Participant Observations

Participant observations are a data collection technique where researchers become part of the observed group to observe the participants’ activities first-hand. The goal of the observation is to understand how participants behave in a particular setting. The data collected during the observation may include qualitative field notes and quantitative data like counts of specific behaviors. Participant observations provide detailed in situ information about specific activities and are typically more accurate than post-hoc self reporting.

Observations are made in the natural setting where the research is conducted, which may lead to the observation of behaviors that could not be predicted from theoretical models. The prime motivation for observations exploratory; the goal is to find out what is going on in a setting rather than to confirm hypotheses.

Observations can be very powerful for exploring phenomenon of interest, but can also be very time consuming both in data collection and later with data analysis. Observations work best in small groups, when observing behaviors that are likely to occur frequently, and when you have time for both the observations and the analysis. Observations are most useful in complex social situations with a small group of people and can help understand the situation and develop theories about the phenomenon of interest. When looking at data about observations, negative cases that do not fit the pattern, can become a rich source of information for consideration and analysis.


For observations, the focus is on exploration rather than hypothesis validation. As such, the data that is collected is typically descriptive, but may include some quantitative elements like counts of specific behaviors. When conducting observations, record observations on the spot. Reflections on observations should occur shortly after the observation event to fill in any details before memories fade. General practice in observation studies is to complete all steps and notes associated with one observation before proceeding to the next one. That way details don’t become mixed up between multiple observations.

To help with data collection, it is recommended that you have a system to help guide information capture, like a data form.


For example, in an observation of code inspections, the following form was used, which identified key information about the inspection process. There were codes to identify the discussion which then could be used to log the amount of time that type of discussion took during the inspection. The data form was supplemented with field notes that summarized the observations.

The “step” function is a very important but complicated function. [Reviewer1] did not have time to review it in detail, but [Author] said he really wanted someone to go over it carefully, so [Reviewer1] said she would later.

There was a 4-minute discussion of testing for proper default values. This is a problem because often the code is such that there is no way to tell what a particular variable was initialized to. [Reviewer2] said “I have no way to see initial value”. This was a global discussion, relevant to many classes, including [Reviewer2]’s evidently.


There are several things to consider when conducting observations.


Observations can take quite a bit of time. The observation itself takes time and very focused energy on part of the researcher(s). Additional time it taken after the observation by recording notes and during analysis. Bringing in additional information to complement the observation adds additional time.


Many participants may be uncomfortable with observations. A risk to an observation is that participants will not behave naturally due to the discomfort with observations. To mitigate the risk, the observation should be long enough to give participants time to get use to the observation and move back to natural behavior patterns.

Observer Participation

When conducting observations, the observer may be a fly-on-the-wall and take notes on observations of the participants in their natural setting. However, in some studies, the observer may also be an active participant. Observers must be careful to stay within their study protocol and avoid getting too friendly with the participants if they are participating in the group’s activities.

Concealment & Deception

In some observations, the researcher or a member of the research team may be concealed in the study as a participant or there may be some element of deception as part of the study. Deception may also mean that the goals of the research are hidden from the participants when informed consent is signed. Consider how participants may react to concealment or deception and the ethics of conducting a study with concealment or deception. Typically, the deception is revealed at the conclusion of the study as part of the study process.


When observing a natural setting, the observation should be constrained to behaviors relevant to the research questions. Too large of a scope during observation may make it challenging to focus and later find any relevant data.

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