Categories Anthropology I

I.8.(c) Tools of data collection:  participatory methods

Participant observation is traditionally associated with the Chicago school of sociology and anthropology . 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, used by 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, 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.

 Participant Observation Type Chart. 

Type of Participant Observation Level of Involvement

No contact with population or field of study

Passive Participation

Researcher is only in the bystander role

Moderate Participation

Researcher maintains a balance between “insider” and “outsider” roles

Active Participation Researcher becomes a member of the group by fully embracing skills and customs for the sake of complete comprehension
Complete Participation


Researcher is completely integrated in population of study beforehand (i.e. he or she is already a member of particular population studied).

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