Live revision! Join us for our free exam revision livestreams Watch now


Participant Observation and Non-participant Observation

Jim Riley

27th November 2009

I’ve just been marking a question on these methods, so for those who find these terms tricky, here’s a reminder.

Firstly the difference between participant and non-participant observation. In P.O. the observer/sociologist joins a group and observes their activities, while at the same time taking care to observe what is going on. Often that means writing notes and reflections later on.

In Non P.O. the sociologist simply observes the activities, but doesn’t take part in them. I always used to use the example of the Ofsted Inspector; he or she is watching the lesson you are in, but they aren’t teaching, and they aren’t acting as a student. Everyone knows why they are there - and often fervently wish that they would go away and find something else to do.

Now, there’s another tricky bit; both of these methods can be done covertly (secretly) without telling the other participants what’s going on, or overtly (openly) so that they know exactly why the observer is there.

But basically the researcher has four options. It’s a good idea to draw this as a diagram - a square divided into four segments.

You can do Covert P.O., or Covert Non P.O.


You can do Overt P.O. or Overt Non P.O.

Obviously there are advantages and disadvantages with all of them. You can work some of these out for yourself - for now, I’ll just outline the pro’s and cons of Overt versus Covert.

Covert - the main advantage has usually been seen as the fact that you should - all going well - observe the natural behaviour and attitudes of a group. Usually Covert methods would be used with PO, but they could be used by Non PO observers - I can’t think of any examples of real research at the moment, but maybe it (Covert Non PO) might be useful where a researcher only needed to spend a short amount of time observating.

Covert methods are often suitable for ‘difficult to reach’ groups or those groups or institutions which don’t welcome the presence of observers for whatever reason. It’s not just the criminal underworld either; lots of professional groups don’t like the idea of ‘snoopers’.

One of the key disadvantages of Covert methods though - either PO or Non PO, is that it can be hard to get into a group - it takes a lot of time and effort, pretending to be something that you are not, getting contacts, and so on.

I guess the tricky one for examples here is the Covert Non PO. Why would anyone bother to do that? Well, all I can think of is that there might be situations where you really do want to be like a fly on the wall and there is no need to particpate fully. So - and I admit its a slightly blurred example, but if a sociologist went to a football match or a demonstration, and was hanging around on the edge of things, not really a demonstrator or football fan, not known to any of the other participants, then I guess you could say h/she was doing Covert Non PO.

Overt - the advantage of overt observation, whether its PO or Non PO, is that its much quicker and simpler to do. If a researcher can find a group willing to accept an observer, that may mean that a lot of time is saved, its less risky, easier to get into the group, and of course, researchers can be quite open about what they are interested in and why. It’s also easier to note things down, or even record conversation on a dictaphone or whatever other equipment you might want to use.

The disadvantage is that like any other qualitative research situation, you are straight away into ‘hawthorne effect’ and ‘interviewer effect’ territory: you really can’t be sure how much the respondents are putting on an act and how much they are hiding from you.

Sociologists would generally take a pragmatic approach to using these methods; you use whichever method is suitable to your purposes and requirements, or whatever you have to use.

Jim Riley

Jim co-founded tutor2u alongside his twin brother Geoff! Jim is a well-known Business writer and presenter as well as being one of the UK's leading educational technology entrepreneurs.

You might also like

© 2002-2024 Tutor2u Limited. Company Reg no: 04489574. VAT reg no 816865400.