days, months or years.

There is significant skill involved in engaging with participants and groups naturally and authentically whist sensitively collecting relevant data. With this in mind, there are many ethical considerations when using participant observation such as the impact of the researcher-participant relationship, maintaining informed consent and protecting the anonymity of participants (Kawulich, 2005).



An in-depth guide to participant observation by SAGE can be found here.


  • Boccagni, P., and Schrooten, M., (2018). Participant Observation in Migration Studies: An Overview and Some Emerging Issues. In: R. Zapata-Barrero and E. Yalaz. Eds. Qualitative Research in European Migration Studies, New York: Springer. Ch.12.
  • Catchpole, K., Neyens, D.M., Abernathy, J., Allison, D., Joseph, A., and Reeves, S.T., (2019). Framework for direct observation of performance and safety in healthcare, BMJ Qual Saf, 26(12), pp.1015-1021.
  • Graham, M.E., (2017) Arts-Inspired Participant Observation in Ethnographic Fieldwork: Researching the Experience of Movement in Long-Term Care. In: SAGE Research Methods Cases.
  • Hintze, J.M., (2019). Psychometrics of Direct Observation, School Psychology Review, 34(40), pp.507-519.
  • Lainé, A., (2015) ‘Participatory Art and Participant Observation: Exploring Social Relationships through Interdisciplinary Practices’, Transvaluation Symposium 2015, Sweden.
  • Kawulich, B., (2005) Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(2), Art.43.