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November 27, 2014 / C H Thompson

Participant observation

participant observation by Sam Cook

When conducting participant observation the researcher can either observe covertly or overtly.

Overt observation is where the researcher will disclose themselves to the the participants so they know they’re being observed.

Covert observation is where those being observed are unaware they are being observed (the researcher’s undercover – ‘gone native’); this usually involves the researcher assuming a false identity for example if you were researching the behaviour of football supporter you’d pretend you were a supporter so you could conduct the research.Black like me

A famous example was John Howard Griffin who dyed his skin black and lived as a black man in the southern states of America in 1960. 


  1. you have high validity doesn’t disturb the normal behaviour of the group – no risk of the Hawthorne effect
  2. no prior knowledge of social dynamic being observed is required
  3. allows the observer to dig deeper into groups/individual behaviour
  4. research can be sustained over a long period of time giving greater depth


  1. ethical issues just by participating in criminal activity
  2. ethical issues if covertly witnessing criminal activity
  3. tend to be small scale and the group being studied might not be typical
  4. the researcher may be exposed to danger for example if participating in criminal activity
  5. if the identity of researcher is uncovered the whole research could be ruined
  6. the participants may feel betrayed and used if/when they find out their activities were being recorded and could take out revenge
  7. difficult to record observations without being found out
  8. difficult to leave the group having been a part of the group for so long
  9. difficult to remain covert for long periods of time

Positivists question the reliability of participant observation because they are difficult to replicate and so check the validity of any findings.

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