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15 Participant Observation Examples

participant observation examples and definition, explained below

Participant observation is research method where the researcher not only observes the research subjects, but also actively engages in the activities of the subjects (Musante & DeWalt, 2010; Kawulich, 2005). They are both observing and participating .

This method is particularly useful in the social sciences, where researchers aim to understand complex socio-cultural phenomena from an insider’s view. This can involve long-term immersion in the field to gather detailed and nuanced data.

Participant Observation Examples

1. Workplace Observation A researcher studying the dynamics of a corporation might take a job within the company. This way, they can observe the corporate culture, hierarchies, office dynamics, and interactions in their natural settings from an employee’s perspective.

Sample Study: Among the agilists: participant observation in a rapidly evolving workplace

Brief Explanation: This participant observation study discussed in this paper focused on researchers embedding themselves within an agile software development community. They aimed to understand how this community works and evolves over time. The researchers used methods like interviews and close interaction to gain insights.

Citation: Kumar, S., & Wallace, C. (2016, May). Among the agilists: participant observation in a rapidly evolving workplace. In  Proceedings of the 9th International Workshop on Cooperative and Human Aspects of Software Engineering  (pp. 52-55).

2. Cultural Immersion A researcher moves to a foreign country or unfamiliar community, immersing themselves in the new culture. They observe social customs, languages, and day-to-day activities to understand the group’s socio-cultural practices.

3. Formal or Informal Group Meetings A researcher might participate in group meetings (civic organizations, religious bodies, support groups, etc.) to observe group dynamics, decision-making processes, or the impacts and implementation of collective regulations.

4. Online Groups A researcher might join an online community, game, or forum to understand the virtual behaviors, online social interactions, dynamics, etiquette, and patterns. This is often a part of ‘digital ethnography’.

Sample Study: Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Novices in a Dungeons and Dragons Community

Brief Explanation: This participant observation study focused on how new players learn to join the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) community and culture. The researchers watched and interviewed both experienced and new players to understand how novices become part of the D&D world. They found that some novices needed in-game training to learn their roles, while others quickly learned by participating in online communities and watching games. The study showed that becoming a part of the D&D community involves both playing at the table and engaging with the wider online D&D world.

Citation: Giordano, M. J. (2022). Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Novices in a Dungeons and Dragons Community.  Simulation & Gaming ,  53 (5), 446-469.

5. Police Work A researcher may ride along with police officers to observe their day-to-day activities, decision-making processes , and their interactions with the community.

6. Homeless Community A researcher might spend time incognito in homeless communities to observe first-hand the struggles, social norms, coping mechanisms, and the impact of local policies on these communities.

7. Religious Festivals A researcher participates in religious festivals or public ceremonies to understand the associated cultural symbols, rituals, conduct, and beliefs.

8. Healthcare Settings A researcher could embed themselves in a hospital or clinic to observe interactions between healthcare providers and patients, to understand patient-care protocols, or assess workflow efficiency.

Sample Study: Participant observation in obesity research with children

Brief Explanation: This participant observation study was about researching obesity in children by observing them in their everyday activities. The researchers wanted to understand how children think about food and their bodies. They found that talking to children through regular interviews might limit their responses. Instead, by watching children in their natural environments, the researchers gained better insights into how children view their bodies and health. This approach allowed them to see beyond the typical spaces where research is done and understand children’s experiences more deeply.

Citation: Gunson, J. S., Warin, M., Zivkovic, T., & Moore, V. (2016). Participant observation in obesity research with children: Striated and smooth spaces.  Children’s Geographies ,  14 (1), 20-34.

9. Subculture Observation A researcher might immerse themselves in a particular subculture, such as biker clubs, punk or goth communities, or online fandoms, to observe their practices, codes, relationship dynamics, and shared identities.

10. Sporting Events A researcher could join a soccer league, a boxing gym, or an extreme sports club to examine the dynamics, customs, procedures, and participant motivation within these organizations.

11. Ethnobotany Study A researcher could join a community in a remote location to study their use of plants for medicinal, nutritional, and other purposes, their knowledge transfer methodologies, and associated cultural practices.

12. Educational Settings A researcher might participate as a teacher or a student in a classroom to understand teaching methods, student behavior, the impact of classroom environments on learning, or the effectiveness of certain educational policies.

Sample Study: The place of humor in the classroom

Brief Explanation: This study looked at humor in classrooms, specifically how much and what kind of humor teachers and students use. The study explored both positive and negative effects of humor, as inappropriate humor can be bad. The researchers were participant observes in 105 Greek primary school classrooms and found that teachers used humor about twice per teaching hour on average.

Citation: Chaniotakis, N., & Papazoglou, M. (2019). The place of humor in the classroom.  Research on young children’s humor: Theoretical and practical implications for early childhood education , 127-144.

13. Consumer Behavior A researcher might pose as a shopper in a retail store to observe and understand consumer behavior, shopping habits, influences on purchasing decisions, effectiveness of product placements, and impacts of store environments on consumer choices.

14. Campaign Observation A researcher may join a political or social campaign to observe the strategies utilized, the internal structures and conduct, and the dynamics of public engagement.

15. Prison Settings A researcher might work as a guard or administrator in a prison setting to study the attitudes, behaviors, and interactions of inmates and prison staff.

Pros and Cons of Participant Observation

  • Generation of rich and detailed data: Participant observation allows the researcher to collect data that is in-depth and rich in detail due to the firsthand experience (Balsiger & Lambelet, 2014; Gunn & Logstrup, 2014). The researcher can record observations, feelings, and interpretations, capturing the complexity of human behavior and providing a context for understanding it.
  • The naturalistic and real-world context: In participant observation, data is collected in the natural environment of the subject, thus providing a more realistic picture of what is being studied. Observations are less artificial than controlled settings, such as in laboratory experiments (Spradley, 2016; Musante & DeWalt, 2010).
  • Flexibility: The researcher has the ability to adjust the research focus as the study progresses. If during the course of observation, the researcher identifies new aspects of the research question or encounters new paths of enquiry, there is the possibility to explore these (Spradley, 2016).
  • Insider perspective: By participating actively in the group or community being observed, the researcher acquires an internal perspective, thus gaining access to the members’ perceptions, values, and views which might not surface through other research methods (Kawulich, 2005).
  • Risk of subjectivity: Personal biases and the involvement of the researcher in the group being studied can lead to the observed behavior being interpreted subjectively (Jorgensen, 2020). The researcher’s presence might alter the research environment and the behavior of those being observed, which could further influence the data’s validity.
  • Time and resource intensity: The participant observation method often requires the researcher to spend a large amount of time in the field. It may also necessitate the learning of a new language or culture, or it can involve travel and accommodation expenses, if the observation is taking place in a different region (Lambelet, 2014; Jorgensen, 2020).
  • Difficulties in replication: Since the observations are not only determined by the observed phenomena and participants, but also the unique interpretation of the observer, replication of studies can be very difficult (Jorgensen, 2020).
  • Ethical considerations: There can be ethical dilemmas, such as concerns about privacy and informed consent. In participant observation, the line between observing and participating can sometimes blur, potentially leading to ethical dilemmas if subjects do not know they are part of a study (Musante & DeWalt, 2010).
  • Problem of data overload: Participant observations can generate a significant amount of data, including personal observations, conversations, interviews, and documents, presenting a challenge when it comes to data management, coding, and analysis (Spradley, 2016). As a result, effectively synthesizing all the available information can pose a significant complication.

Participant Observation vs Ethnography

Participant observation generally occurs in the social sciences during qualitative field research . The participant enters the setting, participates and observes, then leaves.

However, an extended version of participant observation, where the participant remains immersed in the setting for a sustained period of time, is called ethnography (Spradley, 2016).

While the two methods overlap, there are some key differences, explored below:

  • Participant Observation: This approach involves a researcher immersing themselves in a social setting and observing behaviors, interactions, events, and activities (Jorgensen, 2020; Kawulich, 2005). The researcher participates in the activities to a certain extent to better understand the group or culture while also maintaining a level of detachment, often entering and leaving settings.
  • Ethnography: This is a broader research method that often includes participant observation, but goes further, where the researcher becomes a member of the group for a sustained period of time. This provides an in-depth ‘thick description’ of everyday life and practices. The goal of ethnography is to understand the social world in the same way as the people being studied. It typically involves a variety of data collection methods such as interviews, surveys, and document analysis, in addition to participant observation.

Overall, while participant observation focuses on observation and participation in certain activities, ethnography seeks to provide a broader cultural context and deep understanding of the socio-cultural phenomena at play.

