Observation methods have a long tradition in organizational research, and offer the
promise of ‘thick descriptions’ (Geertz, 1973) of what people ‘really’ do as opposed to what they say they do [action science] . Although very few researchers subscribe to an a-theoretical assumption that observation allows them to ‘see (and tell) it how it is’, there is still a temptation to believe that observational research provides an unproblematic window on to real-world behaviors, events and settings Having said that, thoughtful and judicious use of observational methods provides one of the most effective ways to begin to understand what goes on in naturalistic settings. Depending on the degree of participation by the observer, observation can be classified as participant and non-participant.
Observation methods come in several forms, of which participant observation (q.v.) [field research] is probably the most widely known. Participant observation is traditionally associated with anthropology and particularly the Chicago school of sociology. Participant observation is one type of data collection method typically done in the qualitative research paradigm. It is a widely used methodology in many disciplines, particularly cultural anthropology.. Its aim is to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, sub cultural group, or a particular community) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their cultural environment, usually over an extended period of time. The method originated in the field research of social anthropologists, especially Bronisław Malinowski in Britain, the students of Franz Boas in the United States, and in the later urban research of the Chicago School of sociology.
Participant observation was used extensively by Frank Hamilton Cushing in his study of the Zuni Indians in the later part of the nineteenth century, followed by the studies of non- Western societies by people such as Bronisław Malinowski, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and Margaret Mead in the first half of the twentieth century. It emerged as the principal approach to ethnographic research by anthropologists and relied on the cultivation of personal relationships with local informants as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating in the social life of a group. By living with the cultures they studied, researchers were able to formulate first hand accounts of their lives and gain novel insights. This same method of study has also been applied to groups within Western society, and is especially successful in the study of sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity, where only by taking part may the observer truly get access to the lives of those being studied.
Such research involves a range of well-defined, though variable methods: informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the life of the group, collective discussions, analyses of personal documents produced within the group, self-analysis, results from activities undertaken off or online, and life-histories. Although the method is generally characterized as qualitative research, it can (and often does) include quantitative dimensions In participant observation, a researcher’s discipline based interests and commitments shape which events he or she considers are important and relevant to the research inquiry. According to Howell (1972), the four stages that most participant observation research studies are
- establishing rapport or getting to know the people,
- immersing oneself in the field,
- recording data and observations,
- and consolidating the information gathered
Types of participant observation
Participant observation is not simply showing up at a site and writing things down. On the contrary, participant observation is a complex method that has many components. One of the first things that a researcher or individual must do after deciding to conduct participant observations to gather data is decide what kind of participant observer he or she will be. Spradley provides five different types of participant observations.
Non-participant, or direct, observation is where data are collected by observing behavior without interacting with the participants. In this type of observation, the researcher does not actually participate in the activities of the group to be studied. He would be simply present in the group to note down the behavior of the respondents. The researcher makes no attempt to influence or to create a relationship between him and the group.
Though the method implies non-participation, it should not be construed as complete or total lack of participation. As a matter of fact, there can be no non-participant observation of a group.
The merit of this method is that the researcher can maintain purely impartial status and be free from factionalism. He can adopt a scientific attitude and look at the happenings only from that perspective. But the greatest problem with this method is that the members of the group (i.e. those under observation) may become suspicious of the presence of the researcher and hence may not display their natural behavior. Further, under non-participant observation, the observer may observe only those activities that take place before him. He fails to understand them in proper sequence, unless he has actively participated with the group.
Limitations To Any Participant Observation
- The recorded observations about a group of people or event are never going to be the full description.
- As mentioned before this is due to the selective nature of any type of recordable data process: it is inevitably influenced by researchers’ personal beliefs of what is relevant and important.
- This is also plays out in the analysis of collected data; the researcher’s worldview invariably influences how he or she interprets and evaluates the data.