Participant observation is a useful tool for qualitative research, often generating richer insights than quantitative research or even other qualitative methods like interviewing alone. It can be done in a range of settings, including workplace, school, religious, cultural, and even prison settings! Overall, it’s useful for helping researchers to dig beneath the surface, but does have drawbacks such as lack of generalizability and researcher subjectivity.

Balsiger, P., & Lambelet, A. (2014). Participant observation: how participant observation changes our view on social movements.  Methodological practices in social movement research , 144-172.

Chaniotakis, N., & Papazoglou, M. (2019). The place of humor in the classroom.  Research on young children’s humor: Theoretical and practical implications for early childhood education , 127-144.

Giordano, M. J. (2022). Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Novices in a Dungeons and Dragons Community.  Simulation & Gaming ,  53 (5), 446-469.

Gunn, W., & Logstrup, L. B. (2014). Participant observation, anthropology methodology and design anthropology research inquiry.  Arts and Humanities in Higher Education ,  13 (4), 428-442.

Gunson, J. S., Warin, M., Zivkovic, T., & Moore, V. (2016). Participant observation in obesity research with children: Striated and smooth spaces.  Children’s Geographies ,  14 (1), 20-34.

Jorgensen, D. L. (2020).  Principles, approaches and issues in participant observation . Routledge.

Kawulich, B. B. (2005, May). Participant observation as a data collection method. In  Forum qualitative sozialforschung/forum: Qualitative social research  (Vol. 6, No. 2).

Kumar, S., & Wallace, C. (2016, May). Among the agilists: participant observation in a rapidly evolving workplace. In  Proceedings of the 9th International Workshop on Cooperative and Human Aspects of Software Engineering  (pp. 52-55).

Musante, K., & DeWalt, B. R. (2010).  Participant observation: A guide for fieldworkers . Rowman Altamira.

Spradley, J. P. (2016).  Participant observation . Waveland Press.


Chris Drew (PhD)

Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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Participant Observation 101: Definition, Types, Uses, Examples

Kate williams.

13 February 2024

Table Of Contents

What is participant observation?

  • The 6 types of participant observation

Where is participant observation used?

5 top participant observation examples.

If you’re planning to use participant observation in research, or just want to brush up on the basics, you’ve come to the right place.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this blog:

  • Participant observation: definition
  • 6 types of participant observation
  • 5 participant observation examples

“But then you must’ve some idea who’s behind it all.”

This line is from ‘Harry Potter: The Chamber of Secrets’. In short, Harry and Ron turn into Goyle and Crabbe (thanks to Hermione’s Polyjuice potion) to see Draco and find out if he’s the heir of Salazar Slytherin. Spoiler if you haven’t read the book: he wasn’t.

But why on earth are we discussing Harry Potter and this scene? Well, because it is a great fictional example of the participant observation method .

Participant observation is a research method where the researcher observes a target audience or group and their day-to-day activities.

The goal of the participant observation method is to study as wide a range of behaviors as possible in a natural, organic setting. As a result, participant observation studies play a vital role in fields that study human behavior – including sociology, psychology, cultural anthropology, and ethnography.

In business, participant observation is defined as qualitative research , and it is helpful for building and marketing better products. You can use it in combination with survey tools like SurveySparrow to collect and visualize the results of your research in real-time.

You can access 1000+ templates and survey tools that will scale up your research by signing up below. Bonus: you will also get complete access to all of our features for 14 days.

Market Research Survey Template

What are the 6 types of participant observation, #1. passive participant observation.

In the passive participant observation method, the researchers observe and record participant behavior without actively involving themselves in the situation. They don’t interact or converse with the participants, and the observation is often done without the participants’ knowledge.

Example : Observing people in public places, like parks, cafés, malls, transport hubs, and even social media. Stuff taken directly out of a detective’s book, won’t you agree?

  • Pros: It brings rich data without being intrusive or disturbing the participant’s normal routine.
  • Cons : It can potentially violate a person’s privacy because they are not able to give informed consent.

#2. Active participant observation

In the active form of participant observation, the researchers speak with the participants and immerse themselves in their lives. With this, the researcher finds information about their activities, habits, interests, and even goals. Some researchers limit their participation to interviewing the subjects, while others immerse themselves in experiencing the life of their target group.

Example : Research that goes on for a long period – like an anthropologist living in an indigenous community to study a set of their customs and culture.

  • Pros : The researcher can get access to rare nuggets of information from living as part of the target group.
  • Cons: Reactivity, or change of behavior by the participants because they know they are under observation, can affect the findings.

#3. Covert-active participant observation

Covert participant observation is when the researcher goes undercover. In other words, the researchers assume the identity of their target group. They conceal their true identity for the duration of the study, and the target group is unaware that they are being studied. In the active form of this participant observation method, the researchers experience all practices as experienced by everyone in the group.

Example : This 2009 study of football hooliganism was based on covert active research on Blackpool FC supporters during the 90s.

  • Pros : Gaining access to closed groups is easier as the researcher doesn’t need to get permission.
  • Cons: The researcher is under constant pressure to maintain their alternate identity and record data at the same time.

#4. Covert-passive participant observation

In the passive form of covert research, the investigator does not attempt to deceive or mislead participants. Traditionally, the most common example of this type of covert research has involved observation of activity in public places such as shopping malls, parks, restaurants, etc., or virtual communities and forums.

Example: A researcher observes and monitors online interactions of other members in a subreddit, but chooses not to contribute or provide a public explanation of their research.

  • Pros : This method is helpful for observation in places which people inhabit for short periods, and where social interactions are minimal.
  • Cons: Due to the time constraints, this method may offer only limited information on certain topics.

#5. Overt-active participant observation

In the overt observation type, the researcher becomes a full member of their target group…but the group knows they are doing research. The active form of overt observation lets the researcher take part in the group’s daily activities.

Example: Many ethnographic studies, like this study of an elite high school in Concord, New Hampshire , use overt-active observation.

  • Pros : This is the most ethical type of observation because participants can give their informed consent, and deception isn’t necessary.
  • Cons: The researcher can still unwittingly influence what’s happening in the group.

#6. Overt-passive participant observation

Here, the target group knows about the researcher. However, the researcher plays no part in their activities. He’s just a silent observer, observing the practices followed by all participants. So, no participant feels his presence.

Example: When a researcher joins employees for meetings but doesn’t interfere in any way.

  • Pros : This method can be combined with 1:1 interviews and surveys to get more insight on the perspectives of different people involved.
  • Cons: Even when the researcher is not actively interacting, the subjects might still alter their behavior because they know a person is observing them.

The use of participant observation as a qualitative research method lies in multiple sectors and industries. However, there are 4 main areas that use participation observation. Let’s talk about them:

#1. Market research

Organizations of all shapes and sizes use participant observation for conducting market research. They share a targeted market research survey with people, and the survey organizers analyze the responses to find relevant patterns. Read how you can create the perfect market research survey that gets the job done.

In fact, the organizer doesn’t directly involve himself in the audience’s shoes. They observe and record subject behaviors through their responses to the survey. Yes, you guessed it right! Passive participation observation is how things are done here.

#2. Sociological research

Almost all the discussed participant observation methods (types) are used extensively in sociological research. Here, human behaviors and cultures are studied based on their social interactions. The researchers use this observation method for participating in activities and performing critical analysis based on their communication with them.

Sociological research using participant observation can be short or even long-term research, where there’s free will to find relevant patterns over an extended period.

#3. Campaigns & events

“I don’t know which way the result is gonna swing. Oh god, I’m so nervous!”

Are you this guy before the results of a campaign are announced?

Well, come on… don’t get all tensed up. Know your audience beforehand using participant observation, and you’ll have a fair idea of which way the tide is going. Political campaigns, organizational events, college elections. You name it. This qualitative research method is the way to do it.

#4. Mental health

The Covid-19 pandemic was a big wake-up call that mental health is just as important as physical. There were lots of cases of employee dissatisfaction leading to deteriorated mental well-being. Organizations, globally, have done a fantastic job of raising mental health awareness, and participant observation played (and still plays) a significant role in that.

There were many cases of HR teams engaging with employees and participating in activities to understand their satisfaction levels. Similarly, interactions with people suffering from mental health issues helped find the root cause. Both of these participant observation methods focused on direct interactions with the target group and stepping into their shoes to find the problem areas. It worked!

Top published participant observation examples are the best way to recognize the importance of this research method even more. So with no further ado, time to let the cat out of the bag.

#1. The ethnography of an elite high school

Most of the ethnographic work we see is around minority communities and the poor. However, this qualitative research example mentioned above gained immense attention as it focused on finding a scientific description of students’ culture and customs from an elite high school.

The researcher, Shamus Khan, used the open and active participant observation method to get a job at the school, move into an apartment on the campus, and observe the daily routines of students. While this observation went on, the researcher took part in most activities of the target group and interviewed them on his questions relating to the research.

Once he had got the answers, he found relevant patterns that led to many revelations about the cultures followed and habits developed in an elite school. All of those findings are here in this book .

#2. Observing social activism & migrants

One of the best places for participant observation usage is to study what’s causing social activism to rise and a specific group of people to migrate.

In most cases, like in this case , too, they performed the observation discreetly, where the researcher stayed covert but kept interacting with all participants. As a result, the what, why, how, and when are answered well this way.

#3. Top athlete’s behavior

People always look upon top athletes as ideals, and role models to follow. For instance, they wish to know their routine, diet, and training. More research is always ongoing on that front, and most of them use participant observation for it.

So a researcher conducts covert observation on them to learn about their behavior and entire routine. The participating observer becomes involved with an athlete as a student interested in the sport. This way, he doesn’t have to participate in the game. Hence they can observe and ask athletes about their curiosities (questions).

The other way is when athletes know you’re the observer, and they’re willing to give answers. You can take part with them actively in a ‘day in the life of…’ manner and fire away your questions to understand what makes them a top player.

Then, there are ‘investigations’ being conducted on players to find how they are in real life, away from the sport. For this, the observer stays covert, spending time spotting differences in behavior both on and off the pitch. To achieve that, the observer should gain the athlete’s group trust to get more accurate information, and that takes time.

#4. Studying regional challenges

Lora-Wainwright studied the challenge of the severe population in rural China from 2009 until 2013 using participant observation. The main agenda of her research was to find how people there coped with it, knowing its detrimental effect on their health.

For this, she observed three villages that were coping with large-scale industrial pollution. Notably, Lora focused on finding how people responded after knowing the risk of cancer from this pollution, how they organized themselves to protest, and how they coped with it every day, as polluted water was hampering people’s health in these villages.

Moreover, her focus was also on the Chinese government’s inability to curb this pollution and its industrialization agenda. She has written a book about it, currently under revision, but this podcast summarizes all her findings. Check it out.

#5. Understanding an industry

Conducting market research is a great way to do it, and we’ve already talked about how participant observation is used there. But it’s done in a fun way, too!

For instance, Helen Sampson boarded her first cargo ship as she wanted to understand a great deal about how the shipping industry worked. She had her doubts about the journey, but the seafarers welcomed her well. They all knew she was here for research. Yet, they helped her, took part in her interviews, and gave her quality insights into the industry and the cargo ship.

It was one helluva ride for her, and this research won Thinking Allowed’s first ethnography award in 2014. You’ll find the summary of this research at the end of the show.

Wrapping Up

Any product, service, or offering becomes a resounding success when it clicks with its intended market. Otherwise, it loses its shine and ends on a low. For that to not happen, market research is critical, and even more crucial is deciding how the research will be conducted.

Here, we’ve given a strong case for participant observation. And although there are other qualitative methods, too, this one gets our support.

At SurveySparrow, we’ve helped conduct many market research surveys in multiple sectors that collected crucial data. We would love to help you with it too. Get in touch with us and let us know your requirements, and we’ll contact you ASAP.

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Chapter 13. Participant Observation


Although there are many possible forms of data collection in the qualitative researcher’s toolkit, the two predominant forms are interviewing and observing. This chapter and the following chapter explore observational data collection. While most observers also include interviewing, many interviewers do not also include observation. It takes some special skills and a certain confidence to be a successful observer. There is also a rich tradition of what I am going to call “deep ethnography” that will be covered in chapter 14. In this chapter, we tackle the basics of observational data collection.


What is Participant Observation?

While interviewing helps us understand how people make sense of their worlds, observing them helps us understand how they act and behave. Sometimes, these actions and behaviors belie what people think or say about their beliefs and values and practices. For example, a person can tell you they would never racially discriminate, but observing how they actually interact with racialized others might undercut those statements. This is not always about dishonesty. Most of us tend to act differently than we think we do or think we should. That is part of being human. If you are interested in what people say and believe , interviewing is a useful technique for data collection. If you are interested in how people act and behave , observing them is essential. And if you want to know both, particularly how thinking/believing and acting/behaving complement or contradict each other, then a combination of interviewing and observing is ideal.

There are a variety of terms we use for observational data collection, from ethnography to fieldwork to participant observation . Many researchers use these terms fairly interchangeably, but here I will separately define them. The subject of this chapter is observation in general, or participant observation, to highlight the fact that observers can also be participants. The subject of chapter 14 will be deep ethnography , a particularly immersive form of study that is attractive for a certain subset of qualitative researchers. Both participant observation and deep ethnography are forms of fieldwork in which the researcher leaves their office and goes into a natural setting to record observations that take place in that setting. [1]

Participant observation (PO) is a field approach to gathering data in which the researcher enters a specific site for purposes of engagement or observation. Participation and observation can be conceptualized as a continuum, and any given study can fall somewhere on that line between full participation (researcher is a member of the community or organization being studied) and observation (researcher pretends to be a fly on the wall surreptitiously but mostly by permission, recording what happens). Participant observation forms the heart of ethnographic research, an approach, if you remember, that seeks to understand and write about a particular culture or subculture. We’ll discuss what I am calling deep ethnography in the next chapter, where researchers often embed themselves for months if not years or even decades with a particular group to be able to fully capture “what it’s like.” But there are lighter versions of PO that can form the basis of a research study or that can supplement or work with other forms of data collection, such as interviews or archival research. This chapter will focus on these lighter versions, although note that much of what is said here can also apply to deep ethnography (chapter 14).

PO methods of gathering data present some special considerations—How involved is the researcher? How close is she to the subjects or site being studied? And how might her own social location—identity, position—affect the study? These are actually great questions for any kind of qualitative data collection but particularly apt when the researcher “enters the field,” so to speak. It is helpful to visualize where one falls on a continuum or series of continua (figure 13.1).

participant observation essay examples

Let’s take a few examples and see how these continua work. Think about each of the following scenarios, and map them onto the possibilities of figure 13.1:

  • a nursing student during COVID doing research on patient/doctor interactions in the ICU
  • a graduate student accompanying a police officer during her rounds one day in a part of the city the graduate student has never visited
  • a professor raised Amish who goes back to her hometown to conduct research on Amish marriage practices for one month
  •  (What if the sociologist was also a member of the OCF board and camping crew?)

Depending on how the researcher answers those questions and where they stand on the P.O. continuum, various techniques will be more or less effective. For example, in cases where the researcher is a participant, writing reflective fieldnotes at the end of the day may be the primary form of data collected. After all, if the researcher is fully participating, they probably don’t have the time or ability to pull out a notepad and ask people questions. On the other side, when a researcher is more of an observer, this is exactly what they might do, so long as the people they are interrogating are able to answer while they are going about their business. The more an observer, the more likely the researcher will engage in relatively structured interviews (using techniques discussed in chapters 11 and 12); the more a participant, the more likely casual conversations or “unstructured interviews” will form the core of the data collected. [2]

Observation and Qualitative Traditions

Observational techniques are used whenever the researcher wants to document actual behaviors and practices as they happen (not as they are explained or recorded historically). Many traditions of inquiry employ observational data collection, but not all traditions employ them in the same way. Chapter 14 will cover one very specific tradition: ethnography. Because the word ethnography is sometimes used for all fieldwork, I am calling the subject of chapter 14 deep ethnography, those studies that take as their focus the documentation through the description of a culture or subculture. Deeply immersive, this tradition of ethnography typically entails several months or even years in the field. But there are plenty of other uses of observation that are less burdensome to the researcher.

Grounded Theory, in which theories emerge from a rigorous and systematic process of induction, is amenable to both interviewing and observing forms of data collection, and some of the best Grounded Theory works employ a deft combination of both. Often closely aligned with Grounded Theory in sociology is the tradition of symbolic interactionism (SI). Interviews and observations in combination are necessary to properly address the SI question, What common understandings give meaning to people’s interactions ? Gary Alan Fine’s body of work fruitfully combines interviews and observations to build theory in response to this SI question. His Authors of the Storm: Meteorologists and the Culture of Prediction is based on field observation and interviews at the Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma; the National Weather Service in Washington, DC; and a few regional weather forecasting outlets in the Midwest. Using what he heard and what he observed, he builds a theory of weather forecasting based on social and cultural factors that take place inside local offices. In Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming , Fine investigates the world of mushroom hunters through participant observation and interviews, eventually building a theory of “naturework” to describe how the meanings people hold about the world are constructed and are socially organized—our understanding of “nature” is based on human nature, if you will.

Phenomenology typically foregrounds interviewing, as the purpose of this tradition is to gather people’s understandings and meanings about a phenomenon. However, it is quite common for phenomenological interviewing to be supplemented with some observational data, especially as a check on the “reality” of the situations being described by those interviewed. In my own work, for example, I supplemented primary interviews with working-class college students with some participant observational work on the campus in which they were studying. This helped me gather information on the general silence about class on campus, which made the salience of class in the interviews even more striking ( Hurst 2010a ).

Critical theories such as standpoint approaches, feminist theory, and Critical Race Theory are often multimethod in design. Interviews, observations (possibly participation), and archival/historical data are all employed to gather an understanding of how a group of persons experiences a particular setting or institution or phenomenon and how things can be made more just . In Making Elite Lawyers , Robert Granfield ( 1992 ) drew on both classroom observations and in-depth interviews with students to document the conservatizing effects of the Harvard legal education on working-class students, female students, and students of color. In this case, stories recounted by students were amplified by searing examples of discrimination and bias observed by Granfield and reported in full detail through his fieldnotes.

Entry Access and Issues

Managing your entry into a field site is one of the most important and nerve-wracking aspects of doing ethnographic research. Unlike interviews, which can be conducted in neutral settings, the field is an actual place with its own rules and customs that you are seeking to explore. How you “gain access” will depend on what kind of field you are entering. If your field site is a physical location with walls and a front desk (such as an office building or an elementary school), you will need permission from someone in the organization to enter and to conduct your study. Negotiating this might take weeks or even months. If your field site is a public site (such as a public dog park or city sidewalks), there is no “official” gatekeeper, but you will still probably need to find a person present at the site who can vouch for you (e.g., other dog owners or people hanging out on their stoops). [3] And if your field site is semipublic, as in a shopping mall, you might have to weigh the pros and cons of gaining “official” permission, as this might impede your progress or be difficult to ascertain whose permission to request. If you recall, many of the ethical dilemmas discussed in chapter 7 were about just such issues.

Even with official (or unofficial) permission to enter the site, however, your quest to gain access is not done. You will still need to gain the trust and permission of the people you encounter at that site. If you are a mere observer in a public setting, you probably do not need each person you observe to sign a consent form, but if you are a participant in an event or enterprise who is also taking notes and asking people questions, you probably do. Each study is unique here, so I recommend talking through the ethics of permission and consent seeking with a faculty mentor.

A separate but related issue from permission is how you will introduce yourself and your presence. How you introduce yourself to people in the field will depend very much on what level of participation you have chosen as well as whether you are an insider or outsider. Sometimes your presence will go unremarked, whereas other times you may stick out like a very sore thumb. Lareau ( 2021 ) advises that you be “vague but accurate” when explaining your presence. You don’t want to use academic jargon (unless your field is the academy!) that would be off-putting to the people you meet. Nor do you want to deceive anyone. “Hi, I’m Allison, and I am here to observe how students use career services” is accurate and simple and more effective than “I am here to study how race, class, and gender affect college students’ interactions with career services personnel.”

Researcher Note

Something that surprised me and that I still think about a lot is how to explain to respondents what I’m doing and why and how to help them feel comfortable with field work. When I was planning fieldwork for my dissertation, I was thinking of it from a researcher’s perspective and not from a respondent’s perspective. It wasn’t until I got into the field that I started to realize what a strange thing I was planning to spend my time on and asking others to allow me to do. Like, can I follow you around and write notes? This varied a bit by site—it was easier to ask to sit in on meetings, for example—but asking people to let me spend a lot of time with them was awkward for me and for them. I ended up asking if I could shadow them, a verb that seemed to make clear what I hoped to be able to do. But even this didn’t get around issues like respondents’ self-consciousness or my own. For example, respondents sometimes told me that their lives were “boring” and that they felt embarrassed to have someone else shadow them when they weren’t “doing anything.” Similarly, I would feel uncomfortable in social settings where I knew only one person. Taking field notes is not something to do at a party, and when introduced as a researcher, people would sometimes ask, “So are you researching me right now?” The answer to that is always yes. I figured out ways of taking notes that worked (I often sent myself text messages with jotted notes) and how to get more comfortable explaining what I wanted to be able to do (wanting to see the campus from the respondent’s perspective, for example), but it is still something I work to improve.

—Elizabeth M. Lee, Associate Professor of Sociology at Saint Joseph’s University, author of Class and Campus Life and coauthor of Geographies of Campus Inequality

Reflexivity in Fieldwork

As always, being aware of who you are, how you are likely to be read by others in the field, and how your own experiences and understandings of the world are likely to affect your reading of others in the field are all very important to conducting successful research. When Annette Lareau ( 2021 ) was managing a team of graduate student researchers in her study of parents and children, she noticed that her middle-class graduate students took in stride the fact that children called adults by their first names, while her working-class-origin graduate students “were shocked by what they considered the rudeness and disrespect middle-class children showed toward their parents and other adults” ( 151 ). This “finding” emerged from particular fieldnotes taken by particular research assistants. Having graduate students with different class backgrounds turned out to be useful. Being reflexive in this case meant interrogating one’s own expectations about how children should act toward adults. Creating thick descriptions in the fieldnotes (e.g., describing how children name adults) is important, but thinking about one’s response to those descriptions is equally so. Without reflection, it is possible that important aspects never even make it into the fieldnotes because they seem “unremarkable.”

The Data of Observational Work: Fieldnotes

In interview data collection, recordings of interviews are transcribed into the data of the study. This is not possible for much PO work because (1) aural recordings of observations aren’t possible and (2) conversations that take place on-site are not easily recorded. Instead, the participant observer takes notes, either during the fieldwork or at the day’s end. These notes, called “fieldnotes,” are then the primary form of data for PO work.

Writing fieldnotes takes a lot of time. Because fieldnotes are your primary form of data, you cannot be stingy with the time it takes. Most practitioners suggest it takes at least the same amount of time to write up notes as it takes to be in the field, and many suggest it takes double the time. If you spend three hours at a meeting of the organization you are observing, it is a good idea to set aside five to six hours to write out your fieldnotes. Different researchers use different strategies about how and when to do this. Somewhat obviously, the earlier you can write down your notes, the more likely they are to be accurate. Writing them down at the end of the day is thus the default practice. However, if you are plainly exhausted, spending several hours trying to recall important details may be counterproductive. Writing fieldnotes the next morning, when you are refreshed and alert, may work better.

Reseaarcher Note

How do you take fieldnotes ? Any advice for those wanting to conduct an ethnographic study?

Fieldnotes are so important, especially for qualitative researchers. A little advice when considering how you approach fieldnotes: Record as much as possible! Sometimes I write down fieldnotes, and I often audio-record them as well to transcribe later. Sometimes the space to speak what I observed is helpful and allows me to be able to go a little more in-depth or to talk out something that I might not quite have the words for just yet. Within my fieldnote, I include feelings and think about the following questions: How do I feel before data collection? How did I feel when I was engaging/watching? How do I feel after data collection? What was going on for me before this particular data collection? What did I notice about how folks were engaging? How were participants feeling, and how do I know this? Is there anything that seems different than other data collections? What might be going on in the world that might be impacting the participants? As a qualitative researcher, it’s also important to remember our own influences on the research—our feelings or current world news may impact how we observe or what we might capture in fieldnotes.

—Kim McAloney, PhD, College Student Services Administration Ecampus coordinator and instructor

What should be included in those fieldnotes? The obvious answer is “everything you observed and heard relevant to your research question.” The difficulty is that you often don’t know what is relevant to your research question when you begin, as your research question itself can develop and transform during the course of your observations. For example, let us say you begin a study of second-grade classrooms with the idea that you will observe gender dynamics between both teacher and students and students and students. But after five weeks of observation, you realize you are taking a lot of notes about how teachers validate certain attention-seeking behaviors among some students while ignoring those of others. For example, when Daisy (White female) interrupts a discussion on frogs to tell everyone she has a frog named Ribbit, the teacher smiles and asks her to tell the students what Ribbit is like. In contrast, when Solomon (Black male) interrupts a discussion on the planets to tell everyone his big brother is called Jupiter by their stepfather, the teacher frowns and shushes him. These notes spark interest in how teachers favor and develop some students over others and the role of gender, race, and class in these teacher practices. You then begin to be much more careful in recording these observations, and you are a little less attentive to the gender dynamics among students. But note that had you not been fairly thorough in the first place, these crucial insights about teacher favoritism might never have been made.

Here are some suggestions for things to include in your fieldnotes as you begin: (1) descriptions of the physical setting; (2) people in the site: who they are and how they interact with one another (what roles they are taking on); and (3) things overheard: conversations, exchanges, questions. While you should develop your own personal system for organizing these fieldnotes (computer vs. printed journal, for example), at a minimum, each set of fieldnotes should include the date, time in the field, persons observed, and location specifics. You might also add keywords to each set so that you can search by names of participants, dates, and locations. Lareau ( 2021:167 ) recommends covering the following key issues, which mnemonically spell out WRITE— W : who, what, when, where, how; R: reaction (responses to the action in question and the response to the response); I: inaction (silence or nonverbal response to an action); T: timing (how slowly or quickly someone is speaking); and E: emotions (nonverbal signs of emotion and/or stoicism).

In addition to the observational fieldnotes, if you have time, it is a good practice to write reflective memos in which you ask yourself what you have learned (either about the study or about your abilities in the field). If you don’t have time to do this for every set of fieldnotes, at least get in the practice of memoing at certain key junctures, perhaps after reading through a certain number of fieldnotes (e.g., every third day of fieldnotes, you set aside two hours to read through the notes and memo). These memos can then be appended to relevant fieldnotes. You will be grateful for them when it comes time to analyze your data, as they are a preliminary by-the-seat-of-your-pants analysis. They also help steer you toward the study you want to pursue rather than allow you to wallow in unfocused data.

Ethics of Fieldwork

Because most fieldwork requires multiple and intense interactions (even if merely observational) with real living people as they go about their business, there are potentially more ethical choices to be made. In addition to the ethics of gaining entry and permission discussed above, there are issues of accurate representation, of respecting privacy, of adequate financial compensation, and sometimes of financial and other forms of assistance (when observing/interacting with low-income persons or other marginalized populations). In other words, the ethical decision of fieldwork is never concluded by obtaining a signature on a consent form. Read this brief selection from Pascale’s ( 2021 ) methods description (observation plus interviews) to see how many ethical decisions she made:

Throughout I kept detailed ethnographic field and interview records, which included written notes, recorded notes, and photographs. I asked everyone who was willing to sit for a formal interview to speak only for themselves and offered each of them a prepaid Visa Card worth $25–40. I also offered everyone the opportunity to keep the card and erase the tape completely at any time they were dissatisfied with the interview in any way. No one asked for the tape to be erased; rather, people remarked on the interview being a really good experience because they felt heard. Each interview was professionally transcribed and for the most part the excerpts in this book are literal transcriptions. In a few places, the excerpta have been edited to reduce colloquial features of speech (e.g., you know, like, um) and some recursive elements common to spoken language. A few excerpts were placed into standard English for clarity. I made this choice for the benefit of readers who might otherwise find the insights and ideas harder to parse in the original. However, I have to acknowledge this as an act of class-based violence. I tried to keep the original phrasing whenever possible. ( 235 )

Summary Checklist for Successful Participant Observation

The following are ten suggestions for being successful in the field, slightly paraphrased from Patton ( 2002:331 ). Here, I take those ten suggestions and turn them into an extended “checklist” to use when designing and conducting fieldwork.

  • Consider all possible approaches to your field and your position relative to that field (see figure 13.2). Choose wisely and purposely. If you have access to a particular site or are part of a particular culture, consider the advantages (and disadvantages) of pursuing research in that area. Clarify the amount of disclosure you are willing to share with those you are observing, and justify that decision.
  • Take thorough and descriptive field notes. Consider how you will record them. Where your research is located will affect what kinds of field notes you can take and when, but do not fail to write them! Commit to a regular recording time. Your field notes will probably be the primary data source you collect, so your study’s success will depend on thick descriptions and analytical memos you write to yourself about what you are observing.
  • Permit yourself to be flexible. Consider alternative lines of inquiry as you proceed. You might enter the field expecting to find something only to have your attention grabbed by something else entirely. This is perfectly fine (and, in some traditions, absolutely crucial for excellent results). When you do see your attention shift to an emerging new focus, take a step back, look at your original research design, and make careful decisions about what might need revising to adapt to these new circumstances.
  • Include triangulated data as a means of checking your observations. If you are that ICU nurse watching patient/doctor interactions, you might want to add a few interviews with patients to verify your interpretation of the interaction. Or perhaps pull some public data on the number of arrests for jaywalking if you are the student accompanying police on their rounds to find out if the large number of arrests you witnessed was typical.
  • Respect the people you are witnessing and recording, and allow them to speak for themselves whenever possible. Using direct quotes (recorded in your field notes or as supplementary recorded interviews) is another way to check the validity of the analyses of your observations. When designing your research, think about how you can ensure the voices of those you are interested in get included.
  •  Choose your informants wisely. Who are they relative to the field you are exploring? What are the limitations (ethical and strategic) in using those particular informants, guides, and gatekeepers? Limit your reliance on them to the extent possible.
  • Consider all the stages of fieldwork, and have appropriate plans for each. Recognize that different talents are required at different stages of the data-collection process. In the beginning, you will probably spend a great deal of time building trust and rapport and will have less time to focus on what is actually occurring. That’s normal. Later, however, you will want to be more focused on and disciplined in collecting data while also still attending to maintaining relationships necessary for your study’s success. Sometimes, especially when you have been invited to the site, those granting access to you will ask for feedback. Be strategic about when giving that feedback is appropriate. Consider how to extricate yourself from the site and the participants when your study is coming to an end. Have an ethical exit plan.
  • Allow yourself to be immersed in the scene you are observing. This is true even if you are observing a site as an outsider just one time. Make an effort to see things through the eyes of the participants while at the same time maintaining an analytical stance. This is a tricky balance to do, of course, and is more of an art than a science. Practice it. Read about how others have achieved it.
  • Create a practice of separating your descriptive notes from your analytical observations. This may be as clear as dividing a sheet of paper into two columns, one for description only and the other for questions or interpretation (as we saw in chapter 11 on interviewing), or it may mean separating out the time you dedicate to descriptions from the time you reread and think deeply about those detailed descriptions. However you decide to do it, recognize that these are two separate activities, both of which are essential to your study’s success.
  • As always with qualitative research, be reflective and reflexive. Do not forget how your own experience and social location may affect both your interpretation of what you observe and the very things you observe themselves (e.g., where a patient says more forgiving things about an observably rude doctor because they read you, a nursing student, as likely to report any negative comments back to the doctor). Keep a research journal!

Further Readings

Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw. 2011. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes . 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press. Excellent guide that uses actual unfinished fieldnote to illustrate various options for composing, reviewing, and incorporating fieldnote into publications.

Lareau, Annette. 2021. Listening to People: A Practical Guide to Interviewing, Participant Observation, Data Analysis, and Writing It All Up . Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Includes actual fieldnote from various studies with a really helpful accompanying discussion about how to improve them!

Wolfinger, Nicholas H. 2002. “On Writing Fieldnotes: Collection Strategies and Background Expectancies.” Qualitative Research 2(1):85–95. Uses fieldnote from various sources to show how the researcher’s expectations and preexisting knowledge affect what gets written about; offers strategies for taking useful fieldnote.

  • Note that leaving one’s office to interview someone in a coffee shop would not be considered fieldwork because the coffee shop is not an element of the study. If one sat down in a coffee shop and recorded observations, then this would be fieldwork. ↵
  • This is one reason why I have chosen to discuss deep ethnography in a separate chapter (chapter 14). ↵
  • This person is sometimes referred to as the [pb_glossary id="389"]informant [/pb_glossary](and more on these characters in chapter 14). ↵

Methodological tradition of inquiry that holds the view that all social interaction is dependent on shared views of the world and each other, characterized through people’s use of language and non-verbal communication.   Through interactions, society comes to be.  The goal of the researcher in this tradition is to trace that construction, as in the case of documenting how gender is “done” or performed, demonstrating the fluidity of the concept (and how it is constantly being made and remade through daily interactions).

Used primarily in ethnography , as in the goal of fieldnotes is to produce a thick description of what is both observed directly (actions, actors, setting, etc.) and the meanings and interpretations being made by those actors at the time.  In this way, the observed cultural and social relationships are contextualized for future interpretation.  The opposite of a thick description is a thin description, in which observations are recorded without any social context or cues to help explain them.  The term was coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (see chapter 14 ).

Reflective summaries of findings that emerge during analysis of qualitative data; they can include reminders to oneself for future analyses or considerations, reinterpretations or generations of codes, or brainstorms and concept mapping.

Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods Copyright © 2023 by Allison Hurst is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Methodological Practices in Social Movement Research

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7 Participant Observation

  • Published: September 2014
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A growing number of scholars use participant observation when studying movements. Through active participation, researchers attempt to gain insights into mobilization processes as they take place, and understand activism from within. This chapter offers a practical guide to doing participant observation in social movements. An introductory section asks how participant observation has been used in social movement studies, defines the method, and situates it historically. The chapter then guides the reader through the stages of typical research using participant observation and discusses the main methodological issues that arise, using examples from the authors’ own work and from ethnographic studies analyzing movements. The chapter in particular addresses issues such as field access, selection of observation sites, relations with research subjects, and reflexivity in fieldwork analysis, with an overall focus on the numerous methodological choices and problems researchers typically encounter when doing participant research in social movements.

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Observation Essay

participant observation essay examples

To properly observe something, you need to make use of all your five senses. Paying attention to all the details and being level-headed is a must. That said, a lot of effort goes into the act of observing something. The data gathered in your observation, whatever it may be, is necessary. Therefore you should write an observation essay and share your findings with the readers. 

10+ Observation Essay Examples

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What Is an Observation Essay?

An observation essay is a piece of academic essay that incorporates the observer’s perspective over a situation, event, behavior, phenomenon, and even a person. In this document, the writer should state everything he or she directly noticed on the subject. In addition, they can also use first-person narration in this paper.

How to Write a Well-Versed Observation Essay

Whether you are a student writing an essay of your observation for a school assignment or educational research , or maybe a professional conducting a business analysis , you should compose it critically. The findings you present in your observation essay could be necessary to your field or industry. To keep it professional and informative, incorporate appropriate elements and organize it properly. 

1. Follow Guidelines

If there are guidelines provided, ensure to read them beforehand. The list usually includes instructions regarding the format, the length, essential questions, the structure, and the deadline. To avoid forgetting the items to remember, you can secure a checklist beforehand. These details will act as your guide and will set the limits for your essay writing . 

2. Devise an Outline

Considering that you already finished observing, take out your notes, and start constructing your outline. Consider basing its structure on the guidelines. You should decide what information goes on in a particular paragraph and organize it to be comprehensive to the general readers. You can save your energy by researching sample blank outline templates online instead of starting from scratch.

3. Compose Your Thesis Statement

Write your thesis statement in your introduction. After writing your hook and engaging your readers, it is now time to state what the essay will discuss. What did you observe? What are the general idea and nature of your essay? Your thesis statement will act as the central idea of your descriptive writing. Its length must only be one sentence. 

4. Close With a Detailed Conclusion

After presenting the main ideas and supporting your claims, you should provide a conclusion statement that would sum it all up. In the last paragraph, you should restate the thesis statement and explain how all of these ideas are relevant to each other. Your conclusion should link back to the idea in your introduction.

How do you observe something properly?

The practice of observing is necessary for writing field reports of studies, especially in science and psychology. When you do an observation of something, it is advisable to research the subject you are studying. Also, you need to focus on your visual and hearing senses and your thought process. Avoid or get rid of factors that can distract you.

What are the different methods of observing?

The various methods of observing are categorized based on the level of involvement of the observer with the subject. If an observer is not noticed or personally seen by the participants, then he or she is employing the complete observer method. On the other hand, if the subjects recognize and interact with the observer, the implemented method is observer as participant.

How should you note your observations?

The first step in taking field notes of your observation is, write down the necessary details of the subject. Also, you should include the time and place. In writing your findings, you should stay objective and factual. Also, don’t forget to write a description of the setting and the materials involved.

The readers of your observation essay are not present at the time you did your observation. An observation essay is effective if its content is enough to supply information that would make the readers feel as if they are personally present at that time. Secure an observation essay, and earn an award certificate from your school or your work. 


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Discuss the behavior of animals at a zoo and what it reveals about them in your Observation Essay.

Reflect on the atmosphere of a music concert you attended in your Observation Essay.

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How to Begin an Observation Essay: Tips and Strategies

  • Dr. Huey Logan
  • December 8, 2023
  • Study Guides

Welcome to our guide on how to start an observation essay . Whether you’re a student or a professional writer, beginning an observation essay can sometimes be a challenging task. It requires careful planning, attention to detail, and an ability to capture the essence of the subject or event you’re observing. In this article, we’ll provide you with valuable tips and strategies to help you kickstart your observation essay effectively.

Here's What You'll Learn

Before we dive into the tips and strategies, let’s briefly discuss what an observation essay is. It is a type of paper where you provide remarks and findings about an individual, group, or event, focusing on specific details. Your goal is to describe your observations on a particular theme, engaging your readers through vivid descriptions and sensory details.

Now, let’s explore some key takeaways that will guide you through the process of beginning your observation essay:

Key Takeaways:

  • Write in the present tense to establish a sense of immediacy and connection to the event.
  • Structure your essay with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
  • Include a hook, background information, and a clear thesis statement in your introduction.
  • Develop your thesis statement with arguments and facts in the body paragraphs.
  • Summarize and analyze your main ideas and arguments in the conclusion.

By following these tips and strategies, you’ll be well-equipped to begin your observation essay and captivate your readers from the start. Remember, the more you practice and refine your writing skills, the better your observation essays will become.

Paper Structure for an Observation Essay

The structure of an observation essay is similar to other essays, consisting of an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each section plays a specific role in presenting and analyzing the observations made.

The Introduction:

The introduction of an observation essay should grab the reader’s attention and provide background information on the topic. It should also include a clear thesis statement that highlights the main idea or argument of the essay. For example:

“Through the detailed observations of [topic], this essay aims to explore [specific focus or research question].”

The Body Paragraphs:

The body paragraphs of an observation essay are where the writer presents and analyzes their observations. Each paragraph should focus on a specific aspect or finding, supporting it with evidence and examples. It is essential to use descriptive language and sensory details to paint a vivid picture for the reader. Additionally, incorporating relevant quotes from interviews or other sources can add depth to the analysis.

The Conclusion:

The conclusion of an observation essay should provide a summary of the main points discussed in the body paragraphs. It should also offer a reflection on how the observations connect to the overall thesis statement and research question. This section helps to solidify the writer’s argument and leaves the reader with a sense of closure.

When writing an observation essay, it is important to adhere to the technical requirements set by the academic level and field of study. These may include specific formatting guidelines such as font size, spacing, citation style, and an appropriate structure for headings and subheadings. Following these requirements ensures a cohesive and professional presentation of the essay.

Table: Differences between Observation Essays and other Essay Types

In conclusion , understanding the structure of an observation essay is crucial for effectively presenting your findings and arguments. By following the suggested format, you can create a well-organized and engaging essay that captures the reader’s attention and provides a comprehensive analysis of your observations.

Tips for Starting an Observation Essay

Starting an observation essay can sometimes be challenging, but with the right strategies, you can capture your readers’ attention from the very beginning. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

Begin with a brief overview

One effective way to start your observation essay is by providing a concise summary of the topic and your thesis statement. This sets the stage for what readers can expect throughout the essay.

Pose a thought-provoking question

Another approach to engage your readers is by asking a question related to the topic. This invites them to think critically and encourages them to continue reading to find the answer.

Capture attention with an interesting fact or description

Hook your readers by sharing a surprising fact or vividly describing the main setting of your observation. This creates intrigue and makes readers more eager to delve into your essay.

Employ a delay strategy or personal anecdote

To add an element of suspense or connect the past to the present, you can gradually reveal the subject of your observation essay. Alternatively, you can share a personal experience that relates to the topic, drawing readers in through your own perspective.

Remember, the starting strategy you choose should align with your essay’s requirements and target audience. Experiment with different approaches, take breaks to gain fresh perspectives, and seek feedback to refine your observation essay. By implementing these tips, you’ll be well on your way to crafting a captivating and engaging piece.

How should I begin an observation essay?

To start an observation essay, you can use various strategies. One approach is to provide a brief overview of the essay’s topic and thesis statement in a few short sentences. Another effective strategy is to pose a thought-provoking question related to the topic, inviting readers to consider the answer. Alternatively, you can grab readers’ attention by starting with an interesting fact or vivid description of the main setting. Additionally, you can add intrigue by relating a past experience to the present or gradually revealing the subject. Choose a strategy that aligns with your essay’s requirements and engages your target audience.

What is the structure of an observation essay?

The structure of an observation essay typically consists of an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. In the introduction, you should include a captivating hook to grab the reader’s attention, provide background information on the topic, and present a clear and concise thesis statement that highlights the main idea of your essay. The body paragraphs are used to develop the thesis statement by presenting arguments, supporting evidence, and discussing the pros and cons of certain ideas. The conclusion should analyze how the thesis statement was developed throughout the essay and provide a succinct overview of the arguments and ideas presented.

What are some tips for starting an observation essay?

When starting an observation essay , it’s helpful to create an outline to organize your thoughts and ensure a coherent flow of ideas. To make your essay more engaging, use sensory details to vividly describe the scene and capture the mood in the introduction. End your essay with a powerful conclusion that leaves a lasting impression on the reader. Moreover, you can seek assistance and guidance from professional writers who can provide valuable help throughout the writing process.

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participant observation essay examples


A level sociology revision – education, families, research methods, crime and deviance and more!

Methods in Context Questions: A Full Mark Answer from the AQA

An example of a full mark answer to a methods in context question from the AQA.

participant observation essay examples

Table of Contents

Last Updated on September 14, 2021 by Karl Thompson

Below I provide an example full mark answer to a methods in context question taken from the AQA’s 2016 Specimen A-level sociology paper 7192 (1) and provide some running commentary on this model answer.

NB – I also outline why the AQA has (IMO) miss-marked this exemplar… I don’t think it should get full marks, because IT DOES NOT do what the mark scheme says it should do to get 20/20. However… it’s still a good answer…!

The question I’m focussing on is as follows:

Methods in Context

About Methods in Context Questions:

Methods in Context questions will ask students to evaluate the strengths and limitations of any of the six main research methods for researching a particular topic within the sociology of education , applying material from the item.

Students often struggle with these questions and so it is useful to have exemplars which demonstrate how to answer them.

The Specific Question with Item:

Read Item C below and answer the question that follows.

Applying material from Item C and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using structured interviews to investigate the influence of the family on pupils’ education (20).

Mark Scheme (top band only: 17-20)

Answers in this band will show accurate, conceptually detailed knowledge and sound understanding of a range of relevant material on structured interviews.

Appropriate material will be applied accurately and with sensitivity to the investigation of the specific issue of the influence of the family on pupils’ education.

Students will apply knowledge of a range of relevant strengths and limitations of using structured interviews to research issues and characteristics relating to the influence of the family on pupils’ education. These may include some of the following and/or other relevant concerns, though answers do not need to include all of these, even for full marks:

  • the research characteristics of potential research subjects, eg individual pupils, parents, other relatives, teachers (eg class and ethnic differences among parents; teachers’ professionalism or attitudes towards pupils’ families)
  • the research contexts and settings, eg pupils’ homes, school premises, school gates
  • the sensitivity of researching influence of the family on pupils’ education, eg families’ material circumstances or child-rearing practices; eligibility for free school meals; stigmatisation; policy and resource implications for schools; parental consent).

Evaluation of the usefulness of structured interviews will be explicit and relevant. Analysis will show clear explanation. Appropriate conclusions will be drawn.

Indicative Content for the strengths and limitations of the method

Strengths and limitations of structured interviews, as applied to the particular issue in education, may include: time, cost, access, hypothesis-testing, quantitative data, factual data, correlation, reliability, sample size, representativeness, generalisability, inflexibility, superficiality, lack of validity, interviewer bias, social desirability effect, status differences, misunderstanding, ethical issues.

Student Answer

KT’s comments in bold and red beneath each paragraph…

Structured interviews are usually closed-ended interviews which produce reliable, quantitative data. They are relatively quick to carry out and require little training. If the school agrees to the research taking place the researcher would be able to get a large sample of pupils. However, these interviews, although preferred by positivists, are limiting because the questions are fixed. The quantitative nature of the interviews means they are ideal for examining cause and effect such as whether parent attending parents’ evening has an impact on the pupils’ education.

This is a good general introductory paragraph about structured interviews, but it’s really only a mark band level 3 response: because you could replace the phrases ‘school’ and ‘pupils’ with (for example) ‘hospitals’ and ‘patients’ and it would be saying the same thing. The same is true with the final sentence. You could say that about ‘eating 5 pieces of fruit a day’ has an impact on ‘patient recovery rates’.

This is a good example of a paragraph where the candidate may think they’ve said something at level 4 or 5, but really it’s down at level 3!

However, when asking parents about how they bring up their children there could be many problems. Most parents will not want to be thought of as bad parents who do not care about their child. These parents will want to show that they are supportive of their child. The formality of a structured interview will increase parents’ fear and this means that parents may give socially desirable answers, especially as they are face-to-face with the interviewer. They may see the interviewer as a teacher in disguise and this will further encourage choosing answers that may not reflect the true situation of their involvement in their child’s education.

This is a solid ‘mark band level 5’ paragraph – the method applied specifically to the topic under investigation.

Another problem with unstructured interviews is they are inflexible. Closed questions with limited responses will only give the options chosen by the researcher and so may miss vital aspects of home life that could have an impact on a child’s achievement such as temporary housing or domestic abuse. This is likely if the parents are working class and the sociologist is middle class and does not have experience of working class life or know the concerns or worries facing working-class families.

Not quite as solid as the first paragraph, but it does pick up on aspects of home life, so should be at least level 4.

Working-class parents may have lower levels of education and speak in restricted speech code. This means they may not understand a question or they may say something the sociologist does not understand. In a structured interview the sociologist cannot ask for clarification of what has been said. The same problem applies if the parent and the sociologist are of a different ethnic background, in this case there may also be a language barrier if the parent does not speak English or it is not their first language.

Seems like a solid level 5 paragraph again.

Many deprived pupils may have a sense of shame or stigma attached to them. Many do not claim free school meals for this reason and if they are asked about this they may not want to tell the truth. They may lie and they are more likely to lie when they do not feel relaxed or comfortable. This is much more likely in a structured interview as there is no chance to gain rapport. Since the interviewer is present there is an increased risk of social desirable answers. There may be an ethical issue of harm linked to the research due to the nature of the topic and the questions that the interviewer may ask about personal circumstances linked to the pupil’s home background.

The link to free school meals at the beginning should just about clarify this a level 5 response.

A problem with structured interviews with pupils is that most of them will be under 18. This means that they are unable to give their consent and this will cause some ethical concerns. Parents will be unlikely to give their consent because they will feel a sense of shame or they just may not want their child to be part of the research which asked them to give personal details about the parent-child relationship.

This should classify as a standard ‘level 4 response’, about pupils in general.

Structured interviews could be used with teachers to assess their views of the impact of home background. Teachers would be more likely to take part in a structured interview as they are less time consuming. As the questions would be related to children’s home backgrounds teachers may not be able to answer all the questions if they did not have all the details of a pupil’s home situation. Teachers may also give answers that suggest that achievement is linked to factors at home rather than in the school as this takes some of the pressure away from their responsibility.

A clear level 5 response… teachers not knowing about home background… one of the clearest level 5 responses in the whole essay.

Examiner commentary

The answer shows a wide range of application. Many of the points are linked explicitly to the issue of the influence of the family on pupils’ education. The answer covers a range of characteristics of research subjects; parents, pupils and teachers. There is some consideration of the school as a research setting. There are a number of points that consider the sensitivity of researching this subject and the problematic nature of the presence of the interviewer when carrying out this research.

20/20 marks awarded

KT’s commentary…

This is a solid answer, HOWEVER… I don’t see how it can get 20/20 because IT DOES NOT DRAW APPROPRIATE CONCLUSIONS. Hence as far as I can see the AQA should have awarded it a maximum of 16/20.

There’s another example of a methods in context essay here ! And for more examples of model answers to exam questions, please see the links on my main page on exam advice !

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

participant observation essay examples

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

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  • Five theory and methods essays
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participant observation essay examples


Examples Of Participant Observation

Participant Observation The place that I chose to observe, was my daughter’s karate practice. Normally I am not the one that brings her, but for the sake of this assignment I attended the two-hour practice. The primary focus of study was; the physical setting, people and the patterns. Over the course of two-hours, the topic of participant observation started to come out and detaching myself to a neutral point of view helped in providing a clearer picture. Here are the observations that I made during karate practice. Sitting in a row of chairs the first observation I made portended to the physical settings. The building was a large room with lots of open areas with mirrors surrounding mats. These mirrors allowed the kids and instructors to observe each other anywhere in the room. The adult seating area was separated by a low wall to still allow viewing, but adds a physical barrier to keep the kid from running to their parents whenever they wanted. There was a water fountain next to …show more content…

As the kids entered and line up on the mat the instructors made it a point to greet every child and ask them some questions to calm them down. After everyone lined up they all said the Dojo creeds and then pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States. Now as I observed the adults. Most them were women that used the time as their kids trained to socialize in small groups. This was interesting because they only conversed with the people of the group. They hardly even acknowledged the other small groups of women. The few men that did attend sat by themselves and only focused on the children training. As the training began it follows a set guidelines of stretching, warm ups, then the training of the day. During the two-block of training the thing that stood out about patterns is the small groups of women made up by social class. Out of all the groups the wealthy women stayed to together and the lower income women stayed in their

Examples Of Courtroom Observation

On Thursday, February 2, 2017 I observed the Court of Common Pleas in Athens, Ohio for an hour and a half. Overseen by Judge Pat Lang in “Courtroom B.” I arrived to the courthouse around 8:55 a.m. I entered the building from the right side, underneath the stairs. To my immediate right, there was an officer and a metal detector I had to walk through before coming any further. I put the loose things I was carrying through the x-ray conveyor belt and collected them on the other side. I asked the officer where Courtroom B was and he kindly directed me to the 3rd floor. I took the elevator to the third floor and when the doors opened I walked out and to the left. There was one other person on the floor at the time and sitting by the doors of courtroom B. It was very quiet in the building, I walked through the

Observing Group Observation Paper

In this paper, I discuss my experience with observing a group counseling session with the purpose of evaluating it in terms of how it is set up, how it is run, interventions used, culturally sensitivity, and the contribution toward my professional development as a social worker. The group setting plays a critical role in social work outside of the individual session and can be largely beneficial for clients in the forms of therapy, counseling, self-help, and support. By attempting to better understand group interventions, I will learn how to apply this strategy in aiding clients for whom this method is appropriate by increasing their social supports.

Social Observation Paper

I decided for my social observation the mall would be a good place to start. I came there on a Friday evening when there should be plenty of people to watch. I also sat in the Barnes and Noble café after that to observe. I expected to see a lot of people shopping and conversing. A few things did stand out to me within the few hours I was there. Some things I didn’t expect to see. We are expected to behave a certain way in public determined by our culture as to what is acceptable. Some people stay well within the lines while some might stray outside the norms but never too far typically. Usually the ones to travel to the extremes are adolescents and teenagers. This is what I observed.

Early Childhood Education Compare & Contrast Paper

Materials and manipulatives are spread along the outside walls of the classroom and children are free to choose which type of materials they would like to work with during independent work time. You do not notice any individual desks and chairs set up in the classroom, rather a few tables and chairs grouped together. The furniture is all child size and you do not see any adult sized furniture throughout the classroom.

Examples Of Early Childhood Observation

She tells her teacher, “Here teacher, help me put it on.” The teacher gives the coat back and tells Rosa to try by herself. Rosa says, “I can’t.” The teacher shows Rosa how she would put her coat on. Rosa then looks for the first arm to put in and puts the coat on the back. She finally then puts both arms in and says, “Look teacher, I did it by myself.” After Rosa put on her coat she runs outside with a smile on her face to play with her friends.

Observation Assignment Essay example

The purpose of this observation assignment was to investigate and interpret the different types of interactions between the individuals and groups present, as well as the environment in which these interactions take place. The various power relationships and sense of hierarchy in addition to the status and authority among the different individuals are also extremely pertinent to this assignment, as the dissection of such interactions and relationships may implicate certain socially constructed gender roles placed on these individuals and society as a whole. The field observation was conducted at the restaurant Pancakes on the Rocks in Sydney. The role adopted, was that of observer as participant. Group structures and

Participant Observation Paper

My participant observation research project is on sex offenders. A few topics I would be interested in is different type of offenders, such as pedophilic and non-pedophilic. I know sex offending is horrible all together but I really hate when I hear about children and teens being hurt. My questions would be what causes their urge to offend children? How do they know the victim? How to help the offender?

Essay about Scientific Method and Participant Observation

In the article, “Researching Dealers and Smugglers,” Patricia Adler discusses her and her husband’s experience using participant observation to collect data from drug dealers and the problems this qualitative method brought. A qualitative method focuses on collecting rich, non-statistical data. This method involves face-to-face interviews and actual participation with the group being researched. The Adlers use this method because it is almost impossible to gather accurate information on people who smuggle drugs. This is true because they are such private and deceitful people. The only way to get the real facts is if the smugglers trust the person. Unfortunately, participant observation brought problems such as the dealers and smugglers

Participant Observation in Anthropology

  • 6 Works Cited

Participant observation is a method of collecting information and data about a culture and is carried out by the researcher immersing themselves in the culture they observing. The researcher becomes known in the community, getting to know and understand the culture in a more intimate and detailed way than would be possible from any other approach. This is done by observing and participating in the community’s daily activities. The method is so effective because the researcher is able to directly approach the people in the community in a natural context as opposed to taking the participant out of their environment. The aim of participant observation is to gain an understanding the subject’s life from their perspective, with the purpose of

Working In Observation

This paper has aimed to evaluate the course of events that when working in rotation can facilitate effective teaching and learning. It has highlighted the planning, teaching, evaluating and assessment cycle, which is ever revolving helping practitioners to plan, evaluate and assess their pedagogic practice. It has underlined the importance of planning and assessing in teaching practice. It has considered concrete strategies to use during this cycle and studied these events when critically analysing current assessment theory. Through theory and practical evidence it has attempted to show that levelling and grading has to be fair and accurate to enable each and every pupil to receive the education that they deserve. Throughout this paper it has

present. Most come for the free pizza. It sounds funny, but it is true. I pay attention

Domain 2: Mrs. Park's Classroom Environment

Park’s classroom is designed to limit student distractions. The students are seated facing the board in columns and rows. This seating arrangement is used during the warm-up and instructional period. However, when the students are working independently, they have the option to work by themselves or rearrange their desks to work with their peers. The teacher’s desk is off to the side so that each student is visible while the teacher is at the desk, although Mrs. Park rarely sits at her desk during the class period. The frequently used materials such as calculators, paper, pencils, and textbooks are easily accessible but do not impair students’ ability to see the

Examples Of Clinical Observation

I observed two different math classrooms for my clinical observation. The first classroom was in an urban school setting, grade two. The second classroom was in a more suburban school setting, fifth grade math. The second grade class period was ninety minutes long, the students rotated in groups to the teacher table and did a mini lesson there for about 15 minutes, while the rest of the 90 minutes was spent on a math website. The fifth grade class period was only 45 minutes long and the majority of what I saw was the teacher working with the students on correcting homework.

Examples Of Classroom Observation

I conducted my observation on November 3, 2017. I observed a fourth-grade language arts class taught by Robin Smith. Mrs. Smith exudes a love of reading and knowledge from the very moment you meet her. Mrs. Smith’s classroom is a warm, accessible, print rich environment complete with anchor charts, a word wall, and alphabet chart. Mrs. Smith and her classroom environment inspire each one of her students to find a passion for reading and learning. Mrs. Smith demonstrates an understanding of the social-emotional environment, and its importance to the success of a child’s learning experience. Although the social-emotional environment is much harder to grasp and see it is just as important as the physical environment. Mrs. Smith’s approach for classroom management demonstrates how a positive social-emotional environment can lead to an effectively well managed classroom.

Observation Report On Classroom Observation

The following data was gathered while fulfilling duties as a principal intern at Theresa Bunker Elementary School. The data was observed during five to seven minutes of classroom observation as part of a walk-through in the spring of the current school year. My cooperating supervisor for my internship was able to go on these walk-throughs with me in order to have a productive reflection meeting afterwards. This elementary school has two of each grade level from Kindergarten to sixth grade. Since it was more feasible in this small school setting, I actually was able to do a walkthrough in eight classes. Here I will report my observations from five of those walk-throughs. As I went in to each room I was looking for four

Related Topics

  • Observation
  • Human behavior
  • Scientific method


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